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Being a butcher
How the profession has evolved

06/15/17
By Kelly Sennott ksennott@hippopress.com



 New Hampshire butcher shops with meat hanging from the ceiling are history, said Billy Steeves, manager at the Prime Butcher in Hampstead. Instead, butchers today are kind of like curators, presenting quality beef, chicken and pork in the best way.

 
Becoming a butcher
Historically butchery was something you’d learn via an apprenticeship, but today people enter the vocation through many different doors. 
Some jump in because it’s a family business; the Prime Butcher, for example, is a fourth-generation enterprise, owned by Steve George Jr. (His father, Steve George Sr., owns the Prime Butcher in Windham, and his uncle, Christopher George, owns Mr. Steer Meats in Londonderry.) Steeves has a culinary background, having studied at Johnson & Wales University and worked at a restaurant before starting in Hampstead about seven years ago.
Rob Darling, co-owner of Concord Beef and Seafood, said his butchery education happened while he was working in the seafood department at Dole & Bailey in Woburn, Mass. There, he befriended the “meat guys” before starting his Concord business with Al Smith and Michael Souffron 13 years ago.
“I was lucky enough to work for a place where they’d let me wander into the cutting room, poke around and ask a ton of questions,” Darling said. 
Goodbye to Rocky
In New Hampshire butcher shops, chances are good you won’t find animal parts hanging from the ceilings anymore — it’s not like Rocky, said Steeves.
Butchers are no longer taking meat straight from the animal and preparing it for customers. Since the ’70s and ’80s, most local shops work from boxed meat ordered from western or midwestern processing facilities, vacuum-sealed shut until ready to be cut and sold. 
“This way, not a scrap of the animal is wasted. The big meat companies, they get to make money off every little part they’re processing. With the individual butcher, we get just the parts we want. We’re not paying for the whole weight,” Darling said. (Plus, they don’t have to fill their cooler with a whole cow.) 
People who do butchery work — slaughtering and processing meat — do exist in New Hampshire (for example, there’s Lemay & Sons in Goffstown) but they’re few and far between. 
“It’s not really butchery anymore — what the actual job is is what they call meat cutting. If I were to hire somebody coming in off the street, they wouldn’t apply for a butcher’s job. They would apply for a meat cutter’s job,” Steeves said. 
 
Day-to-day
“The art in what I do now is managing the business, which is the most challenging thing, because in the last five years beef prices have gone crazy, whether it’s because of the drought or the demand for beef rising overseas. It’s an expensive product,” Darling said. 
Attention to detail is important in today’s butcheries. Customers expect meat to be pristine, and so Steeves said many man-hours go into trimming, tenderizing and marinating (via a vacuum tumbler, which marinates meats fast). There’s lots of back-and-forth between vendors, with the goal of selling only the best, free of hormones.
“Generally, grocery stores cater to the masses. We cater to people who are looking for something a little better, higher-quality. We deal exclusively with upper choice and prime grade meat,” Steeves said.
But the stuff is expensive, and so running a butcher shop also means strategizing how much to buy and when to put it out.
“Once you break the seal, time is ticking. The beef is going to start to brown; you want to sell that within a day. We have super-tight controls over how many steaks are on the tray and when they’re open,” Darling said.
Steeves said the Prime Butcher also offers cooking tips to customers.
“Christmas is huge because a lot of people do prime rib — but they’ve never cooked prime rib. Or turkey. So I actually spend a lot of my days Christmas week with a Sharpie writing those directions right on the packaging,” he said. 
 
Community shops
Probably most characteristic of these butcher shops is their small-town feel. 
“There’s definitely a community aspect to a butcher shop, which you don’t always get in a grocery store,” Darling said. “If you know the guy behind the counter, you know you’re not getting five-day-old beef. When you’re buying food, you want to be confident in the food you’re buying, especially if it’s something expensive like beef or fish. … And as a butcher shop, we need the support of the community. We can’t have people come in just once in a while.”
Steeves said he knows many customers by their name or regular order. 
“You have to really like dealing with customers. A lot of our customers we see five times a week. … This is a small town. Everybody who’s driving, coming home from work, will stop in and say, ‘What looks good tonight?’” Steeves said. “It’s the same people, night in, night out, week in, week out. It’s cool. They get to know you, and you get to know them.” 





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