If your restaurant is called “Hungry Pigeon,” how can you not have pigeon on the menu?
That was chef Scott Schroeder’s thinking, anyway. So earlier this year, as the Fabric Row spot he was opening with Pat O’Malley got close, he began searching for a pigeon purveyor.
Finding one wasn’t easy. But it was worth it. And now Schroeder’s hunting for a new target: Enough other chefs to start serving pigeon that his go-to farmer has enough business to make it worth his while.
In the farm-to-table closet
Squab — what pigeon is called when it’s served as food — was a big favorite of the colonists, and the Founding Fathers feasted on it often. In the intervening centuries it fell out of favor, displaced by that leviathan of American cuisine: Chicken. There’s been something of a squab renaissance of late — you can now expect to find it on menus at high-end establishments like NYC’s Per Se or Chicago’s Next — but it’s still nowhere near as popular as other alt-poultries like duck, quail or even pheasant.
These days, the majority of breeders are out in California; that’s where gourmet purveyor D’Artagnan sources most of the squab it sells to chefs. But Schroeder gets most of his fresh supplies from local farmers or people he knows, and he wanted to do the same with the pigeons.
In seeking a local source, he wasn’t just jumping on a bandwagon. Schroeder has preferred local ingredients for years, starting back when he was running the gastropub kitchens of the South Philadelphia Tap Room and American Sardine Bar. For Hungry Pigeon, he gets cheese from Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester Springs, Pa., beef from Rineer Family Farms in Pequea, Pa., and produce from Green Meadow Farm in Gap, Pa., for example.
“I’ve been doing farm-to-table in the closet for so long,” Schroeder says, “but it’s like a punk rock code kind of thing — you don’t talk about it.
“I’m talking about it now because I think more people should be doing it,” he explains, “and because I want Joe to keep breeding pigeons.”
On the farm with the birds
Joe is Joe Weaver, a 66-year-old Mennonite farmer from Lancaster County. All of his 12 children are grown — he has 51 grandkids — so he and his wife live by themselves on their three-acre parcel in the hills of Denver, Pa. Alone, that is, except for the birds.
Weaver, who is very wary of being photographed and cringes at the idea of his name appearing in print, has always loved birds, and keeps them as a hobby.
When he first bought his land, it had nothing on it but a two-room hut and a small tractor shack. Now it has a large house and large barn — hand-built by Joe himself — as well as more than a dozen large pens containing all kinds of avian creatures. One row of crates is home to six varieties of brightly colored quail. Behind the chicken wire surrounding another structure is a gorgeously brilliant peacock (and his much more dowdy mate). A corner of the barn echoes with peeps, an aural byproduct of the chicks Weaver is raising to sell as pets, and outside are their parents, a prized type of chicken that lays eggs with a chocolate-brown shell. On the small lake behind the barn, a trio of Mallard ducks coast beside a large white swan.
And then there are the pigeons. Dozens of them.
Unlike the other creatures, which are mostly a hobby and raised as show birds, the pigeons are being bred for their meat. It’s a new venture for Joe — and it’s only happening because of Scott.
All in the family
When Schroeder was looking for a squab source, word traveled quickly through the Lancaster farmer grapevine (most of them do text, btw), and when Weaver heard someone was looking to buy pigeons, he realized he just might be the man for the job. Not only did he already love and care for birds, but both his grandfathers had been in the pigeon business — one had raised fancy pigeons for show, and the other was a squab farmer.
With memories running through his head, and with the thought that he could supplement the income he made working at the nearby produce auction house every day, Joe poured around $10k into the pigeon project.
He built a half dozen coops with attached outdoor flying areas, and invested in good stock. He picked what’s known as “King pigeons” — they’re thought to provide the best meat — and began to breed. He reconnected with Schroeder through their mutual contacts, and began providing Hungry Pigeon with a steady supply.
Drumming up demand
There was only one problem. The person who convinced Weaver it would be a good idea to invest in the venture had greatly exaggerated the demand.
“He told me, ‘You’ll sell 500 pigeons a week’ to chefs in Philadelphia,” Weaver recalls. Right now, Hungry Pigeon uses 20 or 30 birds each week — and that’s more than Schroeder originally thought he’d use.
“I put them on both the lunch and dinner menu because I just fell in love with how they taste,” Schroeder says.
In order to help increase the weekly order, he’s been shopping squab to other chefs in town, and then making the drop-offs himself. So far he’s brought on Laurel and Russet as regular customers for Weaver, and has also made deliveries to Kensington Quarters, Vernick, Le Virtu, Sbraga and High Street on Market.
The goal is to get to 100 pigeons per week — or else Weaver might give up on Philly and start sending his birds to NYC instead. The meat isn’t cheap, but Schroeder is adamant that it’s worth it.
“It’s a fantastic product, but I also love that this is where the revenue from the restaurant goes to,” he says.
“I don’t want to give my money to ‘the man’ — and Joe Weaver is the polar opposite.”