Tuesday September 4, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- When Jeremy Stanton set about opening his all-local butcher shop, even the farmers he planned to buy meat from were skeptical the venture would pan out.

"There was quite a bit of, ‘Don't waste my time -- I'm a farmer,' " Stanton said. "What we're doing hasn't been done in such a long time that there's no model for it, the idea of a local butcher selling local meat. ... It's really not until now, a year later, that we're a business that's being taken seriously."

With that first year behind him, the proof is in the (blood) pudding: The Meat Market in Great Barrington has bought $250,000 worth of animals directly from local farmers, creating a new market for their livestock and, in some cases, allowing them to expand production and grow their herds.

In addition to winning over farmers, the shop has earned national attention in outlets like Food & Wine magazine, as well as a dedicated following of local customers, who say they appreciate not only that the meat Stanton sells tastes better, but that buying it supports local producers.

Ron Walter, of Egremont, is one of The Meat Market's converts -- the shop on Stockbridge Road is now the only place he buys meat in the Berkshires.

Shopping on Labor Day for some ground chuck to grill, he described the flavors as richer and more intense.

He pointed to a stack of smoked sausages in the case. "You know, once you've eaten a hot dog like this, you won't have a commercial one again unless you're forced to," he said.

Alongside the shop's local take on classics like ground beef, rib eyes and sausages are more exotic cuts you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere else stateside -- for example, picanha, a sirloin top capped with a thick, u-shaped rim of fat, is more commonly found in France or Brazil.

It's all part of the shop's ethic of taking a whole animal and breaking it down into the best possible cuts rather than the quickest possible cuts.

Butcher Jake Levin said that, in the case of the picanha cut, it would be easier to leave the whole sirloin together and sell it as one steak, which he said is what most other shops do. He said that by taking the time to split what are actually two separate muscles into two separate steaks, thus removing the tough membrane in between, he ends up with a better product.

"We're able to do that because we have whole animals and because we're passionate about meat and meat cutting and so we've taken the time to research what's the best way to deal with each steak," he said.

Farmers who sell to The Meat Market say they appreciate the care with which the shop treats their products.

Morgan Hartman, who owns Black Queen Angus Farm in Berlin, N.Y., said he spends two years raising steers before they're ready to sell.

"I know an animal pretty well after two years of caring for it," Hartman said. "Then to have that animal go as a commodity to some low-grade processor would be just absolutely stupid, let alone against my conviction. [The Meat Market], they treat the beef with respect."

Hartman said he sold 15 steers to The Meat Market last year -- a fifth of his herd. Hartman said the shop is planning for that number to go up to 30 next year and he is raising more stock accordingly.

"We're talking double the volume, just from my farm -- that doesn't even count other people's farms," he said. "That's a significant impact for the good."

Before The Meat Market opened, Hartman mostly sold directly to restaurants and at farmers markets. The shop, he said, has opened up to him a whole new retail market.

Stanton said that last year his business bought a total of 50 steers, 120 pigs and 50 lambs. The animals came from 24 different small farms, all within 100 miles of Great Barrington.

Fifty steers may not necessarily sound like many, but if you do the math, it breaks down to a lot of beef -- approximately 17,500 pounds worth of saleable product.

Stanton said that, despite an encouraging first year, the shop is not yet profitable as a standalone business. But he opened the market in conjunction with his established catering business, Fire Roasted Catering, which he said provides a ready cash flow.

He said he both made and learned a lot from many mistakes in his first year of business.

For one, you'll no longer find a whole lamb's heads in the meat case -- only traditionally appetizing pieces. (Though, for the record, Stanton maintains that they are "delicious like a lobster.")

And he said that after initially hiring "a traditional meat guy set in his ways," he now has a young, artistic and passionate staff in place.

The summer tourist season was busy, Stanton said, and he's looking at ways to keep up the momentum during the slower winter months. To that end, he's planning a series of dinners, events and cooking classes all geared toward locals. Schedules can be found at the shop's website: www.themeatmarketgb.com

"I'm very optimistic," he said. "I have a very positive outlook about the future."

To reach Ned Oliver:
noliver@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @NedOliver