South Florida Butchers Hope a Return to Local Means Their Survival

Mike Baitz hulks over a butcher block, making small talk with the customer behind him at the Meating Place West butcher shop in Boca Raton. He trims fat with a chef's knife and wraps a pair of steaks with ease. Like the block that shows the wear of everyday use, his sprawling hands and callused palms reveal his life's vocation: the craft of butchery.

Mike moved from Akron, Ohio, to South Florida ten years ago to practice what he knows best: the rituals of his family business without the weight and worry of one. His brothers Jack and Tim soon followed.

Like their grandfather and father before them, they're butchers too. Jack works at the sibling to the Meating Place East on Palmetto Road owned by Del Valeray. Tim wields a cleaver at Publix in Spanish River. Even Mike's son has became a butcher, splitting his time between the two Meating Places.

Crumbaker makes sweet Italian sausage at Smitty's Old Fashioned Butcher Shop.
Crumbaker makes sweet Italian sausage at Smitty's Old Fashioned Butcher Shop.

Location Info

Map

Mediterranean Market

1021 E. Las Olas Blvd.
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301

Category: Retail

Region: Fort Lauderdale

Details

Smitty's Old Fashioned Butcher Shop, 1980 NE 45th St., Oakland Park. Call 954-771-9341.

The Meating Place East, 227 E. Palmetto Park Road, Boca Raton. Call 561-368-1191.

The Meating Place West, 3013 Yamato Road, Boca Raton. Call 561-241-3858.

Mediterranean Market, 1021 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-463-1212.

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"Lou, I forgot what you told me," said a lithe, manicured woman with straight black hair who had hurried inside after having just left.

Louis Backstone, the owner, bought the Yamato location from Valeray four years ago after leaving his position of ten years as executive chef of New York's Il Mulino. "Put the potatoes in the oven at 350 degrees for an hour," said Backstone, a middle-aged guy in a white coat and glasses who looks more like a doctor than a butcher. "And call me if you need anything."

Backstone and the Baitz family are taking a risk: They're banking that the art of butchering is here to stay. Having found something satiating in their craft — something beyond food that connects them to family — they're investing in the revival. Because restaurants and celebrity chefs have been emphasizing local and artisanal ingredients, the butcher renaissance is in full swing elsewhere and in its nascence in South Florida.

There's good reason for a revival of the craft. Butchers connect us to cultural traditions of the people in our neighborhoods. They provide better cuts of meat and decrease our reliance on mega-agribusinesses. And let's face it: There's nothing like the personal interaction. When the butcher learns your preferences, he's the one who carves cuts as you like them, who calls when something special arrives, and who helps expand your culinary repertoire.

Yet the local food movement is just taking hold here, so there's not a surge in demand for butcher skills and products. Butchers face competition from big-box retailers and wholesalers who undercut their prices. Yet many South Florida butchers are finding ways to survive and even flourish.

At my grandfather's butcher shop in Somerville, Massachusetts, my grandfather and his staff made more than 50 varieties of sausages and hot dogs for restaurants and shops in the Boston area. My dad logged summers during college at the shop, and my uncle worked there for decades. After they sold the company in the '80s, it soon closed, as artisanal food shops were swapped out for the convenience of supermarkets. Why so many sausages? He was catering to the panoply of Germans, Italians, and Polish immigrants around the city in search of flavors from home.

At the Meating Place, Backstone caters to mostly Jewish and Italian customers. One woman orders a Sicilian braciole of beef, hardboiled eggs, and raisins. "It's real Italian stuff," he said. Another asks for a pinwheel: an Italian specialty of flank steak, spinach, and Parmesan.

Accommodating people's demand for prepared foods has helped Backstone's profits, which surged 40 percent when he introduced them. After recouping the costs of his investment, this year, he's breaking even.

Prepared foods also allow Mediterranean Market on Las Olas to fight against the recession. So while younger people may purchase lunches to go or a couple of servings of eggplant parm, loyalists of the 30-year-old shop still buy shrimp, stone crabs, filets, lamb, and veal.

"Our clientele is older," says Cindy Cunningham, general manager for Louis Ferris Jr., who bought the place four years ago and lives in Michigan. "We bring in younger people with prepared foods and winetasting. But somehow, we have to figure out how to educate the next generation on what and why to order from the local butcher."

Unlike the Meating Place, Mediterranean Market also caters to one-percenters, tourists, and yachties who come in every couple of months with specific requests. "They want their fish filleted, the skin taken off," said Cunningham. "They want their meat quartered and sectioned and Cryovac'ed. They don't want to have to use a knife at all. That's our job."

Prepared foods are virtually absent at Smitty's Old Fashioned Butcher in Oakland Park, where sawdust coats the hardwood floor. A handful of customers stands in line, waiting for a pair of women to tend to their order. Owner Dave Crumbaker's shop is the most traditional in the area. He's the butcher who knows which customer likes what, an understanding culled through decadeslong relationships. Crumbaker talks to a young, lanky man in the corner. "I love this guy," the customer says of Crumbaker. "I've known him since I was a kid."

At Smitty's, customers aren't in search of adventure. "The Rolls-Royce cuts are what sells," said Crumbaker, a tall, lean man with a wisp of gray and bright-blue eyes. Despite that pork sees brisk sales in big cities, here, it's beef: lean fillets, porterhouses, Delmonicos, dry-aged strip. High-end requests are one reason Crumbaker wouldn't break down whole hind quarters even if he could order them.

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30 comments
MD
MD

Smitty's is an institution well worth celebrating, and more inpoirtantly, supporting.  the quality of the meat, wine and other products is only surpassed by the quality of David and his wonderful staff.

Denise Reynolds
Denise Reynolds

Smitty's is the real deal. Nobody does it better than Dave.

Robyn Medlin
Robyn Medlin

Great article. I hope these butchers survive, there is nothing like getting a great custom cut piece of meat and also supporting the local community. 

MikeMoskos
MikeMoskos

There is a whole lot of frozen grass fed/pastured meat being sold in South Florida. If these butchers could get some and sell it fresh, they'd have a whole lot of new customers. 

 
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