in Bensonhurst, Theres a Chicken in Every (Melting) Pot
“God gives every one of us a gift,” observes Carlo Formisano. “Let’s just say that giving people the best chicken around is our special gift.” During his 24 years as manager of the La Pera Brothers live poultry market in Bensonhurst, Formisano has attracted new waves of immigrants and kept the loyalists coming back for more. Many of the groups he serves are just as passionate about quality and freshness as he is.
The neighborhood’s growing Muslim population makes up an enormous part of La Pera’s clientele. In fact, a sizeable number of the women shopping at La Pera wear a hijab. When it was announced over a laptop that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down as Egypt’s president, there were cheers and high fives throughout the market—from both the patrons and staff.
Among those celebrating was Abdul Hamid Algabbari, who has worked at La Pera for seven years and is originally from Yemen. He’s confident that the uprisings in Egypt and Libya will have a domino effect, eventually spreading to his home country. After talking about politics for a while, we naturally got back to the prevailing subject at La Pera: chickens. Algabbari, who commutes to the shop every day from New Jersey, says he never uses store-bought chicken.
“I cook chicken everywhere and put it on everything, man,” he said. “But it’s got to be fresh. It’s the kind of quality I can’t live without. I’ll fry it, bake it, you name it, but my favorite dish is simply chicken and rice.”
Like many of the immigrants at La Pera, Algabbari comes from a place where chicken doesn’t arrive at the table thawed, breaded, and shaped like stars. “You won’t find frozen chicken back in Yemen,” he said. “It always has to be fresh. There’s a certain connection people have with the food. It’s real.”
That’s what one gets at La Pera—a very real (and bloody) look at life, but one that’s humble and human too. One minute Formisano is shouting, “Kill it,” and the next he is dishing out handshakes and hugs. You could say the freshness of the market isn’t just in the meat but in the human contact. It’s as though the patrons see the slaughtering as a means of unification, and thus don’t appear phased by all the blood and guts that go along with the place. There’s something almost old world about it, like you’ve walked into a time machine and entered the kind of age you only hear about in stories.
Live meat markets like La Pera are indeed a throwback to the old New York. The 55-year-old Formisano reminisced about the days when everyone knew each other and businesses were less regulated. Before being manager of La Pera, he worked at the Fulton Street fish market from the ’60s through the early ’80s, thus following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. The market was moved to the Bronx in 2005 after Rudy Giuliani’s widespread sweep of mob-run businesses, but Formisano remembers what it was like to work at the dock and said handling fish is still his favorite job.
“The smell of the ocean and the sight of the fish laid out on the pier was really something special,” he said. “Even after all these years I still miss it. But it wasn’t seen as attractive and all the tourists were coming in, so they moved it up to the Bronx.”
As he continues to wax nostalgic, chicken after chicken is taken to the back of the shop to be slaughtered. Two rabbits sit on a scale waiting to meet the same fate. Customers flood in through the front entrance, throwing requests left and right. Somehow Formisano keeps track of everything, writing orders on a note pad and taking phone calls, all the while greeting every customer with, “Hello, how are you today?” As he does this, a furry-headed chicken native to China, called a Silkie, gets loose but is quickly snatched up and taken to the back by an employee.
If you follow one of the workers you’ll see a system of slaughtering that hasn’t changed much over the years. The chickens are still killed by hand. In the first room a man slits the bird’s throat with a sharp knife. Then the still-fluttering bird is stuck in a deep cylindrical container where its blood is drained. The slaughterer has to pull the bird out every minute or so to see if the bird is dead—often times it isn’t, and the man is met by a half-crazed bird, still flapping and squawking. Once the bird is lifeless, it is tossed into boiling water before being thrown into the giant “plucker.” This machine spins the scorched body around at rapid speeds while giant rubber fingers pluck its feathers. After this, it is sent down a conveyor belt into another room, where a second worker removes its innards and prepares the chicken for the customer. The whole process takes less than 15 minutes. When the bird arrives to waiting customers it is still warm.
Formisano watches over all this from his cramped office above the entrance to La Pera. He oversees some 3,000 pounds of chicken a day. That’s not to mention the array of other animals slaughtered on premises: lamb, goat, rabbit, duck, quail, pheasant, capon, goose, pigeon, and even partridge—you know, the little bird in the pear tree from “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The lambs and goats are stored way in the back and require an entirely different, much more involved, slaughtering process. In fact, there is an additional butchering room for them. The poultry, however, is piled in cages along a wall up front, allowing customers to look over them and pick the one they want.
Most of the birds are shipped to Brooklyn from small-to-medium sized farms in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Canada, where they’re fattened up before being hauled off to the city in large trucks stacked full of cages. Many suppliers are Amish farmers who also provide Formisano with dozens of fresh eggs. Not to mention, the chickens he sells have no antibiotics and are of a free-range variety. He’ll also be getting organic chickens in soon, making La Pera the first live poultry market in the city to offer them.
“I’ve been pushing for organic poultry for years now, and the dream is finally coming true,” Formisano says.
Like any company in the agriculture industry, La Pera’s prices and availability are subject to the ebb and flow of the market. Formisano told the story of one unlucky handler in Pennsylvania who lost 10,000 chickens when his heating unit blew in the dead of winter. “He lost everything overnight,” he says. “In such a delicate market you have food prices going up and down constantly.”
Right now the price of chicken is extremely high, about three dollars per animal purchased. Not long ago it was only two. Like many businesses, La Pera has been hurt by the recession. Over the past couple of years Formisano has had to let 10 of his 24 employees go.
But despite the rise in prices and the iffy economy, the warmhearted manager always keeps a loyal base coming back. Just recently he figured out a way to reward his most faithful patrons: a buy 10 chickens get one free card. It’s the same sort of deal one might find at a big chain like Starbucks or Chipotle, only instead of getting a free latte or burrito a customer can get a chicken on the house.
“I have loyal customers because I love them and I serve them,” he said. “I take care of them with my quality product and they take care of me with their business. I have kids coming here who were still inside their mother’s bellies the first time I met them.”
Formisano is also working on putting up a YouTube page so he can demystify the chicken business and attract a new generation of live poultry lovers.
“YouTube’s going to be great,” he said. “I’ll get a million views, no, two million views—maybe more. More customers mean more business, so that way everyone’s happy,” he says with a laugh.
It makes sense that Formisano would want to reward his devotees considering many of them come in every single day. Many are recent immigrants used to picking out their meat while it’s still a living, breathing creature. Russians, Chinese, Italians, Japanese, Ecuadorians, Bangladeshis, Africans, Thais, and Jews are just a few of the neighborhood groups that La Pera caters to. A Muslim employee is even on hand to provide halal meat in accordance with Islamic law.
Another major poultry buyer is the rapidly growing Asian population of Bensonhurst—a demographic that has increased exponentially over the past 20 years after many Italian and Jewish residents moved out of Brooklyn. And this migration doesn’t only mean a change of faces at La Pera—it means a change of taste, too. While the more Americanized residents of previous generations preferred white pullets (females) and cockles (males), recent immigrants from Asia prefer the red ones.
But the customer base isn’t just made up of people looking to feed a family; it also consists of a number of restaurants, including high-end establishments like Megu in TriBeCa and Yakitori Totto on west 55th street. On a recent February afternoon dozens of chickens were delivered to a nearby Chinese restaurant.
Formisano often goes out to prospective eateries with a few freshly killed chickens and cooks up a meal for the possible buyers so they can taste his product. He has established a foundation of clients over the years by making sure his business is all about people-to-people exchange.
“I have a philosophy that a person should always strive to do good,” he said. “I like people and I want to make them happy. I don’t swear, drink, or do drugs, and I try to go to church every Sunday. To me this is what life is all about—it’s about giving your all and enjoying it. Financially it’s not the best job, but I love what I do and I’m the best at it.”
While Formisano went on about his love of the butchering business, patron Hosny Sammy came to the front window to order a “large quantity” of chickens.
“I get chicken and sometimes sheep,” Sammy said. “I usually come in once a week and buy a whole bunch of chicken at one time. In Yemen we request it without the head or the feet, and that’s how I get it here.”
“Sammy’s a great guy and a loyal customer,” said Formisano. “He even buys me coffee on Sundays.”
The two chat for a few minutes about food and family before Formisano disappears to the back of the shop to clarify an order. One of the Asian customers wanted the feet and head to remain on her chicken (a common practice for that demographic), but when it arrived up front it was missing both. This sort of miscommunication is an everyday occurrence for Formisano, who is constantly juggling phone calls and orders, often times from patrons who speak very little English, or none at all. As Formisano talks to one of the butchers, Sammy joins the other waiting customers, who chat or stare off into space, undisturbed by the barrels of innards being pushed around or the squawking Silkies hopping by.
Formisano emerges from the back a moment later, five bagged chickens in hand. He tells the woman that her chicken will be ready soon, this time with head and feet attached. Then he carries the chickens he’s got to the front of the shop. A woman waits in her Mercedes Benz outside, La Pera’s big “Live Poultry” sign rising over her. He sets the chickens in her passenger seat and says he’ll see her again in a few days.
“That’s Ida—she’s been coming here for over 50 years,” he said. “Once you hit that mark you get curb service.”