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How Chefs Are Revolutionizing the Neighborhood Butcher Shop

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  • 13 min to read

During the first half of the 20th century, the neighborhood butcher shop was a staple in American life. People relied on their local butcher to carry the high-quality cuts of meat they bought each week, and in turn, butchers knew the names and needs of their regulars. These relationships slowly began to change in the 1960s, as meatpacking houses began shipping precut and boxed meat directly to supermarkets. Unable to compete with wholesale prices, whole-animal butcher shops slowly disappeared from communities across the country – but despite the sea change, some were able to swim against the tide.

In the past decade, owners of such battle-tested butcher shops have seen a renewed interest in their work, as well as new customers – many of them restaurant chefs – who are seeking a more intimate relationship with food and where it comes from.

“Prior to 10 years ago, a lot of chefs would only buy from large wholesalers,” says Larry Schubert, owner of Schubert’s Packing Co., which has been slaughtering, processing, butchering and selling meat in Millstadt, Illinois, for 37 years. “Now, chefs want to specialize in different items, and they use our name on their menus so customers will see where they’re getting their meat from – they know it’s locally raised, and people trust the products we put out.”

Another facet of the evolution Schubert describes is chefs not only seeking out local butchers, but stepping back from the restaurant industry to open or manage butcher shops of their own. In 2012, Alex Pope was one of the first chefs to do so in Missouri with the opening of Local Pig in Kansas City.

Located in the East Bottoms neighborhood, Local Pig purchases locally sourced whole animals – cows, pigs, chickens, lambs, ducks and rabbits – for fresh cuts of meat, charcuterie and housemade sausages. Beef cuts include osso buco, short ribs, tenderloin, bone-in rib eye, flank steak and, of course, the Kansas City strip. The pork cuts are equally represented, from cheek and belly to Boston butt, bone-in or boneless chops, ribs, hock and tenderloin.

Pope’s love of butchering and sausage-making first developed while attending the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Upon graduating, he moved to Kansas City and joined The American Restaurant, where he and the other chefs tried to buy local as much as possible. Pope says he scoured the Kansas City area in search of a rack of pork chops, but couldn’t find one anywhere. His solution was to buy a whole pig.

“That was when it started for me,” Pope says. “Realizing what you could do with it if you knew what all the cuts were, how you could fabricate what you wanted, get it at a good price and support local farmers. It’s the best-quality meat you can get. Buying it on the hook from someone who takes really good care of animals makes a big difference.”

Pope says he didn’t see his career shift from chef to butcher as a “black and white decision” or one that meant his time in the restaurant world was over. Since last year, his role has been more in operations and business development. He opened a USDA-inspected wholesale plant; a full-service restaurant, Local Pig – Westport; and his latest project is serving as culinary director for Cleaver & Cork, which opened in the Kansas City Power & Light District in February.

About a mile north of Local Pig – Westport, Stuart Aldridge manages Broadway Butcher Shop. Aldridge worked at several Kansas City restaurants before taking over as general manager of the butcher shop in November 2013. Aldridge sources his products from Arrowhead Specialty Meats in Kansas City, including pork from Compart Family Farms in Iowa, Amish-raised chickens from Ohio and beef from southern California. “I’m not a creature of locality as much as quality,” Aldridge says.

The shop has a case dedicated to seafood, much of which is sashimi-grade and flown in fresh overnight from Hawaii or from docks around the U.S. within 24 hours via the Sea to Table company. He stocks his case with a range of fish and shellfish, including steelhead salmon, mussels, sunfish, swordfish and bigeye tuna. Seafood also inspires some of Aldridge’s specialty products, such as octopus pastrami, which was created out of the necessity of not wasting anything.

In that vein, Aldridge also created small sausages, or cocktail weenies, that take on the flavor profiles of classic cocktails – Mint Julep, Old Fashioned and Bloody Mary, the latter of which makes an appearance in Broadway’s brunch version of biscuits and gravy. The shop also offers a small lunch menu with soups, chilis and sandwiches – think mortadella with truffled honey and Taleggio cheese.

As a sous chef, Aldridge worked 75 to 80-hour weeks, often sweating over a stove. Now, he says his weeks are still long, at 90 to 100 hours, but the satisfaction is greater.

“Seeing people’s faces, they’re excited to go home and make something awesome,” Aldridge says. “I like the joy of telling someone how to properly cook something and teaching them tricks of the trade so they themselves can cook a beautiful meal.”

The pride Aldridge derives from developing lasting relationships with customers is also what Seth Hoerman and his family love about their work at Hörrmann Meat Co. (named after the family name’s original German spelling) in Springfield, Missouri. In 2003, with no experience in meat-processing or butchering, Seth’s father, Rick Hoerman, purchased a small custom-processing business that had been in operation since 1979. Seth was a senior in college at the time, and he, his brother, Grant, and mother decided that they would join him in the new enterprise. The Hoermans hired experienced butchers and delved into what Seth calls a “crash course” in meat-processing and butchering.

“We saw the lack of any type of butcher shop in Springfield, but the bigger reason was people going toward local, and we had a unique ability to do what most people don’t: take products directly from the farm to the consumer and handle the whole process,” Seth says. “There’s not too many USDA-inspected plants around anymore on the smaller side for custom work. We saw people looking for local, wanting to know where their food is coming from and what’s in it.”

Within the first few years, the Hoermans introduced two sausage flavors: traditional and jalapeño-Cheddar. The jalapeño-Cheddar sausages were added to concession stands at the Springfield Cardinals stadium a few years later – the minor league baseball team based in Springfield is a Double-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals – and soon after, people were asking where they could buy Hörrmann Meat Co. products. In response to consumer demand and a growing interest in locally sourced food, the family opened a retail shop in Springfield in 2011.

“If we’d tried to open this store 10 years ago, I think we would have had a lot more trouble,” Seth says. “I’d say that in the past five years, [the local food scene has] changed significantly. Now people are saying, ‘What am I eating?’ and a lot of times when they figure it out, they don’t think it sounds very good. The way things were done 50 years ago is more the way we do things here.”

Today, Grant manages the processing plant with their father, and Seth manages the retail shop. In addition to the store’s cuts of grass-fed beef (including beef from wagyu cattle raised in Highlandville, Missouri), pork, lamb, bison, goat, elk, venison and wild boar, plus its specialty bratwurst, sausages and house-smoked products, Seth says the store has expanded into prepared meals, ready to be purchased and popped into the oven. Some items are more traditional, like the Badabing, a chicken stuffed with Italian sausage, feta, cream cheese, mushrooms and spinach, and the smoked meatloaf, while others are more exotic, like the Llamasagna, lasagna made with locally raised llama meat.

After 12 years in business and much success in Springfield, Seth says his family is most grateful for the impact they’ve been able to have in their community’s food scene through their work with local farmers and sharing fresh products with customers.

“It’s definitely exciting for [my dad] to see that this leap of faith he took 12 years ago was not in vain; he’s starting to see it pan out,” Seth says. “It hasn’t been an easy journey, but it’s fulfilling. It’s not really about the money; it’s about the interaction with people.”

In the greater St. Louis area, Brandon Benack says he grew up with an understanding of that same connection people used to have with their neighborhood butcher shop.

“I wanted to bring back the feeling I remember when I was a kid going into my uncle’s butcher shop,” says Benack, executive chef at Truffles restaurant and founder of its adjacent butcher shop, Butchery, in Ladue, Missouri. “You know the guy you’re getting your meat from, you know where it’s from, you know how it was raised; if you’ve got a question, they’re there to tell you.”

With a family history of butchering – many of Benack’s uncles were butchers in upstate New York, where he grew up – Benack opened Butchery in September 2014 as an extension of Truffles. The shop offers fresh cuts of meat sourced from Price Family Farms, just 60 miles north of St. Louis, and Double Star Farms near Mt. Vernon, Illinois.

Meat isn’t the only star at this shop. Cuts like pork secreto, clod-heart roast (made with a cut of beef also known as the shoulder clod) and neck medallions share real estate with porchetta di testa, house bacon and duck confit; an extensive poached, smoked and fresh sausage program; trout, salmon and shrimp; daily prepared foods like chimichurri-marinated sirloin skewers, barbecue pulled pork, meatloaf and fresh pasta – plus a selection of wines, sauces and spice blends. In the corner of the shop, illuminated from behind, is a pink Himalayan salt cooler. “We had done in-house dry-aging before,” Benack says. “This is that on steroids.”

Ryan McDonald, former chef de cuisine of Juniper in St. Louis, manages operations and the butchering and charcuterie programs at Butchery. McDonald says he had some experience with whole-animal butchering at Juniper, and jumped at the chance to deepen that knowledge and experience at Butchery.

“I was ready for a new challenge, but the main thing that spurred my interest was the tradition [of butchering], getting back to the roots – understanding how things were done before you just went to the grocery store and bought a package of ground beef or bought steak in a Styrofoam package,” McDonald says.

Though Butchery and Truffles are managed separately, McDonald says he collaborates with Benack, as the butcher shop supplies the restaurant with all its meat and seafood, while the restaurant’s kitchen stocks the shop with customer favorites like Truffles’ burger, which people can buy at Butchery and prepare at home. McDonald says that’s what he loves most about his new position: the connection with customers and the ability to enhance their understanding of and experience with food.

“The main difference that I really enjoy is having interaction with customers – being able to create the product that I’m selling, and then also to be able to meet and talk to every customer who comes into the shop, to give them guidance and point them in new directions to try new things,” McDonald says.

About 5 miles away from Butchery, another former St. Louis chef has carved out a butchering business of his own. Chris Bolyard spent more than 10 years as chef de cuisine at Sidney Street Cafe in St. Louis, working alongside James Beard Award-semifinalist chef Kevin Nashan. Bolyard and Nashan began the restaurant’s whole-hog program, which gave Bolyard creative freedom to hone his skills in butchering. In an effort to learn all he could, Bolyard spent several years staging, or apprenticing, in butcher shops in New Orleans, Chicago and Nashville. All that studying paid off this past November with the opening of Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions in Maplewood, Missouri.

In the short time since the shop opened, Bolyard says he’s already established neighborhood regulars who visit multiple times a week. “The coolest part is they’re open to any suggestion,” Bolyard says. “It’s almost as if they want me to tell them what to get, and it makes my job easier.”

Sidney Street provided a strong backbone for what Bolyard’s doing now, with almost 90 percent of his recipes in the shop developed during his time at the restaurant. He also got to know several local farmers during that time, and his shop sources meat from those Missouri farms, which raise hormone-free, pasture-raised animals. The cows are 100 percent grass-fed and the pigs forage on grass, tree roots and even acorns and walnuts in the fall. Bolyard says he leaves a good layer of fat on the pork chops he cuts because that’s where you can taste the flavors of the animal’s diet.

Bolyard cares about good animal husbandry, and one component of his shop’s mission is to truly use the entire animal. Pig skin gets turned into raw hides for dogs, bones are cooked for stocks and sippable broths and animal fat is turned into soaps and balms by nearby retail store Maven Bath & Candle Co. Bolyard says rib eye is always the first cut to sell out in the shop, so he’s found different cuts within the cow that are new to him and his customers, including the mouse muscle, a muscle attached to the sirloin that can be a good substitute for tenderloin, or the merlot steak, a muscle in the heel of the animal that is three-fourths the size of a flank steak and, according to Bolyard, eats better. Aside from constant best sellers like bacon and breakfast sausage, it can be hard for Bolyard to gauge what items will be popular from week to week.

“That’s kind of the fun part – utilizing odds and ends or utilizing stuff that isn’t selling and getting creative with it,” he says.

That creative approach is also in play back in Springfield at City Butcher and Barbecue, which opened in November. Owners Cody and Jeremy Smith – friends who happen to share a last name – both attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu, albeit in different states. Cody managed Skinner’s Ribs & Bar-B-Que in Rogersville, Missouri, as a teenager and fell in love with Texas-style barbecue while studying in Texas. He and Jeremy met years later while working at Metropolitan Farmer in Springfield. Cody grew tired of the kitchen work and the stress level it demanded and wanted to do something that allowed him to spend more time with his family while still exploring his passion for food. He began selling charcuterie at the Farmers Market of the Ozarks under the name Le Cochon Charcuterie, with Jeremy joining a month later. Eventually, he and Jeremy decided to rebrand the company so it would be clear that it encompassed more than just charcuterie.

True to its name, City Butcher and Barbecue is part barbecue joint, part neighborhood butcher shop, with its Texas-style barbecue taking up about 75 percent of the business, selling out every single day.

“We knew that if we started with a really great quality product with the barbecue, we could get people in the doors,” Cody says. “People are always asking questions; they want to know more and try new things.”

On the butchery and charcuterie side, the shop focuses on a rotating selection of items, such as sausages, hot dogs, duck hams, duck pastrami, duck rillete, rolled roast and andouille-stuffed pork chops, in addition to cut-to-order dry-aged prime rib and tenderloin.

“I’m kind of an old soul,” Cody says. “I really enjoy taking some of the old school things and not messing with them too much. One of our best sellers is a classic country pâté. I like to stick to the classics – dry-cured smoked bacon, brisket loaf, andouille sausage. We want to showcase the quality of meat and technique.”

Cody and Jeremy source all of their meat from Creekstone Farms in Arkansas City, Kansas, and use only USDA prime brisket for their barbecue.

“We know the standard of what we want things to be,” Cody says. “We’re not going to lower the bar to make an extra buck. Jeremy and I both being chefs and that being our background, we’d rather put out the best products and worry about the money later. Somebody might say that’s being shortsighted; we believe if we do things the right way, people will ultimately appreciate it.”

Back in Millstadt, Larry Schubert agrees that people do ultimately appreciate quality – it’s one of the guiding principles he founded the company on almost 40 years ago, and what he continues to strive for today.

“There’s so much natural and wholesome going on now, where for a while, there was more fabrication and, ‘Do it fast, do it cheap,’” Schubert says. “Now we’re to the point where it’s, ‘Take your time, make it better.’ The public has been educated; I think customers are demanding better products – higher-quality products.”

These were lessons Schubert first learned as a young man when he would accompany his father on Saturdays to slaughter cattle for local farmers. During the week, Schubert’s father worked at a now-shuttered meat-processing plant in Belleville, Illinois, and right out of high school, Schubert himself began working at the plant. He spent almost 10 years there while also farming hogs and cattle on the side. But when he learned the plant was going to close, he and his wife, Mabel, decided to take a chance and open their own processing plant and butcher shop in their hometown. In the company’s first seven years in business, Schubert says it expanded each year, improving operations, introducing new products and growing its wholesale and retail store along the way.

What started as an 8-foot meat case has now grown to encompass 25 feet of fresh cuts, with another 12-foot case for smoked products and sausage, plus a 12-foot case for cheese. In addition to the cuts of pork and beef sold behind the counter, Schubert’s produces more than 70 different specialty sausages ranging from blood sausage, head cheese and braunschweiger to bratwurst in flavors like Cajun, maple, beer and green onion, to Italian dried salamis like soppressata. In the past few years, Schubert’s began making nitrate-free bacon and ham, and now supplies select Schnucks stores across the region with bulk orders of its nitrate-free bacon, which the grocer sells under its house label.

For Schubert, an essential part of producing high-quality products is working with farmers he trusts to raise healthy animals. He buys all of his hormone-free hogs from one local farmer and the pasture-raised cattle from two farmers in Illinois. In addition to buying animals from trusted sources, Schubert says another essential step is the humane handling and slaughter of animals at his plant.

“You take an animal that is calm and relaxed, and just in the blink of an eye, [it’s] dead – it’s stress-free,” Schubert says. “With a stress-free animal, the muscles never get an opportunity to tighten up. There’s no suffering; there’s no chance for the adrenaline to kick into its system and start making the [meat] tough.”

And Schubert is thrilled to see how much the industry has changed in the past three decades. Part of that change has included restaurant chefs – including those at Mike Shannon’s Steaks & Seafood and Franco in St. Louis – calling Schubert to supply them with pork and beef products, which he describes as hugely gratifying.

“When I go to a restaurant to eat, which we do quite often, I know the chef; I know the sous chef, and we go there and eat products that we sell to the restaurant,” Schubert says. “I’m very comfortable doing that because I know exactly what they’re getting, plus I’m patronizing the people who buy from us. If the chef is in, I’ll walk back into the kitchen to say hi.”

With each new day, Schubert says his goals remain the same: produce food he’s proud to sell and continue to find ways to improve his work.

One of the biggest motivators is the gratitude people have for putting out a good product,” he says. “In January, we were at a wing fling in Millstadt, and there was craft beer, barbecue wings, stuff like that, and a gentleman came up to me and said, ‘You’re Mr. Schubert, aren’t you? I just want to thank you for being there all these years. You have the best products; I don’t know what I would do if you were ever not there.’”


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