Decades ago, homemakers relied on a man in a tidy apron and a necktie to provide the perfect cut of meat for Sunday dinner and a stop at the local butcher shop was part of the regular shopping routine. Over time, grocery stores started offering a similarly packaged cuts and it was the friendly neighborhood meat man who was being cut out.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, year after year, the number of grocery store butchers has grown steadily while the number of specialty store butchers has struggled to add numbers. Last year, there were more than 94,000 butchers working in grocery store chains.
Comparatively, specialty store butchers only accounted for 13,500 jobs that year, but that’s up significantly from 2008, when the economy tanked. Since the economic crisis, specialty store butchers have grown in number at a higher rate than their chain store counterparts. And that’s not including self-employed butchers.
Folks started paying attention to the amount of money they were shelling out for services and slowly, some small, customer-service oriented stores (like florists, bakeries and butchers) made a comeback of their own. Some consumers felt they could get a sweeter deal or better quality from a craftsman than from a big chain store. Others liked the idea of supporting a small local business.
Whatever the root cause, boutique butcher shops saw an increase in demand. There are 2500 more specialty store butchers now than there were 5 years ago. By percentage, that’s a huge difference.
The New York Butcher Shoppe in the Midtown neighborhood of Atlanta is benefiting from that very trend. Located in an upscale neighborhood strip mall across the street from Piedmont Park, the store has been successful in the few short months it’s been open. It’s a chain store operated by a franchise in the Southeast.
“I hate the word chain,” co-owner Greg Wheat said while waiting on his brother-in-law Rick Wolfe. Along with Wheat's brother Rob, the three of them opened this location at the beginning of the year. Business is good.
“It’s a chain, but it’s great quality,” Wheat added.
The original New York Butcher Shoppe is in Charleston, South Carolina, owned and operated by Bill D’Elia, a Brooklyn native. D’Elia semi-retired to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Charleston 17 years ago and opened the New York Butcher Shoppe with his son four years later. The antiquated spelling was the younger Billy’s idea.
D’Elia got his start in the meat industry at 9 years old, when he was a bicycle delivery boy. In 1976 he opened his first shop. “I love taking care of customers” he said in his distinctly New York accent, "[I like] explaining to them how to use the cuts of meat, how to cook it.”
D’Elia sold the franchising rights in 2007, and now there are 12 units in five states across the Southeast. Franchise manager Jim Tindal finds that the ideal candidate for a new store has a culinary background with restaurant experience, is firmly entrenched in their community, and has a base to grow from. "We’re looking for smart business people," he added.
The franchisees are given up to four weeks of training in North Carolina, where they learn how to cut meat and run the shop. They get additional support and on-the-job training in the first few weeks after opening.
As self-described "big time neighborhood folks,” Wolfe and the Wheat brothers thought a New York Butcher Shoppe would be a great fit for the area. They carry USDA prime and choice cuts and make all of their prepared foods themselves.
"I really love what I do, I love preparing food," Rick said. "It’s very customer oriented, it’s a fun environment and we have a lot of repeat customers," some of whom he now considers friends.
Geoff Irwin of Shields Meat Market across town can relate. “I have more friends than customers. I’ve watched children grow up, their children are now buying meat from me."
His shop looks pretty similar to the New York Shoppe; both are set up similarly, carry items to make a full meal as well as a decent wine selection, and sell fresh cuts of meat. The difference is that Irwin has been cutting meat for more than 30 years and his store has been in operation for 65 years.
Shields is a smaller store, located almost inside a CVS drugstore in a smaller neighborhood. It moved to its current location 35 years ago after a grocery store there went out of business. Part of the deal to counter the loss of fresh produce was that Shields would carry as much as they could to make up the difference.
Like Bill D’Elia, Irwin got his start in New York as a stock boy in a grocery store. He was offered a position to learn how to cut meat. In those days you were a journeyman for five to seven years and wouldn’t cut a T-bone until after that. He was trained under the watchful eye of Carl Fassett who’d gotten a similar start in the business and worked his way up.
Irwin bought Shields Market in Atlanta at 23 and put his talents to work. “I was a good cutter, I have a knack for it. Knew it was hard work, but knew I wanted my own store,” he said, standing over a case of rib eye steak. “I cut for quality, not profit. Chains are working on volume, pushing it out as much as they can. I just buy the best I can buy and put a fair price on it. High volume isn’t my gain, it’s quality and taking care of people. Taste tells.”
To him, the difference between Shields and a boutique shop is in the cutting. “That’s where the art has changed. Most cutters today wouldn’t know what to do with a hanging cut of beef.”
He knows that there’s enough room in the market for both types of shops, but hopes that his loyal customers remember his experience when picking a place to get their steaks. “Anything you buy from me is going to be different from anywhere else. I love keeping this whole butcher shop open. Very proud I was able to do that.”
And despite the tough economy, Irwin has a positive outlook. “You’ll always have a job, you just might not be a millionaire.”
He tends to tear up when he talks about his mentor Carl, “He’d be proud. I don’t have to make the money, it’s very gratifying to hear people brag on you. That’s what keeps it going. I wanted to hold my own.”