For your holiday dinner, would you like a tri-tip roast, a crosscut shank, shoulder pot roast? Ask your butcher.
Or maybe not.
Over the past few decades, the butcher shops in and around Madison have turned into quick-stop meat counters, offering pre-stuffed and marinated cuts in smaller portions. Instead of breaking down an entire animal and trying to use every piece, stores like Ken’s Meat Market in Monona and groceries like Whole Foods receive boxes of beef, pork and chicken, already cut into parts.
Local butchers say the shift is a response to what customers want. And when it comes to meat, they don’t want it all.
“When I first started 32 years ago, we had round steak, rump roast, pork hocks, chicken livers, gizzards, things like that. Everything that you would normally cut off the cow, chicken, we’d have it here,” said Joe Mazzara, manager of Ken’s. “You couldn’t do that now because of the quantity that you move through, of tenderloins and things like that. People love the filet mignon.
“The family of 2012 is, ‘Take it home, throw it in the oven.’ We’re trying to make it as easy for the customer as possible.”
Since the holidays are a time when families might splurge on prime rib that feeds 12 or a crown roast of pork — or, perhaps, a time to make that meal dollar stretch as far as possible — it’s good to know where to find a butcher to ask for help and advice.
An alternative to fast food
The vast majority of butcher counters in the Madison area, including grocery stores (Jenifer Street Market, Metcalfe’s Sentry) and dedicated meat counters (Jacobson Bros. Quality Meats & Deli, Knoche’s Food Center & Butcher Shop) do most of their business in prepackaged, frozen meat that is shipped in from other states.
Occasionally a store might get a primal cut, in which the cow is cut into roughly eight pieces, including chuck, rib, loin, shank, flank and brisket. More common are the smaller subprimals, like top round, tenderloin and rib-eye.
The meat comes from all over the country. Iowa is a major source for pork. Chicken often comes from Perdue or Mountaire Farms, both based on the East Coast. Beef may come from several sources in the Midwest. (Most butchers couldn’t say an exact state.)
“Years ago we used to get sides in,” said Mike Maier at Knoche’s on the west side, referring to a quarter or a half of a cow that has been slaughtered and cleaned.
“Boxed beef is already sectioned off. You get a whole rib in and you cut the steaks out to get the rib-eyes,” Maier said. “Or you get a whole loin in and we cut the t-bones and porterhouses from the loin.
“I don’t get into the shoulder meat at all.”
The chicken at Knoche’s comes from Georgia, but Maier said that all the beef he sells is raised in Cottage Grove or Door County. The shop, which does a brisk wholesale business to restaurants, sells a fair number of Wisconsin-raised ducks and geese as well.
“Our clientele like bone-in as much as possible,” Maier said. “It gives the meat a lot of flavor and keeps the meat moister in the cooking process.”
That’s not true for most customers at Jim’s Meat Market and Deli, a north side shop that positions itself as an alternative to Culver’s.
“You don’t always want to stop in at a fast food restaurant” for a quick weeknight meal, said Jim’s co-owner John Lehman.
“People don’t have the time,” Lehman said. “You want to make a healthy meal, but I have about 15 minutes to make a meal when I get home.”
Jim’s has been around for 37 years, and “we’re trying to evolve,” Lehman said. Portions are smaller, because families aren’t as big. The market for convenience is smaller, faster-cooking cuts. He runs five specials a week on quick meals, like beef hot dogs, premade chili, shredded cheese and buns, or an already-prepared meatloaf in a take-out pan.
“Everybody used to cook whole chickens; now it’s all boneless, skinless chicken breasts,” Lehman said. “We sell some (whole birds), but it’s like 1 percent.”
The premade items and fresh sausages (including 30 kinds of bratwurst) are how Jim’s tries to distinguish itself.
“We are so small,” Lehman added. “There are so few meat stores like this left. We’re trying to make something that they (customers) can’t get in a grocery store.”
Jerry Stoddard has run Stoddard’s Country Grove Market and Catering in Cottage Grove for more than 20 years. He’s seen some of the same changes in the meat industry that his colleagues mention — people are looking for convenience, even if that convenience is ultimately more expensive.
“There used to be a lot more people stocking their freezer with a quarter of beef, or a side of beef, or half a pig,” he said. “They’d fill it up and have meat for four months or six months. But you have to plan — if you want to cook a chuck roast, you have to pull it out three days ahead.”
What he stocks has changed “because of customer demands. People are getting away from the bone and the skin.”
Stoddard’s processes venison — deer cleaning season was just concluding during a recent visit — and takes apart some whole cows and pigs raised by local farmers once the animals have been slaughtered elsewhere.
Because of the latter, Stoddard can sometimes get in specialty items like leaf lard, a kind of pork fat that is excellent for baking pies. But smaller portions of subprimal cuts, as well as housemade bratwurst sold at Woodman’s and at Madison Mallards games, are still a main part of his business.
“If we were still doing cut and wrap, I would have closed up 10 years ago,” Stoddard said. “I had to venture into new ways of making money. You’ve got to change with the times. You can’t stay how you were 20 years ago, 30 years ago.”
There’s little demand for grass-fed beef, organic or free-range chicken at places like Jim’s and Ken’s. Stoddard said he’d rather leave sustainable but more expensive steaks to those who do them well.
“There are a couple places in Madison that have a niche into that market,” Stoddard said. “I kind of let them do that — I don’t have much demand for it out here. If I have someone calling looking for it, I send them to the Willy Street Co-op.”
Among the pre-marinated steaks and boneless breasts are a few butchers who want to return to methods most have left behind. One is Bartlett Durand, manager at Black Earth Meats west of Madison. Black Earth is both a meat processing facility (slaughterhouse) and old-style butcher shop, sourcing meat to restaurants and local groceries.
“The pure butcher shop where everything comes from whole animals is a broken model these days, because consumers aren’t willing to be flexible,” Durand said. “We’ve thrown some odd things out in our fresh counter, and no one buys it.
“Now we say, call ahead and we’ll get you anything you want. Artamos Meats, they ran into that years ago — they tried to do different things, and the only things people would buy were tenderloins and rib-eyes and strips.”
In addition to wholesale accounts, Black Earth addresses the issue of our collective unwillingness to experiment by creating a buyer’s box, similar to a meat CSA (community supported agriculture).
Customers pay $75 or $100 per month for a wholesale-priced box of cuts chosen by Black Earth’s butchers. Options include organic, grass-fed and “grandpa’s way” — cows raised locally on small farms.
“We’re trying to slowly re-educate people,” Durand said. “We always put an ‘odd’ thing in (the buyer’s club box), whether it’s a flat iron or a tri-tip or a hanger steak, something that is different, to introduce the concept to them.”
The club, which Durand calls “an education and outreach tool” (and “an awesome Christmas gift”) lets Black Earth balance its inventory and “introduce new things.”
The problem with a meat-eating public that only wants six or seven of the 29 cuts of beef is the rest of those cuts have to go somewhere, like into sausage or ground beef, Durand said.
“Everybody considers ground beef super cheap,” he said. But “the more things you have to add into it, the more expensive it gets. You get this weird feedback loop.
“If I could sell every one of the 29 cuts, I’d have triple the profit margin. It’s better for everyone to eat as wide a variety as possible. It keeps all the costs down across the board.”
For the past six weeks, Fountain Prairie Farms in Fall River and Roller Coaster Farms in Darlington have provided the half a steer weekly to Underground Food Collective’s new butcher shop on Williamson Street.
When it arrives, butchers Michael Signorelli and Mathias Krueckeberg dismantle the beef as fast as they can and pack it into a refrigerator. Customers can watch the process, which happens behind the meat counter most Tuesdays.
“This rib-eye wouldn’t even look like this coming into a grocery store,” Signorelli said, picking up a large, slightly oxidized piece of beef. “But that’s what meat looks like. It’s not always pretty and red.”
Underground Butcher gets chickens from Nami Moon Farms and lambs from Roller Coaster Farms. They’re currently committed to “not supplementing,” which means they won’t order boxes of just one cut of meat.
Whey-fed, acorn-finished pigs from Uplands Dairy go first to Underground’s charcuterie makers on East Main Street, where shoulders and hams become cured meats like coppa, salami, ’nduja (spreadable, spicy pate) and culatello (similar to prosciutto).
“We basically opened the butcher shop to have a place to sell pork chops,” joked Johnny Hunter, a founder of the collective.
Signorelli and Durand agree that when shopping for “feast-worthy” protein, the best thing to do is decide how you want to cook — roast, smoke, grill, braise — and ask the butcher what he or she has in stock.
“If you tell me in advance what you want to make, or what you want it to look like, or what you want it to taste like, I can probably sort it out,” Signorelli said. Most butchers like at least 48 hours to make sure they can help.
“The answer isn’t, go to your local butcher and find this odd cut,” Durand said. “Find the butchers who are using local, healthy animals, sustainable. Come in and say, ‘I want to do a roast. What do you have?’ Then you’re in great shape.”