Employee Spotlight: Jonny Hunter, The Origins of Underground Meats
By: Zach Diamond
It’s no secret that Underground Meats isn’t your ordinary meat processing company. Created with a focus on sourcing local, humanely-treated, and quality animals, the origin story of Underground Meats captures our raison d'être - our values and our mission. Jonny Hunter is the co-founder of Underground Food Collective and a key part of the Underground Meats community. His unconventional background has been the cornerstone to Underground’s culture and drive. Here we discuss the origins of Underground and the values on which it was founded.
An Activist Bent
"We decided that food could be accessible and cheap and still sustainable."
When Underground was started, it was created with intention. “We founded Underground with an activist bent. We wanted to push ideas with some sort of central perspective,” says Hunter, “sustainability and community are both things we really care about, but we also strive to create a healthy workplace and take care of people.” Hunter didn’t initially pursue a career as a chef. Rather food became an avenue to promote his values. “I wanted to pursue an activist career. When I was a student, me and my brother and our friend Kaleen founded a kitchen called the Catacombs. We took a place and created a community with a vision and goal around food that would support that community. We decided that food could be accessible and cheap and still sustainable. By the time we started Underground it was this loose group of people that wanted to start events and bring a conversation about food to the table,” Hunter says. With activism in mind, they began cooking at events for other activist organizations.
Due to the price of high quality ingredients, they realized that the food being served at these organizations didn’t necessarily fit the ideals of Madison’s activist community. By offering sustainable yet affordable food, Underground was able to fix that disconnect. For example, on one occasion, a company brought in coffee growers to discuss the importance of fair trade coffee. “We thought if they were starting a conversation about ethical and sustainable coffee then they definitely shouldn’t be serving food that is antithetical to that.” Finding success as activists while making delicious, ethical food, Underground was born.
"We wanted to bring a thoughtfulness to the meat processing world."
When Underground began, it was originally vegetarian. Committed to serving food that was quality, ethical, sustainable, and affordable, incorporating meat was a difficult task. Therefore, the team took it upon themselves to find a solution. “When we started Underground Meats in 2009, it was a reaction to not having access to meat processing in a way that we wanted,” says Hunter, “we wanted to bring a thoughtfulness to the meat processing world.” In a pro-consumption society, it becomes easy to look at meat as simply a commodity. However, the culture of consuming more and more meat at low costs is toxic to our environment, animal welfare, and the food system as a whole. “We want people to think about where their food comes from, and it comes from farmers and it comes from animals,” Hunter says, “and animals have an interconnected relationship to both our community and to nature.”
Located in south central Wisconsin, Underground Meats is fortunate to be near farmers who raise some of the nation’s most quality pasture-raised heritage pigs and goats. The relationship we have with our farmers is not one of pure business, but of trust and comradery. Hunter says, “In Madison, having access to the farm community is incredible. I know my farmers, I’ve been to their houses and they live close enough to where we can build real relationships and have really awesome experiences outside of business interactions.”
Almost ten years after Underground Meats was created, we still strive to improve both our company and the food system in which we work.
One issue that has plagued our food system, is the problem of waste. With the volume of food production so high, methods to reduce the amount of waste are limited. Therefore, we strive to use the entire animal. The team at Underground Meats constantly experiments to make creative products that are both delicious and generate less waste. Hunter says, “A lot of it has to do with waste. We think a lot about how to create new products that would be helpful to farmers or to small processors. That is what some of our experimentation is for but I do just enjoy the process of experimenting with food. It makes me very happy.”
Hunter also recognizes the issue of celebrating individuals rather than the entire team in food companies. “My goal in the last few years is to make myself less important organizationally and build an institution that is successful as a group,” says Hunter. Underground Meats now has a strong team of __ employees and has created a tight-knit community. From farming the animal, to processing it, to making salami, “it’s always a team.”