Friday, September 10, 2010

Food Paparazzi (Text)

I was listening to Marketplace on NPR Monday and was surprised to hear them report a story on food paparazzi. (It was, after all, Labor Day and thus a slow day for the show). I had never actually heard the term food paparazzi before, so I was especially interested in the reporters take on this new idea.

Also known as food bloggers or restaurant reviewers, food paparazzi are creating quite a stir in restaruants around the country with their intrusive tripods and flashbulbs.

In some places, like trendy New York City, high end eateries have banned food photogs altogether, citing disruption of the ambiance and complaints by customers paying a lot of dough to eat their food. Other restaurants have taken a more moderate stance by allowing food photography but prohibiting the use of flashbulbs. Seems like a sensible compromise.

The report was so interesting to me because I've never fancied myself a food paparazzi. In fact, it's kind of a screwball notion. I can't imagine, for example, a gang of camera toting food bloggers chasing a plate of lasagna around Italia Gardens while the waitress tries to protect the entree from prying eyes as she races to the corner table and out of site of the crazed media.

I am sensitive to the criticism of restaurateurs, though. Even as discretely I try to get good quality photos of the food I write about, I'm aware that my activity might not always sit well with the staff or other customers. That's why I try to be as inconspicuous as possible, and I never call attention to myself by using flash. Getting good photographs for my posts is important to me and as long as I don't get Stephanie and me kicked out of the places we visit, I'll continue my guerrilla tactics.

The food paparazzi phenomenon wasn't really an issue on my latest adventure: A tour of the Koegel Meat Company. In fact, as President and CEO John Koegel guided me through the Bristol Road factory (next to Bishop International Airport), he encouraged me to stop and document the experience. [The photos are in a separate post because Blogger is having technical problems of Biblical proportions]. John is the grandson of company founder Albert Koegel, a German immigrant who started the business in 1916 on Kearsley Street in downtown Flint.

For those of you scratching your heads and wondering why I'm writing about a meat factory for a restaurant tour, let me explain. Before Angelos and Colonial. Before Flint and Detroit began arguing over where the first Coney Island Diner opened. Before the explosion of the Coney Island phenomenon. Before all of this there was Koegel Meats.

This company has become synonymous with the Flint Coney Island experience because Koegel makes its hot dogs locally, and it distributes to restaurants all over the county. According to John, 25% of their total business is devoted to the local restaurant industry.

Not all local diners "Serve the Curve," but those that do usually display a little neon Koegel sign in their windows to let their faithful followers know. I was amazed to learn that almost seventy thousand pounds of meat is produced daily by a team of about 100 workers. And 90% of all the hot dogs produced for the local food industry are delivered direct from the factory to the restaurants. In total, Koegel produces nearly 40 types of meat, including Vienna franks, bologna, sausages, salamis, and a whole host of gourmet products.

Because the company has extremely high standards and takes extraordinary steps to ensure a safe and sanitary environment in its processing facility, tours are rarely given. John made an exception, though, for which I am extremely grateful.

The process of making a hot dog at Koegel's starts with the freshest quality beef and pork. The meat is run multiple times through giant grinders and combined with a mixture of spices (the same spice mixtures that founder Albert Koegel created himself).

The next step involves a finer mixing and grinding technique that creates what John called an emulsion. Translation: It takes on the consistency of a thick mousse (or a very pale pudding).
From there the tubs of goo are sent on to be packed into casings; skinless franks are stuffed into blue casings that are later stripped away, in case you were wondering.

After the stuffing process, strings of hot dogs are hung on metal racks and sent to the smoking rooms, and then on to a cooling facility where overhead sprinklers shower water over the meat until it cools to just the right temperature.

The packing room is where everything comes together and the hot dogs are separated, counted, and boxed for shipping. Then it's on to the final destination, the warehouse, where delivery trucks load their cargo for the short trip to the various restaurants across the city.

This is admittedly an abbreviated version of the tour and of the whole hot dog making process, but the next time you order a Coney that's been made at Koegel Meats, you'll know you are eating a fresh, locally made hot dog that helped establish a unique Flint phenomenon.

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