Anatomy of a Modern Butcher Shop #longreads

Anatomy of a Modern Butcher Shop #longreads

Three butchers weigh in on the current state of meat.

July 8, 2015

IN A HALLWAY AT SAN FRANCISCO’S BELCAMPO MEAT CO., TWO TAXIDERMIED CHICKENS ARE SUSPENDED FROM THE CEILING, LEGS AND WINGS OUTSTRETCHED, FOREVER BRACED FOR LANDING.

A few more gather in the rafters, on top of bookshelves, a collision of plumage and scaly feet and beady eyes watching over this hybrid butcher shop and restaurant. Plucky country music twangs from the speakers, and the first customer of the day has just walked with a hundred bucks worth of bone broth.

Brian Merkel is the head butcher here. A lanky redhead with a slow, steady gait and hair pulled back into a bun, Merkel hails not from the West Coast but from a small town in Michigan, where he learned to hunt deer and fish for bluegill. He owned a sausage company in Detroit for a spell, Porktown Sausages & Charcuterie, and hosted parties where he and some friends would break down whole pigs in their backyards. Meat was just something he did, in the way that occasionally creating marketing content for Ford or pro bono commercial work for nonprofits was also something he did. By the time he landed in New York, all the little ticker tape of life’s ephemera had added up to one thing: butchering full-time.

And now he is here, at one of the most comprehensive butcher shops of this brave new world—six locations in the Northern and Southern reaches of California, backed by its own 20,000 acre farm at the base of Mt. Shasta, a private processing plant, and operated in conjunction with a restaurant of the same name. It’s massive, ambitious, and seemingly well-intentioned in an otherwise shady business of high-volume meat production. Are the sun-drenched plains of Belcampo Farms the magic bullet?

Maybe, and maybe not quite yet. Belcampo is the poster child for feel-good farming, the well-rounded honor student of fresh air and humane slaughter. It checks all the boxes a concerned eater need check, and yet, we hesitate. Call it skittish.

“It’s not easy to make a successful business out of selling fresh meat. You really have to convince consumers that it’s worth it,” Merkel says. The product is notoriously pricey—loin chop on this particular day is going for $19.99 a pound—but then again, the cuts glisten like slabs of deep red and pink Fabergé eggs. The fat caps are larger, plusher, softer like pulled taffy. There’s this whole symphony of existential meat poetry that trumpets in your brain when you look at this case, preventing the realization that you’ve fogged up the glass in excitement. “There’s such a large gap between meat you buy at the supermarket and high-quality meat that’s raised by small farmers...I think, I hope, people are coming around.”

That gap is important. We know it is. We can see it, gleaming in the case, and we can taste the difference right away, as professional cooks or as laymen. For about two hours after we watch whichever documentary is trending on Netflix, we are enraged over that gap. But we are also unrelenting suckers for bargain prices and ease, so while the modern butcher shop must be a beacon of such superior product in order to even hold our attention, if it means to lead us across the chasm of understanding how to relate to meat, it has to be more. It has to be neighborly, smart, but approachable. Cool.


The counter at Belcampo Meat Co. in San Francisco's Russian Hill. | Photo by Cassandra Landry

“It’s definitely trendy. People like the look and feel of the culture behind this kind of artisan-based consumer system,” he admits. Artisan-based consumer system, while a less-than-romantic way to look at it, is exactly what we seek out, even if we don’t admit it for fear of hipster labeling. We expect authenticity and style, even in a mass-produced format. And what’s wrong with that? As if to punctuate the point, ubiquitous white tile gleams behind him in the morning sun. “More people are cooking at home and paying closer attention to what they’re eating. So I like to think that people are searching for quality. They want something that adheres to an ethical standard, but is also delicious.”

Whether that indeed counts as a trend or a long-awaited revolution in thinking, chains like Belcampo Meat Co. are digging in for the slow tide. By Merkel’s count, they’re currently harvesting 12 to 13 steers a week, which are then divided among the retail shops. The trick with honorable butchery is staying in that sweet spot: providing what you have at a rate that allows what you have to flourish. The second that’s upended, when demand begins to crush your core principles, that’s when sticking to your proverbial guns is most crucial—and most challenging.

“I do enjoy the creative aspect of all this,” Merkel says. “We’re trying to use the whole animal and we’re trying to make money. We’re trying to educate consumers, and work with as much efficiency as we can. What can we make in-house to eliminate waste? What’s going to be delicious? What can we offer our customers that’s different?”

The surprise steak is a good bet. The cut, taken off the inside edge of the scapula, is only found by breaking down the entire chuck. Not something you’d come across in the coolers at Whole Foods. Neither is Merkel’s take on lap yuk, marinated and preserved strips of bacon inspired by the mother of a Chinese sous chef he once knew.

“People of our generation are focused on finding a job they’re passionate about. Building a business they can pour themselves into,” he says, before mentioning the proliferation of training programs, like the one at Fleisher’s Pasture-Raised Meats in New York. Newly-minted butchers either stay in the Fleisher’s system, or strike out into the boutique shop business. “It isn’t just happening in San Francisco, or New York. It’s in Virginia, Colorado, all over.”


Camas Davis, with the Chapolards. | Photo by Eugenie L. Frerichs for Edible Portland

WHEN CAMAS DAVIS RETURNED TO PORTLAND, OREGON AFTER A SUMMER SPENT LEARNING THE ART OF BUTCHERY IN SOUTHWESTERN FRANCE, SHE CONVINCED A SHOP SHE WAS WORKING FOR TO TRY A NEW TACTIC: DISPLAY THE ENTIRE PORK LOIN WHOLE, UNPORTIONED, IN THE CASE.

She’d seen this work in the French markets, while trailing behind the Chapolards, a family of butchers and farmers who had taken her under their wing. This way, there were no small cuts slowly oxidizing in the morning air; customers would specify the amount they needed and off it came. Something about the simplicity of this stuck in her mind, so for one day, a whole loin was laid down and the doors were opened.Everyone who came in thought it was tuna. The regular pork chop buyers didn’t recognize it and so took none of it, and by closing time, one of the most popular cuts of meat was barely touched.

“We don’t pick up a tomato and get scared, but we go to the butcher shop or the meat counter and we’re a little nervous,” she says. “We don’t know the difference between a loin chop and a ribeye chop. There’s no one behind the meat counters to talk to, so who do you trust?”

Davis is a journalist turned butcher turned founder of the Portland Meat Collective (and its offshoot, Meat Collective Alliance), and has made it her mission to eradicate the one thing she says defines our relationship with meat: fear. Fear of killing a living thing, fear of endorsing the wrong soulless mega-companies, fear of whatever lies outside of the gastronomic comfort zone. In order to calm as many of these anxieties as possible in one go, the collectives allows locals to both purchase meat directly from small ranchers and farmers, and serve as one-stop butchering, curing, and cooking educational hubs. Classes range from basic sausage making to pig butchery to poultry slaughter.

“It’s this deep, black hole that no one knows how to approach,” she says. “Who even touched this meat? Where’d it come from? It’s crazy to think that we then continue to pull pork chops out of the black hole and eat them.” We’ve all done it. Lookin’ at you, weird pre-marinated loin in a Trader Joe’s plastic slipcase.

Even when the Portland Meat Collective was emerging as more than a flicker of an idea, Davis was tapped for media stories and soundbites and panels on ethical eating—one of which featured her alongside a vegan philosophy professor and an animal rights lawyer. She was, in her words, “ripped to shreds.”

“It was very clear that I was the enemy to a lot of people,” she recalls. “Simply teaching classes about it or engaging in the act of raising animals or slaughtering them or processing them was deemed as bad. That was the point at which I started to see that there were some gaps in the conversation that could be filled. That’s where I focused my energy.”

Maybe it’s easier to serve those who already speak your language, but Davis wanted to take it all down. To the studs. In order to do it, she would first have to refine her own thoughts on the movement she had inadvertently become a part of. What was it she was even trying to do? It wasn’t about glorification of meat, she decided, but rather a critical shift in how we value it. “There’s a big blind spot that everyone is getting really nervous about. Just going to the store and buying any kind of food is becoming this anxious thing for people, so any kind of demystification is good,” she says. “The hope is that people start to make little shifts, that over time become something bigger.”

The answer to the blind spot is simple: shine a big ol’ light on it. With a cleaver.

“In almost every pig butchery class, there’s a moment where someone says, ‘That’s where bacon comes from?’” she says. “Watching people realize that someone killed this animal, that someone else had to deal with the guts, someone had to take the hair off...that changes how they value the meat. That changes the whole game.”

It’s easy to assume that Davis’s classes teach a skill, something that her students can use as a party trick or allows them to level up in some kind of hardcore Super Mario Bros. foodscape. It's bigger than that: they come because of a vague sense that they’ve lost control over what they put in their bodies. They crave an alternative, even if they’re not sure what it is.

“My goal was originally to open a whole animal shop, but what I realized within a week or two was that there just wasn’t a consumer base, even in Portland, to support it,” she says. “When you’re paying for bones and blood and pig ears and snouts and all these other cuts, you do have to do a lot of education at the butcher shop, but meanwhile you’re losing revenue and meat. So instead, I became more interested in creating a consumer base that would support a butcher shop like that.”


Michael Dulock | GALDONES PHOTOGRAPHY

SUCH A SHOP DOES EXIST, TUCKED BEHIND A NONDESCRIPT STOREFRONT IN SOMERVILLE, MASS., WHERE THE ONLY SIGNAGE IS A LITTLE VINYL DECAL PLASTERED ON THE DOOR THAT READS M.F. DULOCK — PASTURE-RAISED MEATS.

People are drawn in either by word of mouth or by the meat being swiftly broken down in the windows running the length of the shop.

“The modern butcher shop harkens back to the 1940s. We’re more than a place to buy meat. We’re a community center,” the store’s proprietor, Michael Dulock, explains. This is from a guy whose mother had three butcher shops in the weekend rotation; Paul’s Cold Cuts in Everett, MA was like religion, he says. They were there every week. “For a long time, as a culture, we got away from that, and started gravitating towards big box stores where everyone’s nameless and faceless but you can get whatever you want. You can walk in any day you want and pick up 100 lbs of hanger steak if you wanted to. That’s not the shop we wanted to build.”

The shop they did want to build has now been open since 2012. It represents his sophomore foray into the meat world after the closure of Concord Fish & Prime, which he owned with his father and brother. “I always tell people that I got into the meat business by accident,” he says. He usually starts the story this way, because in Boston, the Dulock name is synonymous with seafood; that market in Concord was originally meant as a fish market, but a little extra square footage landed him squarely in the meat business for the first time in his life.

“I had never cut meat anywhere but my plate. But if you can use a knife, you can cut meat out of a box,” he explains. He hired an experienced butcher, who eventually left to do his own thing. Left wanting to enhance his skills, he started ordering pigs and lambs from a slaughterhouse. “I would just have at it with what I had observed...there were hundreds of hours of YouTube videos and reading books and cutting fingers.”

In 2008, 90% of his customers were asking for the boxed stuff, USDA Prime meat. By 2012, as he prepared to open his own butcher shop, the pendulum had swung the other way. The demand for local, grass-fed animals was off the charts. To hear him tell it, it was a pivotal moment in his career.

“We decided we wouldn’t sell any commodity meat. We wouldn’t do anything but the whole animal,” he says. “It was definitely the most challenging direction, and it’s not the quickest path to profitability. But this is larger than that. This is a philosophical difference in eating. In order to do that, you have to live it.

“For me to say that there’s less value in a beef shank than there is in a tenderloin is just foolish. That animal was slaughtered and brought to market,” he adds. “There’s no part of it that should be wasted.”

The decision led to the creation of a meat club program, which operates a bit like a nose-to-tail CSA. Once a month, members receive five pounds of meat, containing anything “from trotters to tenderloin.” It was slow to take off; again, people had to be convinced. Dulock calculated that all they would need was ten people a week. Ten people, and they were in business. Two years later, there’s a hefty waitlist.

“I’ve never been preachy. I’ve never looked down my nose at someone who prefers to eat tenderloin. It takes all kinds,” he says. “What we do here is offer people a chance to eat the way we eat. If they choose to, that’s great. If not, there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Dulock is unequivocal in his beliefs, but wholly uninterested in passing any judgment, whether on his customers, farmers, his peers. He runs his business one way, but that’s that. Where others might sweat policy and activism, he tends to stay out of the fray. He is an intermediary between “conscientious carnivores” and the farmers they wish to support, not an evangelist seeking to convert the masses.“What I’ve realized is that there’s never one clear answer. Everything that you learn and everything you’re told in this industry is almost certainly open for interpretation,” he says. “The truth of the matter is, as small business owners, we’re reactionary. But you can be reactionary and be principled.”

It’s a distilled way of thinking, and of living. M.F. Dulock is a neighborhood shop that you can trust, that will teach you if you ask, and that exemplifies an ethical practice without a soapbox. It's hard to see how much more convincing we'd ever need. 

“I’m a butcher. I come to work every day, I cut meat, I talk to people. That’s what I do,” he says. “When there’s no longer a demand for doing what we believe to be correct, then the shop will close.”

By Cassandra Landry.

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