Patience helps build success for bacon, sausage maker
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Patience helps build success for bacon, sausage maker

Jun 25, 2023

A table-top meat grinder, a crucial tool when Old Major Market started making sausage, is relegated to a shelf in the company's new production facility a few blocks east of the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

Through seven years of selling upscale bacon and sausage, Old Major outgrew the modest piece of equipment.

And even Old Major's current grinder, one that's rated to process 3,000 pounds of meat per hour, will give way to one that's rated for 9,000 pounds in the same time—once the new machine arrives from Germany.

Zionsville native Mark LaFay founded Old Major in 2016, developing a hobbyist's pursuit into a business that sells meat online, at farmers markets and to restaurants.

LaFay's hobby turned serious when he and a friend fabricated a smoker from two hulking heating-oil tanks salvaged from the basement of a house. He set basic goals for Old Major's existence, milestones such as: "If we sell enough bacon to buy a slicing machine, we’ll keep going."

His first major investment in the business was the purchase of a vacuum stuffer to increase the speed of making sausage. But he also learned that incremental advancements in equipment push a bottleneck down the production line.

"If you were to wake up tomorrow and say, ‘I want to get into meat processing,’ it would take a long time," LaFay said. "You have to start small. You have to find customers, and you have to scale with your customers. You need a lot of capital to grow. Margins are tight, and unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re debt-financing all of it."

It's not easy, but LaFay has a track record of entrepreneurial success. The 40-year-old started managing rock bands when he was a teenager. One of his Indianapolis-based clients, Christian metalcore band Haste the Day, sold 300,000 albums from 2004 to 2010.

Michael Murphy, bass player in Haste the Day, sees a parallel between LaFay's work in show business and meat processing.

"He took something local, like our band, and helped us grow organically," Murphy said. "We started with small shows and worked our way up. We didn't force the issue with, ‘Oh, well, this band deserves to headline the Egyptian Room.’ It was, ‘No, you’re going to play shows for 30 people for two years.’"

LaFay refers to Old Major as a labor of love. The business is profitable, he said, but he wants Old Major to fulfill its financial potential by its 10th year. With six full-time and two part-time employees, the company anticipates 30% revenue growth in 2023.

The year began with Old Major's move from a kitchen at the Basile Opera Center, 4011 N. Pennsylvania St., to the Milky Way Complex, 4201 Millersville Road. Part of the Meadows neighborhood, the Milky Way Complex is a 70,000-square-foot building that served as headquarters for defunct milk company Roberts Dairy.

Michael Boaz, founder of Boaz Construction, is renovating the building that celebrated its grand opening in 1930. He said more than 40 tenants will occupy the Milky Way Complex when it begins a new era as a mixed-use conglomerate in May.

Old Major is bringing food back to the building, even repurposing an old Roberts Dairy walk-in cooler as new. LaFay said he appreciates the connection to the history and evolution of Indiana agriculture.

"It's like a Wayback Machine," he said.

LaFay, who took the title of Indiana State Fair Backyard BBQ champion in 2015 and 2017, said it's gratifying to be a professional food producer in the state.

"For my entire adult life, I was a consumer," he said. "To be able to contribute in some capacity is humbling."

When asked about differences or similarities related to managing rock bands and being a butcher, LaFay offered a full-circle reply.

"It was extremely stressful," LaFay said of his music heyday, before adding with a laugh, "but this is extremely stressful."

A specialty business

On a recent afternoon, the staff of Old Major worked on a new method for aging pork belly, or the source material for bacon, in which 2,200 pounds of meat are placed in a single oversized tub for a week.

Across the room, a recently purchased industrial "smokehouse" that can flavor 750 pounds of meat in less than four hours did its job as the formal successor to LaFay's dual-tank smoker.

Old Major, which takes its name from the pig that inspired a rebellion in George Orwell's 1945 novel "Animal Farm," sells most of its products online. Bacon and sausage, the company's core items, generally sell for $13 and $9 per pound, respectively.

"We decided to focus on bacon and sausage because that gives us a nice little sweet spot to fit within our state's ecosystem of processors," LaFay said.

Old Major doesn't slaughter livestock. The company sources pork, poultry and beef from other meat processors in the form of pork belly, tenderloin, jowls and excess trim.

LaFay said most of the pork originates from Dewig Meats in Haubstadt, a town of 1,600 residents 20 miles north of Evansville.

"We buy all of our proteins in state," LaFay said. "We want to keep dollars flowing back down to the Indiana farmer."

Kerri Suhr, director of meat and poultry inspection for the Indiana State Board of Animal Health, said five Indianapolis processors that don't slaughter livestock are certified to ship meat products anywhere in the United States. Old Major is on the list that includes Turchetti's Delicatessen & Meat Market and salami specialist Pigs Tale Charcuterie.

Suhr said 10 new meat processing facilities in Indiana contacted the board of animal health during the first two months of 2023 to request inspection.

"In most years, we might see five to 10 for the whole year," she said.

Suhr said a spike in processing may be linked to the public's interest in knowing where food originates.

"Buying locally grown and locally processed meat has taken off in the last four or five years," she said.

In addition to sales at, the company sells its products at eight farmers markets during the summer. An Old Major lunch program at the Milky Way Complex is in the works, and LaFay said he's cultivating partner relationships with restaurants and food service companies.

He said wholesale distribution of Old Major products is expected to grow from 9% of the overall business in 2022 to about 35% this year.

"We want to make sure we’re learning, doing it right, maintaining quality and maintaining consistency," LaFay said. "It took me five years to get to a place where I felt comfortable taking my product to restaurants and food service."

Kitchen credentials

LaFay grew up in a hunting family, with his father, Bob, routinely canning venison and freezing venison steaks.

He credits his mother, Linda, for sparking a love of cooking through a recipe for Sichuan chicken with stir-fried cabbage.

"When I was 13, I asked for a wok for Christmas," said LaFay, noting that he still owns the pan.

During his time as a band manager, LaFay served as chef when musicians gathered. He recalled driving an electric smoker to a music festival in Kentucky.

"I plugged it in behind the stage and smoked ribs for my bands that were playing," LaFay said. "It was just something I loved to do, and it was fun for us to be able to hang out and eat good food when they were out on the road."

Haste the Day member Murphy has high praise for a chipotle coffee rub that LaFay devised and applied to brisket.

"Honestly, it's the best brisket I’ve ever had," Murphy said. "The bark that he would achieve on that stuff was stupid. It was so good."

After LaFay exited artist management, he worked in tech. One of his projects was Roust, a social network he co-founded in 2014 as a platform designed to facilitate political discourse.

When he decided to transition to food as a career, LaFay launched an under-the-radar bacon operation in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood.

"I’d get on my neighborhood's Facebook group, and I’d say, ‘We’re taking pre-orders for bacon. Here are the flavors this month,’" said LaFay, who offers maple bourbon and pumpkin spice among Old Major's present-day bacon flavors.

As neighbors replied with order requests in Facebook's public forum, more people were curious to try the product, LaFay said.

"The intrigue of that fueled a lot of our early customer acquisition," LaFay said.

Landing at Milky Way

Old Major initially leased space at the Milky Way Complex in 2021, setting up an 1,100-square-foot warehouse in the building.

Boaz, Milky Way's owner, said he was proactive in the creation of Old Major's new 3,600-square-foot production facility.

LaFay "was considering buying real estate and going through that whole process," Boaz said. "I gave him an offer: If he would be willing to stay here, I would invest in a production kitchen with him."

The move from the opera building, LaFay said, made him view Old Major as a "real business" for the first time.

"It was a real business, but it never felt like a place where we could hang our shingle," he said. "Michael Boaz and his crew are supportive of us, and they authentically believe in what we’re doing."

Boaz said he's planning a new building adjacent to the Milky Way Complex, and the future structure won't come with the vintage challenges of the former Roberts Dairy plant.

"It has a lot of history," Boaz said of the Milky Way, which is home to wireless internet company Xiber LLC, Yellow Door Ceramics Studio and other businesses. "Any time I touched something, I replaced it with [similar] materials. We’re bringing the building into service for another 100 years."

Meanwhile, LaFay is returning to band management tasks this year for Haste the Day reunion shows. In September, the band will share a festival bill in Birmingham, Alabama, with Turnstile, MxPx, Hatebreed and Thursday.

LaFay said his music industry background helps when he markets Old Major today.

"I learned a lot about brand development working with bands," he said. "From the experience of the show itself to the merch being sold to the imagery online."

Murphy said the band's text message group is buzzing with meal ideas for LaFay when Haste the Day reconvenes.

"He's a guy you would bet on," Murphy said of LaFay and his multifaceted skills. "He's a different kind of smart. He's going to dig in, find what makes something special and roll with it."•

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A specialty business A specialty business Kitchen credentials Kitchen credentials Landing at Milky Way Landing at Milky Way