On a clear August night at Haak Vineyards & Winery, a dressy crowd gathered in a pavilion for an unusual kind of charity auction: a pig butchery demonstration and meat auction. The sale benefited Alvin Community College’s culinary arts program. Students in chef whites hovered nearby, assisting the butcher as he carved unwieldy hunks of meat into choice cuts with a sharply honed knife and a band saw.
One by one, coveted prizes emerged for bidding: pork osso buco, whole rib roasts and slabs of pork belly. The man doing the carving wasn’t just a butcher, though. He’d seen this pig through from birth to death, a stark contrast to the Styrofoam-packed, plastic-wrapped anonymity of how most consumers buy their meat these days.
His name is Felix Florez and his ranch is called Black Hill Meats. Its reputation has spread so far that nationally acclaimed restaurants like Café Boulud and Emeril’s are calling to purchase now.
Florez is the youngest of three kids, and has a well-rounded restaurant background. He started as a server at 15 years old. “It seemed to me that waiting tables was one of the only things I could do that gave somewhat adequate money to a kid with no skills,” said Florez.
Soon after, he developed an interest in wine, even though he was still too young to drink legally. It was an intriguing subject but also a practical consideration. “I realized that if I was going to make any money as a server, I needed to learn the alcohol,” Florez explained.
When he graduated from high school, he moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas. Soon after, though, he decided to lease a restaurant. It was a huge responsibility for someone so young. “So, here I am, 19 or 20 years old. I’m not even allowed to be drinking and I’m spending all my time at wine tastings and the restaurant. While my friends were partying on 6th Street, I’m like, ‘Yeah, can’t do it. I’m at work.’ That was my life.”
Florez spent seven years as a restaurateur, but 9/11 marked the beginning of the end. “I took a 40-percent hit in sales overnight,” he recalled. “I was literally working 100-plus hours a week just to keep the doors open. I was cooking. I was waiting tables. I was washing dishes. I was doing it all.”
Florez opted to let the restaurant go when his lease came up for renewal. He was homesick for Houston and, even more important, was now married with a son on the way. “My wife said, ‘Look, I knew what I was getting into when I married you. I knew you were going to be at the restaurant all the time. However, we’re about to have our first child, and wouldn’t it be nice if I could see you sometimes?”
Florez started sending his résumé to potential employers in Houston and soon landed a job helping acclaimed chef Scott Tycer oversee Aries, Gravitas and Kraftsmen Baking. Later, Florez went to work at Benjy’s and Del Lago Golf Resort, now La Torretta Lake Resort & Spa.
His final restaurant position was as the wine director at Brennan’s of Houston. While there, Florez developed a growing frustration at the quantity of out-of-state meat being served at restaurants across Houston. “You went into a chef’s walk-in and every product in that cooler was not from Texas. Mexican produce, California beef, New Zealand lamb — you name it, it’s not from here. I’m a fourth-generation Texan. My kids are fifth-generation Texans. We’re very proud of that and it is my belief that Texans should be eating Texas food.”
He used his time off in the mornings to build a ranch, starting out with seven heritage breed pigs. The ranch grew and demanded more of his time, so he quit his job at Brennan’s. Some mocked him for leaving a respected restaurant to be a pig farmer, but his wife encouraged him to pursue the new endeavor. Florez pressed on.
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His first customer was chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly. Soon after, Shepherd’s friend chef Randy Evans also started buying Florez’s pork. Other chefs soon followed suit.
Florez added lamb, goat and beef to the offerings. Demand for Black Hill Ranch meats skyrocketed, exceeding his own ranch’s capacity. To solve that problem, Florez developed a network of around 30 farms — mostly small and family-owned — willing to raise animals under the Black Hill Ranch brand with the same standards. Those include allowing the pigs to roam and giving them high-quality feed, like acorns, fresh produce and sunflower seeds.
These days, Black Hill Ranch has 15 employees and sends thousands of pounds of pork, beef, goat and lamb to restaurants every week. Florez also started a retail site called Ranch to Kitchen that delivers meat to consumers in the Houston area who order 150 pounds or more.
Florez credits his continued success to working closely with the industry. “I have long conversations with chefs on menu planning and cooking. I’ve done countless butchering demos in kitchens. We have an exchange program where we place one of our people in a kitchen for a day and bring a restaurant employee to our packing facility to learn how to butcher. You can’t find any other meat distributor that has those kinds of interactions with chefs.”