The Butchers of Washington
When Red Apron Butchery announced in February that it would open a couple of local butcher shops this fall, including one in the District, I was thrilled. All things considered, I prefer my meat locally sourced and ethically raised—and to buy it from someone who can give me tips about the best cut for my recipe. That’s meant schlepping to Eastern Market, visiting the upscale Wagshal’s boutique in Spring Valley, or buying meat from a cooler at a farmers market.
Red Apron has spent most of its three years operating market stalls, in addition to supplying the various eateries owned by its backer, Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Its long-promised brick-and-mortar butcher shop, though, won’t be the only new option for meat devotees. Jamie Stachowski, whose cured meats and sausages are another staple of area farmers markets,recently opened a deli and charcuterie on P Street NW in Georgetown—with a small portion of the space devoted to fresh meats, such as whole Bell & Evans chickens and rib eyes from Martin’s Angus Beef in Virginia.
So it may seem a bit churlish to feel underwhelmed by the local butchery landscape. But considering the food culture that has blossomed here and the popularity of local nourishment, five outlets—assuming you count two Eastern Market stalls separately—doesn’t seem like a lot for a city of 600,000. Especially not when some of them are essentially charcuterie joints with a few fresh cuts.
Marissa Guggiana, co-founder of the Butchers Guild and author of Primal Cuts: Cooking with America’s Best Butchers, says the District ought to be seeing a much more robust butcher-shop renaissance. “There tends to be a common thread in that there’s an agricultural economy in the outlying area, the city where people have money to spend on food and there’s a culture of food appreciation,” Guggiana says of the types of places that are attracting butchers. “It’s just the natural thing for a butcher shop to pop up.”
Washington, where Pam “The Butcher” Ginsberg of Wagshal’s says the last of the old-school storefront butchers closed in the early 1980s, can check all of those boxes. And yet aspiring butchers have had a few false starts in recent years. Not long after I moved to Columbia Heights in 2005, whispers circulated that venerated D.C. chef Ann Cashion of Johnny’s Half Shell and formerly of Cashion’s Eat Place planned to open a butcher shop on 11th Street NW. Tentatively named Nineteen Butchers, the storefront was supposed to be adjacent to an eatery called Taqueria de Flores, according to two of Cashion’s partners, John Fulchino and John T. Manolatos.
I had Brooklyn-esque visions of exposed brick, knobby wooden beams, and rows of meat from organic, local, sustainable, grass-fed, non-hormone-fed animals that wear flower garlands. It wasn’t to be. “We couldn’t really secure a space that fit into the business model, and then the sale of Cashion’s to me [took] place right about that time,” Manolatos says. (The taqueria didn’t happen, either.)
Rumors also circulated in late 2008 that Jonathan Umbel would open a butcher shop connected with his now-closed Georgetown restaurant, Hook. This one had a working title, too: Mad Butcher. In the end, the sale of the desired building fell through, along with Umbel’s plans to open any butcher shops in the near future.
It’s not like there isn’t a market. Steve Gatward, owner of Let’s Meat on the Avenue, a storefront butcher shop in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood that sells free-range local meats and poultry, says he scoped sites in D.C. but found the prices too high before settling on his current spot in May 2008. “I have quite a few customers from D.C.,” he says. “They all say the same: I wish we had a butcher like you in D.C.”
One reason they don’t, unsurprisingly, is the cost of real estate. Bill Glasgow, owner of Union Meat Co. in Eastern Market, has been at the job for 51 years. He says that if he had to be an ordinary neighborhood business—as opposed to a retailer in a foodie destination like Eastern Market—he’d have gone the way of so many old-time District butchers. “If we all stood alone, we’d probably all be out of business,” he says.
Glasgow’s generation of butchers was decimated by the advent of the modern grocery economy, where meat prices are low thanks to centralized butchering operations. Twenty-first century butchers like Gatward are capitalizing on the backlash against that economy. Customers like me are wary of the corners a large chain might be cutting at its centralized processing facilities. By contrast, we yearn for the intimacy of a relationship with a specific butcher who can vouch for the quality and provenance of the meat.
“What we’ve seen [at farmers markets] is that people will make an extra stop for a difference in quality,” says chef Nathan Anda, the driving force behind Red Apron. “There is also a trust that they are providing good, healthful food for themselves and their families when they buy fresh, local produce. If the same demand occurs in the meat industry, then the resurgence of butcher shops should continue.”
But this desire might not quite balance out the cost of doing business in a place like Washington. Selling meat at a farmers market or stocking a restaurant with naturally raised meat is one thing. A store—one that sells a highly perishable product and depends on people coming out rain or shine—is trickier. “It’s a totally different operation to run a retail store, because that’s what a butcher is. It’s a different animal,” Manolatos says. “You need to have meat everywhere and products everywhere…I’ve been into a couple in Boston and other places, and it is a pretty sad selection. You need to really fill that case.”
So what’s the answer? To hear Anda tell it, the key to Red Apron’s plans is its own form of centralized butchering. “With doing whole animals and the amount of curing and the styles of things we want to do with sausages and whole hams, it’s hard to put that in a retail spot,” he says. “We said, ‘Let’s just build a production facility that we can operate out of and grow into over the years.’”
They’re calling that facility “the commissary”; it’ll be the central place for breaking down whole animals, provided in part by the ubiquitous Bev Eggleston of EcoFriendly Foods in Moneta, Va. “That’s where the hot dogs will be made, the hams, the salamis, all the sausages,” says Anda.
Another hedge: Do a lot of stuff that doesn’t fit the description of a butcher shop. That’s what Wagshal’s does, after all. Anda’s description of the 3,600-square-foot downtown facility involves lunchtime sandwiches and, inevitably, lots of charcuterie. That may work on paper. But the higher the proportion of cured meat, the less I feel like I’m in an actual butcher shop.
Guggiana, alas, thinks this might be the butcher shop of the future, a hybrid of butcher, café, and salumeria: “There’s sort of a calculus that most shops figure out,” she says. “If you can serve something hot and serve things that are processed [like sausage] and you can sell fresh meat, that’s where you’re going to really make a good profit.”
She encourages me to find fortitude. “The slaughterhouses are falling apart, and the local distribution networks have crumbled. All that stuff is being rebuilt,” says Guggiana. “It just doesn’t happen instantaneously. We’ll need another generation to recover from that to be really functioning full force.”