Chef Dan Fox’s pork business, Fox Heritage Farms, is taking over Willow Creek Farms as of Feb. 3.
Fox Heritage Farms will buy Tony and Sue Renger’s processing plant in Prairie du Sac, the building and the land for about half a million dollars.
This gives Fox, also the chef/owner of Heritage Tavern in downtown Madison, his own smokers and sausage stuffers.
Fox plans to continue the Willow Creek Farms and Willow Creek Farms Charcuterie names and change little about the operation. The acquisition gives him a larger client list for the Fox Heritage brand of pork.
“We’re excited to keep the same customer list they currently have,” said Fox, including Metcalfe’s Sentry and the Willy Street Co-op. “It will be the same label you see in the store, the same recipe, the same price points.”
Where they differ now, and may continue to diverge in the future, is in the breed of pigs they raise. Willow Creek raises some 700 purebred Berkshire hogs each year and purchases animals from six Amish farms near Loganville, Plain and Marshfield.
Fox Heritage Farms often has unique breeds, like Mangalista or Swabian Hall, that fetch a higher price. Fox Heritage pork is more often found in restaurants, like Grampa's Pizzeria, L'Etoile and Graze, Osteria Papavero, the Madison Club and Edgewater.
With the closing of Black Earth Meats in 2014, there’s been a “hole in the market,” Fox said.
“A lot of what went into Black Earth was small family farms,” Fox said. “It gave small family farms an outlet in the market that was above commodity pricing to sell their animals.
“Folks have been looking forward to filling those shoes and we’ve been trying to.”
Tony and Sue Renger started Willow Creek Farms in 2001 doing “farrow-to-finish,” which involves breeding sows and raising the piglets to market weight. They started the business out of their garage, bringing chops, sausages and ham to the Eastside Farmers’ Market in Madison. Soon, Willy Street Co-op picked them up.
“One of our first accounts was with Odessa Piper at L’Etoile,” said Sue Renger. “The momentum has always been there, and the quality of the product grew our business.”
In 2010, the Rengers vertically integrated their farm, adding a nearby processing plant.
Tony Renger is also the CEO and co-owner of Simply Manufacturing in Prairie du Sac, which makes processing equipment for larger meat producers like Smithfield Foods, Tyson, John Morrell & Co. and Oscar Meyer.
“My health’s been in decline for the last several years,” Tony Renger said. “So we decided to let Willow Creek Farms Charcuterie go.”
Sue Renger said Fox’s model was similar to theirs, calling the purchase “a really good fit.”
“He’s going to keep it the same,” she said. “People have been happy with our product, but he also has his own ideas. He’s been successful … as a James Beard (Award) nominee. With the purebred Berkshire pork and the other breeds he wants to do, he’ll grow but also keep it same.”
“Tony and Sue Renger have done an amazing job with establishing a fair price point that doesn’t change with the ebb and flow of the market,” Fox said. “I respect that. We are taking over the recipes. The amazing bacon and ham will stay the same. It’s the same team at Prairie du Sac that will be butchering and filling the orders.”
Willow Creek’s facility was, at one point, federally inspected and cleared to send pork over state lines. One of Fox’s long-term plans includes reestablishing that label.
“We do intend to go over state lines, and hopefully have more of a Midwest presence,” he said. “That’s like the five to 10 year plan. We have plenty to do in Wisconsin.”