Texas’ Loss is Oakland’s Gain
Bala Kironde of Preferred Meats talks turkey to the nation’s most discriminating chefs.
Kyle Itani and Bala Kironde at Hopscotch.
Where does chef Kyle Itani of Oakland’s Hopscotch restaurant get his Duroc pork? From the same company that supplies Charlie Hallowell of Oakland’s Pizzaiolo with beef, Matthew Accarino of San Francisco’s SPQR with duck, and Sarah Kirnon of Oakland’s Miss Ollie’s with chicken.
Since 1989, Preferred Meats of Oakland has been the go-to distributor for discriminating chefs around the country. The family-owned company, which works with small farms nationwide, sells more than 2 million pounds of meat, poultry, and game a year.
It was founded by Bala Kironde, a Ugandan farmer who unexpectedly found himself in California at age 21, practically penniless.
Q: What brought you here?
A: I was going to agricultural school in England, when civil war broke out in Uganda to get rid of President Idi Amin. My dad told me not to come back. I managed to get a visa to the United States and landed in Santa Rosa, of all places, in 1979.
I got a job at a turkey ranch, but I didn’t really like it. I saw all these empty barns around Santa Rosa, so I asked people if I could rent them. Then, I started raising game birds. In 1981, I got a call from chef Mark Miller at the Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley. He heard I was raising birds and asked if I had any pheasants and quails. So, I plucked them and brought them to him. The next thing I knew, the forager for Chez Panisse called me. The business just took off from there.
Q: Why did you sell it in 1985?
A: By then, the business was getting so large that I would have needed to have my own processing plant, which would have been too expensive. I also wanted to learn how to cut meat. The center of the plate always has lamb, beef, or pork, whereas game birds are only a specialty item.
I moved to Texas to work for a company called Preferred Meats.
I had a blast learning from the chefs there. But my wife and I were both unhappy. It’s humid in the summer, cold in the winter, and it’s all flat. I persuaded the owners to let me help open a separate company in California in 1989. A couple years later, they decided they were no longer interested in California, so
I bought them out.
Q: How did helping your dad on his farm prepare you to do this?
A: My Dad was a lawyer who became the first ambassador from Uganda to the United States. In 1968, he saw that the way for Africans to really get ahead was to grow food, so there wouldn’t be any hunger. He purchased 5 square miles to start a cattle, dairy, and poultry ranch.
I’m one of eight kids and the only one who was interested in helping him. It just fascinated me. I’d take live chickens to the market and barter.
I learned not to fear selling things to someone. As a result, I wasn’t afraid to go up to a restaurant later and say, ‘Taste this. I can sell it to you.’
Q: What’s the hardest part of the job?
A: Keeping up with each and every chef you deal with. Each one demands full attention.
Q: What’s the best part?
A: You eat very well. We love it when we visit one of our accounts. You sit down and the chef brings out 20 plates to try using our meats. It’s fantastic.