Meatpaper one

They’ve Got Chops
The new school of old-school butcher shops

interview by Amy Standen
photo by Julio Duffoo


ORGANIC-FED PORK, raised on a small family farm in Northern California, for less than a quarter? The three women who run Avedano’s Holly Park Market in San Francisco felt obliged to paint over the “Ham: 22 cents per pound” sign when they took over the old Cicero’s butcher shop in June. But they’ve kept many of the shop’s other anachronisms, including the 16-foot ceramic deli counter, the wood-paneled walk-in freezer, and the mosaic longhorn on the floor. Blur your eyes a bit and it’s like you’ve gone grocery shopping in Mayberry.

When it opened in 1955, Cicero’s was one of the city’s many family-owned neighborhood butcher shops. It closed in the 80s, unable to compete with the big-chain supermarkets, and was mostly left to gather dust — that is, until Tia Harrison, Angela Wilson, and Melanie Eisemann started pestering the landlord for a lease.

The three women have all worked in restaurants (Harrison remains the executive chef at the San Francisco restaurant Sociale), but none had worked in a butcher shop before. They say the time-warp ambiance of the place alone was enough to inspire a career change. Eisemann and Wilson took out an equity loan on their house, and soon Avedano’s — rechristened in honor of Harrison’s Italian grandparents — was in business.

Harrison, Eisemann, and Wilson are reviving the role of the traditional neighborhood butcher — the kind who knows your kids’ names and can get a couple pounds of marrow bones for you on a day’s notice. Like others in the specialty meat business, they’re taking a gamble: Will customers forgo big-chain convenience? Will they pay a premium for meat that’s humanely and sustainably raised by small, often local ranchers? So far, so good, said Harrison and Wilson in a recent conversation with Meatpaper.

So what does a modern-day butcher do, exactly?
Harrison: It depends on whether you’re doing full sets. A full set is a carcass, a full cow. You can order a full set or a half set from the producer. It comes bled and gutted, and then — if we were to do them here, which we hope to at some point — we would break them down into primal cuts in our refrigerated room. Primal cuts are, say, a side of pork with the shoulder or butt attached to the chops. So right now, we buy primal cuts and divide them into the final pieces, like a pork tenderloin. We do have the old bone saw, we just have to get it running.

But being a butcher is a dying profession. Traditionally, the people you bought meat from were the people who cut it up. The big [meat suppliers] now do a lot of machine cutting. They put chickens on [conveyor] belts and a machine cuts them up. It’s much cheaper to do it that way, on an assembly line.

Some guy came in and said, “Wow, it looks so good in here, you couldn’t even tell that girls did it!” But I think people are more interested in the fact that the owners are working in the store.

And so that probably means that the people selling the meat don’t know a whole lot about what they’re selling.
Harrison: We hear that all the time from customers. More than anything else, they miss having someone who knows what they’re talking about. I grew up eating boneless skinless chicken breasts. Our parents were so into the supermarket shopping experience, where you get the same kinds of meat over and over again. People really lost the ability to cook a lot of things.

What do you know about the old Cicero’s?
Harrison: Our landlord is the son of the original family who owned the shop. What happened is that all of the parents who had bought meat from his parents when he was growing up here started to die or move away, and their kids started shopping at Safeway, until eventually the place shut down. This was more to them than a business. It was their community, their friends.

What did the place look like when you three arrived?
Wilson: There were lots of suspender brackets — like, old man’s suspenders — in the desk drawer. Bullets. And bullet holes in the glass.
Harrison: These guys were pack rats. We found bottles of schnapps wrapped in butcher paper. Old nudie pictures in a secret cabinet. Rolls of decades-old meat paper. Boxes of nails. They saved everything.

What’s your sense of what it was like to be a butcher back then?
Harrison: Well, the landlord told us that they never used to lock the doors at night. And they used to sell everything on credit.
Wilson: His first advice was that we should put sawdust on the ground, “cause if you shuffle your feet around, it’ll shine that floor real nice!” He read our business plan and said, “I don’t think it’ll work, but good luck!” It sounded too fancy to him.

Because what he learned growing up is that you have to be cheap in order to be competitive, right?
Harrison: Exactly. What we’re doing is kind of like what his family did before they got squeezed out by the Safeways. So when he sees us coming in here, trying to be old school, he thinks that’s a really bad idea. But it’s come full circle. People want to come in here because it’s so small.

So what’s the difference between what you sell and the meat that people can buy for much cheaper at the big supermarket chains?
Harrison: We’re not trying to compete with [the big stores] at all. We want to focus on the kinds of meat that people can’t ordinarily get. For example, we’re getting some buffalo ribeye in tomorrow from Colorado. We have some Kobe beef in. And we’re getting duck, marrow bones, sweetbreads, quail. I’m starting to get different kinds of things, just in little increments to see how they sell.

When customers come in here for the first time, what do they want to know?
Harrison: You can’t sell anything without people asking where it comes from, what’s in it. Everyone’s trying to support local farmers and local producers. Many of them care less about what the animals ate than how they were treated. The meat we carry is either all natural — which is no hormones, antibiotics — or grass-fed or free-range. So I think that’s all within the bounds of humane, or as humane as killing animals can be.

Do people comment on the fact that you’re three women opening a butcher shop?
Harrison: Well some guy came in and said, “Wow, it looks so good in here, you couldn’t even tell that girls did it!” But I think people are more interested in the fact that the owners are working in the store. That makes them more inclined to talk to us. That’s the problem with meat markets now, there’s no knowledge. That’s what butcher shops used to have, and that’s what people are going back towards.


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue One.



Photo by Julio Duffoo