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.
"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.
"I don't even know where you'd get them," said Backstone. Both he and Baitz grew up butchering whole animals on giant wooden blocks. Although butcher shops opening in New York, Boston, and Berkeley are doing just this, the demand is not here. Meat at South Florida butchers arrives daily in vacuum-packed boxes from Colorado Beef or Grand Western distributors and wholesalers.
While butcher shops get vacuum packs, restaurants and hotels order whole animals from local farms, a parallel to the trend that's fueling the renaissance of the corner butcher elsewhere. Jim Wood of Palmetto Creek Farm has raised heritage pigs, for example, for Miami-based restaurants in Marriott, Renaissance, Ritz-Carlton, and Hyatt hotels since 2004. Wood raises pigs instead of cows because it's less expensive. "I have a breed that can withstand this Florida heat," he said.
Although Backstone and Cunningham worry about the fate of their shops, Crumbaker's concern is more pronounced. Though younger folks are working in and opening butcher shops in big cities, the enthusiasm for the profession doesn't exist among the younger generation here. Crumbaker points to an employee behind the counter. "See that guy? He's 28. He's the only one who's even interested. He's the only one I've got."