Just two years after hawking his first slabs of home-cured bacon at the Lansdowne Farmers Market, Ari Miller is preparing to take his artisanal charcuterie nationwide.
1732 Meats, his new, 4,000- square-foot plant in Yeadon, recently received USDA certification and began production.
Miller is hoping for the same reception around the country that he's gotten from local chefs for his high-quality, sustainably raised salumi.
"The quality of Ari's product is unmatched as far as domestic salumi is concerned," said Joe Cicala, chef and partner at East Passyunk's Le Virtu and Brigantessa. "His vision, ethics, and mission parallel those at our restaurants."
Stephanie Reitano, co-owner of Capogiro gelaterias and Capofitto restaurant, rhapsodizes about the guanciale she layers on her Neapolitan pizzas and the bresaola she uses on her best-selling panino. "Truly, the reason I love his products is there is something very refined and concise about them. There's a lot of flavor that comes through and no masking of the pork or the beef. His stuff is very different from the others, it's more delicate."
James Liuzza, executive chef at Di Bruno Bros., who has tasted a lot of charcuterie, puts it simply: "Ari's guanciale is probably the best I've ever tasted."
Yet, Miller, 39, of Lansdowne, has no background in the culinary world. He learned to make bacon on a lark and impressed so many friends and family members with his homemade strips (especially the garlic-flavored ones) that he decided to launch his own brand.
Farm stands and boutique markets like Green Aisle Grocery and Fair Food began to sell his bacon to rave reviews. Within a year, he expanded his product line to include whole-muscle charcuterie like pancetta, guanciale, lonza, and bresaola, and began supplying several local restaurants.
He recently earned a law degree from Temple, taking night classes while working as a project manager for Wells Fargo bank.
But by the time he graduated from law school, cured meat had become his obsession. Not only were his products well-received, he loved the work. Miller found kindred spirits on both sides of the business.
"I dig animal farmers and they dig me," he explained. "We're crazy in the same way . . . and chefs are just as passionate as I am, always focused on consistency and wanting everything to be right."
Though he knew it might disappoint his mother, a judge who perhaps hoped he would follow in her footsteps, Miller decided to put lawyering on hold. He received the blessing of his wife, Elise, and two young daughters, Pearl and Sasha, and decided to go all in on meat.
He quit his job at Wells Fargo, crafted a business plan, obtained a bank loan, and signed a lease on a former produce storage warehouse outside the city, with the goal of USDA certification and distribution of 1732 Meats charcuterie in all 50 states.
It was a $500,000-plus gamble, but what Miller lacks in training he makes up for in drive, with encouragement and help from family and friends.
Taking a risk on this venture was something his wife, Elise, understood he had to do. Then again, they have a history of going for it. While in college, the couple struck up a cross-country relationship via e-mail and decided to get married before ever meeting in person. That was nearly 17 years ago.
"It's my dream," Miller said. "Can I make it happen? I don't know. If it doesn't work, I'll be bankrupt, but at least I'll have tried."
That declaration was made more than three months ago. As the target launch date approached, multiple unforeseen hurdles arose to try to thwart his dream.
He could not have expected that the electrical subcontractors hired to rewire his plant would install the wrong gauge, and that no one would notice until the retrofitting was guaranteed to cause undue downtime.
And he could not have envisaged that, after construction was finally completed and USDA inspectors were preparing to make their final walk-through, the professional hired to craft a pivotal planning document would let him down and leave him standing speechless in front of federal officials.
"I could tell [the USDA regulators] felt bad for me," said Miller, who had contracted with a man he believed to be an expert. "I was now stuck in a situation where I had a plant that's built and ready to go, but unless you have an approved plan, you can't do a thing."
Luckily, Miller is not easily discouraged.
He scrambled and found a way to have a new plan prepared in record time. He persuaded the inspectors to squeeze a revisit into their busy schedule, and at the end of May, the 1732 Meats plant was approved.
After a brief celebration involving a three-champagne-bottle dinner at East Passyunk's Townsend, Miller is settling down to work. Heritage pork from small farms has started showing up at the Yeadon facility's loading dock, and curing racks are lined up in the plant's refrigerated interior.
When it gets up to capacity, up to 1,000 pounds of premium 1732 Meats (lonza, guanciale, and pancetta) can be produced each week, ready to ship to restaurants, catering houses, and gourmet markets around the United States (1732 Meats bacon is now produced in a separate family-run co-packing facility).
Now all Miller has to do is get the word out. Anyone want to buy some meat?