— TLE - Walk up to the counter at Rain Shadow Meats and you may feel like you are entering a bygone era: A shiny white case is packed full of beef, sausages, poultry and pork, the prices and farm of origin hand-scrawled on labels atop each cut.
Take a few more steps and you’ll see something even less common in our modern lives: A whole pig hanging from a meat hook and visible through a window to the shop’s narrow walk-in refrigerator.
“A lot of people, they see those pigs hanging in there and they’re taken aback,” said Russell Flint, the 31-year-old owner of the Seattle butcher shop, which opened earlier this year.
But he has no plans to move the pigs. If anything customers should expect to be greeted by more recognizable slabs of meat in the future — that’s why there’s a meat hook rail running behind the counter and into the refrigerator.
“I wanted people to see that their food is coming from an animal,” Flint said. “We don’t have any connection to our food anymore.”
Meet the new twist on the old-fashioned butcher. A small but growing number of retailers who are aiming to do for meat what others have done for lettuce, tomatoes and eggs: appeal to foodies and locavores who want to be more connected to their food, and to consumers concerned about health, the environment and treating the animals we eat more humanely.
These new-age butchers, largely operating in big metropolitan areas on either coast, say that despite the weak economy they are seeing demand for pricier beef, pork and poultry raised nearby on small farms with a minimum of additives like artificial hormones and antibiotics. But slinging meat is a bit more complicated than offering heirloom tomatoes or wild blueberries at the local farmers market.
For one thing, meat demands a bigger chunk of your paycheck: A customer can easily spend as much in one trip to the meat counter as they might otherwise spend for a whole week’s worth of groceries.
For another, while many customers say they want to know more about where their food comes from, the gory details about meat can be tough to take, no matter how humanely the animal has been treated.
“People definitely ask me how they’re processed, and there’s no real easy way (to describe it),” Flint said. “It is what it is. They want to know how it was slaughtered in the field and it was fed birthday cake or whatever.”
This new breed of butchers — and their customers — also are grappling with how to define this meat as different from the pre-packaged kind you find on traditional grocery store shelves. Some terms, such as “certified organic,” are narrowly defined by the USDA, but others, as “sustainable” and “local” mean different things to different butchers. Even the term “natural” carries a very broad USDA definition.
Ryan Ford, co-owner of The Organic Butcher in Virginia, said that when they first opened their doors nearly five years ago, butchers regularly spent 20 to 30 minutes with first-time customers explaining where the meat came from, how the animals were raised and what terms like “grass-fed” mean.
And despite its name, many of the local farms that supply The Organic Butcher have decided to stop trying to meet the government’s tough organic requirements. The company instead focuses on making sure the meat is free of antibiotics and added hormones, and humanely raised in the local area, co-owner Don Roden said.
Employees of The Organic Butcher, which operates two shops in McLean and Charlottesville, Va., also spend a lot of time doing what the old-fashioned butchers used to do — offering advice on cooking, portion sizes and the like. That type of interaction has largely gone away in big grocery chains, many of which don’t even have a butcher counter anymore.
Other new-era butchers say education has been a key to growing the business.
“We’ve got to teach people why it’s different and why it’s better,” said J’Amy Owens, chief executive of Bill the Butcher Inc.
The Seattle chain only opened last year, but already it has five butcher shops and plans to open at least two more. Owens is a former retail consultant who likens the emergence of high-end meat to the previous growth of categories like local wine and gourmet coffee.
“This trend seems like those to me,” she said. “It’s an ancient commodity that is changed by how it’s presented to the consumer.”
Owens said as more people are able to see and taste the difference between locally grown meat from animals raised without added hormones or antibiotics and regular grocery store meat, she expects they’ll be willing to keep paying the price premium.
“After you have a latte, you rarely go back to Folger’s drip,” she said.
Owens, whose co-owner is William von Schneidau, aka Bill the Butcher, said the company needs to expand aggressively for its business model to work. For the first nine months of this year, Bill the Butcher Inc., lost $665,281 on revenue of $476,258. The company reports its financial results because it trades publicly as an over-the-counter stock.
Christopher Raines, an assistant professor of meat science at Penn State University and a self-professed “meat geek,” said that for now these new-era butchers are mainly popping up in big cities along both coasts, where a local food movement has taken root.
"We’re developing this new concept of food values: Where they come from, how animals are raised,” he said.
Given the weak economy, Raines said it’s hard to predict how far the butcher movement will spread. But he said the customer desire to know more about meat is clear. Even big meat producers are incorporating language like “sustainable” into their marketing materials and trying to put a more human face on their operations, he said.
These new butchers face tough competition from cheaper grocery meat as well as upscale chains like Whole Foods that do have in-store butchers and offer meat without additives.
Flint, the owner of Rain Shadow Meats, actually got his start at the Whole Foods meat counter before going to work at a restaurant. He opened the butcher shop, which shares space with other food retailers in a cavernous former body shop, using a Small Business Administration loan and the backing of his parents.
Although he was nervous at first that customers would get sticker shock, so far he said the higher prices have not seemed to scare away customers who believe in the type of meat he sells.
On a recent weekday morning, preschool teacher Michael Washington biked up to Rain Shadow Meats to buy a couple pounds of beef chuck — at $6.49 a pound — which he was planning to use to make goulash. The same cut was selling for $3 less per pound at a nearby chain grocery store.
Washington, 30, said he can’t afford to buy high-end meat all the time. But he said his girlfriend has persuaded him that it’s worth it to at least occasionally invest in meat that is grown locally on small farms and with fewer additives. It’s not just because it might be healthier or taste better.
“(She says), ‘Shouldn’t you be paying more? This is the life of an animal that you’re using,’” Washington said.