This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market. Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th. The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.
As Anita Lee began explaining what it means for Bo Bo to sell “Buddhist Style” chickens, I realized I had asked her to break down the poultry business into more basic terms than she might have imagined. I didn’t need to ask twice. Nearly overflowing with youthful cheerfulness, Anita offered to tell the story of Bo Bo Poultry. She is a woman, who, through self-reflection, has boiled “sustainability” down to her own base definition: Telling the truth.
Founded by Richard Lee in 1985, Bo Bo Poultry now supplies seven out of every ten chickens in Chinatown. Anita’s father Richard bought his first egg-laying farm near the Catskills in 1978. In 1985, he opened a live poultry market beneath the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan, and with the help of his brothers, chose to raise particular breeds of poultry popular among Asians for their taste and form. Rather than the prominent breasts and small limbs of the “efficient” chickens grown by the majority of America’s poultry farmers, the Lees raise Barred Silver Cross (or Black Feather) Chickens. Whereas the quickened growth speed of industrially raised chickens produces a full-sized bird in four to five weeks, Bo Bo’s breeds grow at their natural, slower pace. The cost is higher: the chickens require more feed. But they are physically able and have time to walk around and grow muscle. “The taste,” Anita said, “is much richer and completely different. It’s like something we would have eaten 60 years ago.”
Richard Lee’s original live poultry market in Manhattan was regulated by the State, and thus the products of the shop were restricted for sale to in-state HRI (hotels, restaurants, and institutions). Bo Bo Poultry earned a USDA license for a facility they built from scratch in Williamsburg in 1998, and their business has expanded ever since. In addition to full-size chickens, the shop sells poussins, fowl, quail, partridges, silky, quail eggs, roosters, and rabbits, based upon season and availability. While the U.S. poultry industry is primarily based in the Southeast region of America, Bo Bo’s farms are spread throughout New York and Pennsylvania. A map of Bo Bo’s farm locations reveals they lie a maximum distance of 200 miles from the processing plant in Williamsburg. According to Anita, it’s currently more sustainable to raise poultry in the areas outside the SE region. Bo Bo’s farms invites community farmers to pick up the chickens’ manure to be used as fertilizer, for example, whereas many Southern poultry farmers find they need to truck their manure thousands of miles to reach farms who can use the manure from this poultry-rich region. Otherwise, the waste is often kept in lagoons, which can runoff onto neighboring properties. The New York Area also happens to be the main Asian distribution capital of the East Coast, a convenient destination for Bo Bo’s wholesale distributors.
As we spoke, the story of Bo Bo Poultry turned into something of a cultural lesson. “Chinese people will cook a chicken every day!” she said, which makes it possible to guarantee fresh products to Bo Bo’s Asian customer base. While trying to develop a way to sell chickens in more diverse markets, Anita has noticed that “Americans” tend to only buy a chicken once or twice a week. Asians are also very frugal, she mentioned. She questioned me about the “American” tendency to waste so many parts of the animals we eat. Restaurants in Chinatown, she explained, will order whole pigs, whole chickens, whole duck, and will use the whole animals in their meals. The fact that Bo Bo sells “Buddhist Style” chickens means the birds are processed in accordance with Buddhist religious beliefs, requiring that the head and feet remain on eviscerated poultry. Not only are the birds thus suitable for prayer, but “we can use everything,” Anita explained. “We use the neck and the feet for stock. I’ve seen how “extraneous” parts are wasted, even in cooking schools here!” Anita she said. “You have to be able to look at the chickens’ eyes, to see that they are fresh and healthy. How can you know a bird is fresh, if you are only looking at parts?!”
Anita emphasized that Bo Bo chickens are a very good quality, simple product. The chickens are free roaming, slow grown, and raised without antibiotics or hormones. “Pastured raising is difficult,” Anita mentioned, “In order to supply the demands of a city like New York, you would need to dedicate all of New York State as farmland.” Having just read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, she was keen to consider how Bo Bo might improve their practices. Pollan spent a chapter of his book highlighting the pasture-perfect system of Polyface farm in Virginia, and Anita mentioned how she’d like to visit their farms one day. “But if Polyface raises about 12,000 broilers a year,” she said. “they can’t feed New York City. You can’t feed our population with 35 chickens a day.” Anita also mentioned the way Joel Salatin won’t ship chicken via mail order. “That way he only reaches a small community,” she said. “Bo Bo aims to be the middle ground, enabling greater access to good, simple, products consistently, at an affordable price.
Anita thanks Michael Pollan for beginning to bring to light many issues relevant to the poultry business. “You didn’t used to know, or ask, where your McNugget came from,” she said, “but Pollan has opened the doors – now we can talk about it! We don’t have to pretend we’re something that we’re not, but we can discuss what we can do better, and move forward honestly.” While neither organic nor pasture-raised, Bo Bo chickens are affordable. Bo Bo charges half the price of organic or pasture-raised chickens. Most people who visit Bo Bo’s retail store, Anita mentioned, buy their chickens with food stamps. And even Chef Dan Barber buys a significant percentage of Bo Bo poultry for his restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. “Organic usually means substituting inputs that increase the price substantially and don’t guarantee a good product,” Anita said, “What is important is trusting and knowing the people that produce and process your food. We choose to remain affordable for our customers, while keeping our standards of good quality feed and good farming practices. If our farms were to start raising chickens organically, their costs would go up, we would have to pay them more, and we would have to raise our retail and wholesale prices. We don’t want to price people out of good quality poultry.”
As for the New Amsterdam Market, Anita believes it will critically encourage the dialogue Michael Pollan has begun, in addition to serving the neighborhood’s needs. “I like the idea of having a market at South Street Seaport,” she said, “because a lot of people are moving into the neighborhood, and a lot of people live in the nearby subsidized housing. These are people who cook at home, and who want fresh, whole foods.” Anita imagines the market will also serve as a great educational incubator. While they closed their retail shop in Manhattan this month, Bo Bo would consider reopening their store down at the Seaport, where both wholesale and retail customers could come and speak to Anita about Bo Bo’s chickens. “The one thing about our store I miss – the reason we had a retail shop – is that I can tell customers about their chickens. I think that’s the most powerful marketing tool, to tell them everything I can. The truth is not always beautiful! But I think we have a sustainable business, because we are open for discussion.”