Yuri Bilinsky, New Pathway – Ukrainian News.
Except for a handful of items, everything that is sold at Richard Halenda’s seven stores, is made at Halenda’s own two processing plants. Halenda’s plants produce close to 100 meat products and sausages that, apart from the firm’s own outlets, are sold to 100 Sobeys stores and over 100 delicatessens across the province of Ontario. These impressive statistics came from a quiet and humble Richard Halenda when we visited him at his outlet at 2110 Dundas St E in Mississauga. The first thing one could notice when sitting across the table from Richard is his hands that give away a man who, despite being a long-time owner of a successful business conglomerate, still works hard manually.
Richard Halenda built his business based on the recipes from three heritages: Ukrainian, Polish and Yugoslavian. As world-famous as the Ukrainian and Polish cuisines are for their sausages (kovbasa or kobassa) and hams (shynka), they did not develop recipes for fermented products, such as uncooked dried salamis. This is where the Yugoslavian, and Slovenian cuisine in particular, comes into the picture for Halenda. Halenda does not make Mediterranean meat products, “because Spanish and Italians don’t believe in smoke, they dry cure the meat. The former Yugoslavian recipes fit better with what we do because we are strong believers in smoke, from our Ukrainian heritage.”
We asked Richard Halenda where his recipes originate from. He said, “My father came from Ukraine in 1951 and he got into the food industry in 1953. In the 1960s, he started making homemade type sausage that would have appealed to the people in his village. Ukrainians used to smoke meat throughout the history because smoke is a preservative and there was no refrigeration back then. There is a joke that you don’t have to kill the whole pig to make a kholodets, you just need a couple of pig feet. Ukrainians back then didn’t have that option, they made something out of everything in the pig. The key for our flagship ham kovbasa is that the meat is very fresh, we cure it, we smoke it and resell it within 2 days. To develop upon this heritage, we have tried to design recipes that make eating exciting.”
At any Halenda’s store, the choice is much wider than in any supermarket meat department. Halenda said that his business motto is to appeal to the widest possible array of customer categories: “We have our traditional shashlik, but we also have souvlaki ready for barbecue, we carry items like bacon wrapped pork medallions.”
Top quality is another part of Halenda’s business approach. It all starts with the meat: “We hand make burgers, but the trick to the burger isn’t the fact that I spice it. We are grinding chuck meat, a front cut of the animal, I’m not buying table trim for the burgers. Our burger meat is 86% lean and fairly consistent, it’s got a nice rich flavor.” Halenda gets his beef, in particular, from Prince Edward Island: “The soil there is rich in iron and the cattle tastes better. Over the years, I have found all those kinds of things.”
One of those things is salo, famous Ukrainian pork fat. Halenda explained: “We can’t import from Ukraine yet because Health Canada doesn’t authorize those plants. So I bring the salo from Spain from a group that raises the hogs wildly and feeds them acorns, not some scientific diet. These pigs taste better.”
In Halenda’s chicken department, there are many Mennonite products, for example, the eggs are at most a week old and the air-chilled birds that were barn raised. Halenda noted: “These chickens are raised outside in the summer, and it makes a difference on the taste. The Mennonites don’t cool them in water, which is a North American way of doing it. Water dilutes the flavor, and the chlorine in the water bleaches the birds.”
Unfortunately, food in North America became a processing operation, said Halenda: “There is a market out there, they want to raise the animals as quickly as possible, as much as possible, and maybe there is some taste left in it. But that is not what Halenda’s and other good independents do. We care about what we are feeding to our customers.”
Halenda’s Meats has grown from a single store in Oshawa back in 1980 to five stores in the Oshawa area by early 1990s to seven stores across Ontario and two plants now. All the beef, pork and chicken, which is processed and sold in Halenda’s, is supplied by their own distribution company, Meat Depot. The idea to start the Meat Depo came in 2007 when the big players in the Ontario food industry started to increasingly push out the smaller ones.
Richard Halenda was the one who capitalized on the independent players’ acute need in the meat supplies. The Meat Depot now sells meat to butcher shops from Windsor through Ottawa. The business has grown so successful, explained Richard Halenda, that it had to turn down clients. In the spring 2018, the company is opening a new, 47,000 sq ft processing plant in Mississauga which will triple the Halenda’s Meats capacity.
The independent organization Ontario Independent Meat Processors has several times recognized Halenda’s outstanding performance – the company has been voted the most successful in the province in 2014-2016. In 2017, it won seven medals and the Diamond Award from the Ontario Independent Meat Processors for the item with the overall highest score, Halenda’s Double Smoked Bacon. “That’s the testament to the fact that we are doing everything the way my dad taught us. We always are looking for better ways to do it but we are not willing to compromise,” said Halenda.
But is meat-eating healthy and do people eat meat less or more now? “People are now far more conscientious about what they eat – 20 years ago they didn’t ask half the questions they ask now about the ingredients. They want to know why you can’t have smoked meat without nitrate. There are companies that do not add chemical nitrate to their product, but they add nitrate that was grown naturally. And it’s used at much higher levels than the controlled level of chemical nitrate. The government insists that you use nitrate, it’s needed so that people don’t get sick with botulism.”
Meat is not the reason for the widespread obesity, said Halenda: “That’s not the result of the home-made food but of the food from all those fast food joints. They make a product that you eat and feel full, and it sticks to you. The best way to eat is eat what you want, in moderation. A good home cooked meal is always good. But it takes time and maybe today that’s one thing that we’re short of.”
What are Richard Halenda’s favourite products of what his stores sell? He said: “Definitely kovbasa. I’m a pork lover, but I like a good steak too, the chicken I eat happens to be air-chilled Mennonite chicken because I appreciate the flavour better.”
Richard’s father and the company’s founder, Michael Halenda, was trained in shoe repair in England in late 1940s, remembered Richard: “But when he got to Canada, he realized that people didn’t fix shoes, they threw them away. He got into the food industry in 1953 and stayed in it through till we started our own company. He was active up till his passing away when he was 91. He ate good food and he lived well.”
Halenda’s Meats are a true family company – Richard’s wife Ola and three of their five kids are actively involved in the business. Halenda said: “The company treats everybody as extended family and we have the employees treat our customers as extended family. It is probably another principle that my dad had – if you can come in and enjoy shopping in the store, the prices are fair and there’s good quality – then you will choose to come here. That’s what you don’t get at a supermarket.”
What drives Richard Halenda to work six or seven days a week and continue developing? He said: “I don’t look at it as work. We have hundred and ten employees, all of them are my friends. I know lots of customers because they are my friends. It’s not about money, money is not the measurement of success. You have to enjoy it to put the time that I and others are putting in it.”
Halenda’s are famous for their community involvement – the company sponsors numerous community events and celebrations. Richard Halenda recalls: “When we opened the first freestanding store in Oshawa, the Women’s League at Saint George’s Ukrainian Church was going to start making perogies and cabbage rolls. They came to us, which was 35 years ago, and since then every store we have in Durham sells perogies and cabbage rolls made by that Woman’s League. They get basically all the money for it and that is hundreds of thousands of dollars by now. We have supported our community and they have supported us.”