In the Field: Dispenza’s Meat Market and Slaughterhouse
Frank and Rachel Dispenza sit in a cramped side office and apologize for the “mess” inside their new butcher shop and slaughterhouse.
The ceiling had sprung a leak a few days earlier during heavy spring rains. New drywall is up, and a sheet of thick plastic forms another wall that separates the office from a homey shop lined with freezers.
“We’re taking the opportunity to open this up and make the entire space into the retail store,” Frank says. He wears a baseball cap, heavy work boots, and a cheerful countenance. Rachel wears pink Carhartt overalls.
The building is on forty-three acres of farmland that used to be Cloy’s Meat Market, a Ransomville institution. Farmers from all over Niagara County brought their livestock to Dave Cloy, whose grandfather founded the business sixty years ago.
The Dispenzas bought the slaughterhouse and retail shop last July. A year later, they are readying it to become their own namesake family business. They run it the old-school way, with just four employees and a deep sense of pride. All of the slaughtering, cutting, trimming, and wrapping are done on-site, and they can butcher and hang up to eight beef a day.
The facility processes naturally raised beef, pork, lamb, goats, and poultry from area farms, including Mathis, Hanssen, Blackman Homestead, and T-Meadow. Frank and Rachel do their own dry aging, sausages, and pulled pork and chicken. They also sell bacon (smoked off-premises), Piatkowski’s pickled sausages, honey, maple syrup, and a mean spice rub. “We hope to get a smoker soon,” Frank says excitedly.
Meat is sold fresh or frozen. A specialty butcher, Dispenza’s sells custom cuts you rarely see at supermarkets, like cheek, jowl, and pork belly, as well as primal and subprimal cuts—the basic sections from which steaks and other retail cuts are made. They also carry whole, half, or quarter animals.
Restaurant customers include Carmelo’s in Lewiston and La Port’s in Lockport, and Canadians often stop in looking for peameal bacon. In March, a pig butchering workshop by COPPA’s Bruce Wieszala (then sous chef at Carmelo’s and now executive chef at Tabree) used T-Meadow pigs processed by Frank and Rachel. The Dispenzas attended and were thrilled to see their animals in the demonstration. They also provided pork tenderloin for Carmelo’s winning dishes at the March 24 Nickel City Chef competition.
Frank is learning from mentors in the business, like Ford Brothers in West Valley, and from a well-worn copy of Whole Beast Butchery: The Complete Visual Guide to Beef, Lamb, and Pork by Ryan Farr. “This is my bible,” Frank says.
In the first days open for business, Frank would spend all day working on the property and a few hours every night poring over books and manuals, racks of ribs spread in front of him.
“We were so brand new to everything,” Rachel recalls. “The first day we were open, I had my apron on but forgot to put money in the register!”
A way of life
Frank and Rachel stress that they have always been “pretty much against everything fast food stands for.” Rachel’s family had a large garden in the Kenmore suburbs, while Frank grew up on Pendleton farmland, where his grandfather raised baby goats.
Frank remembers him as being “pretty unsentimental and no-nonsense” in general, especially at slaughter time: “One day he put a rifle in my hand, shoved me forward, and said ‘It’s got to be done, so go and do it.’” So Frank did, and says he’ll never forget the first animal he ever killed. “It wasn’t fun, but it was the first time I felt responsible for my own food.”
He also remembers Marco, who spoke fluent Italian and would stop by the farm to buy goats. Seeing him arrive used to make young Frank burst into tears. “I still love goats,” he says.
Frank went on to serve as a police officer in Tonawanda for sixteen years. Rachel was an EMT in town, and the two met on the job.
The couple eventually decided they needed a different lifestyle for their growing family, and Frank missed the country. (They now have six kids, ages two to fifteen.)
Then Frank’s mother-in-law bought a quarter beef from Cloy’s and suggested that Frank apply for an open position there. In the fall of 2011, he began working with Dave Cloy and quickly discovered he loved the work. He also learned that the owners were looking to sell the business.
“Rachel and I talked a lot about it, and I finally asked her if she’d consider doing this with me, running the whole place,” Frank says. “I give her a lot of credit, coming out here to the country and starting over. A lot of our friends thought we were crazy. Some still do.”
The Dispenzas found that they had inherited more than a leak-prone roof. Old farm equipment had to be cleared from the property, the fields were untended, and the barn and outbuildings had fallen into disrepair. “There wasn’t a septic system as advertised, so we had to scrape together money to install one,” Rachel adds.
The slaughterhouse facility—basically a small room with concrete floors attached to outdoor holding pens—is also being updated.
Frank and Rachel are constantly buying new equipment and installing safety measures for both animals and employees. They hope to completely overhaul the facility with help from federal and state grants.
Rachel can’t watch the slaughtering, she admits, but both she and Frank break down the meat and demand humane treatment for each animal. Daily US Department of Agriculture inspections are conducted before, during, and after each animal is slaughtered.
“We get a lot of 4-H families bringing us their cows and sheep,” says Frank, adding that he will often lead animals into the facility himself. “The kids are very matter-of-fact about it; they know they ultimately breed and raise livestock for food.”
The Dispenzas believe it’s been worth the expense and backbreaking work to see their own children respect where their food comes from. At home, everyone tends the family garden and looks after a small menagerie of pet farm animals.
“It’s a much more natural, environmentally conscious life than when we were a part of the ‘boneless society’ of shrink-wrapped, over-processed supermarket food,” Frank says.
They also get satisfaction from educating their customers. Fat marbling is good, the right cut and thickness give you great texture, and for goodness’ sake, keep the bone in.
“We wouldn’t have gotten through the past year without the loyal Cloy’s customers, and we won’t survive the next few without new ones,” Frank says. “But that’s the gamble we’re preparing for. That’s why we got into this.”
Recently, he says, he looked up from the store counter and saw his grandfather’s former customer, Marco, now twenty years older.
Marco asked for a pig’s leg to make into prosciutto. He stared at Frank for a few seconds before the light went on. “Dispenza… I know that name!”
Dispenza's Meat Market
3130 Ridge Rd., Ransomville; 716-791-3433
Lauren is a Buffalo-based freelance food writer and board member of Slow Food Buffalo Niagara. She writes to pay respect to the inspiring people, animals, and land of Western New York.