November 1, 2012

Have Refrigerated Meat, Will Travel: In Wake of Hurricane Sandy, Jake Dickson Wanders the Upper East Side

Inside his roving truck, Dickson and his meat remain chill, despite the disaster.
It's been surreal, sitting out Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath of death, destruction and displacement from the leafy confines of the Upper East Side. Just a few miles away, homeless people are wading through sewage or picking through rubble trying to salvage a few mementos, while up here, irate commuters stuck in traffic or waiting for the reduced-schedule Madison Avenue bus is about as bad as it gets. An incident early yesterday morning, though, brought the disaster closer to home.

On my power walk to the gym, I spotted a familiar face smiling at me on the corner of 84th and Lex. I waved and said hello, and a split-second later, put together face with name. It took a moment because the bearded visage was totally out of geographical context. What was downtown artisanal butcher, Jake Dickson, the guy behind Dickson's Farmstand Meats, doing on the Upper East Side, drinking coffee and loitering on a corner with his wife Jen and fluffy white Italian Spinone, Olive?

Of course, I realized, the Chelsea Market vendor must be among the tens of thousands of displaced downtowners, like the Greenwich Village friend who arrived yesterday afternoon to camp out in my apartment.

I'd be the first in line to buy if only some of these slabs were carved.
In Dickson's case, though, much more than a carton of spoiled milk is at stake. In preparation for Thanksgiving, he purchased a record seven-and-a-half animals, and says that when the power went out at his popular meat and sandwich shop he had to do triage. "We've had to prioritize, and sadly, abandon about 2,700 pounds of boneless beef, pork and lamb," he told me, about $15,000 worth of hanging carcass. To add to his losses, his car is likely totaled from the water damage it sustained.

 Leaving behind cheaper cuts like chuck, bottom round and trim, he packed up all of the cuts he dry ages, such as beef and pork loins and beef ribs. He salvaged his most valuable ribeyes andNew York strips as well as the "value-added" products he makes such as his bacon and pancetta. The latter take anywhere from three to five weeks to cure and represent thousands of hours of labor. The downside to a refrigerated truck full of valuable fresh and cured meat? "I'm staying with my in-laws and running the truck every few hours to keep it cold," says Dickson.

Roaming the streets of the UES all day and night looking for a new parking space is not Dickson's biggest problem though. Even more pressing is the need to reopen as soon as possible, since another round of already-slaughtered animals is hanging upstate, waiting for that empty refrigerated truck to come and pick it up. Since he only works with small local farmers, the orders for those animals were placed weeks ago, and time delays risk further losses and unhappy customers.

And as with every business shut down by the super-storm, the ripple effect can be measured in human livelihoods. "I have seventeen employees dying to get back to work," says Dickson. "Neither of our stores (he also runs a recently opened shop at the TriBeCa haute Food Hall All Good Things on Church Street) sustained any physical damage. We've cleaned up and can be ready to open within three hours of power coming back on."

Until then, you might see a white truck bearing black letters reading "Dickson's Farmstand Meats" inching along in post-hurricane gridlock. You'll know it's Jake Dickson, keeping his product chilled until the lights come on again downtown.