How to Get the Best Service From Your Butcher

Go from Newbie to meat master.
09/16/2013 04:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Jessica Colle


"I want more fat." It was a request that Chris Eley, the co-owner of Goose the Market in Indianapolis, says he never used to hear. In fact, the entire phenomenon of stating precisely what you want and how you want it cut -- the gentle art of communicating across the butcher counter -- seemed to have skipped a generation (or two), as shoppers migrated away from full-service neighborhood butchers and toward minimal-service supermarkets.

Now, however, Eley says he's hearing that request again, along with other, more complicated ones. And he's not alone. More and more sustainable butcher shops, dedicated to breaking down whole animals, are opening their doors across the country, from Fleisher's in Brooklyn to Lindy & Grundy in Los Angeles. And customers are once again learning the lingo, quickly graduating from simple requests to more complicated procedures. You may already request pork chops cut two inches thick or prefer your lamb rib roast Frenched -- but that isn't all the mighty butcher can do with his (or, ever more frequently, her) cleaver.

It's time again for spatchcocked chickens, tri-tips on the grill, and fighting over the last lamb liver (after all, there's only so much to go around). It's also time for the butcher shop to become a pretty cool place to hang out a couple times a week. As Champe Speidel of Persimmon Provisions in Barrington, Rhode Island, put it: "People miss counters."

To find out how to go from newbie to meat master, we spoke to butchers across the country. Here's what they told us:

The Average Joe:

The first time you walk into a new butcher shop, sensory overload might set in. There are the stocked meat cases, of course, but (as in the case ) there might be much, much more: cases full of veal stock, bones, chicken feet, headcheese and even dog food.

Speidel says the average Joe "often gets the most attention," as he gets acquainted with the shop. And the best way for customers to do that, he says, is for them to ask, "What would you cook tonight?" or "What looks good today?" These questions, which seem so simple and quotidian, really do open doors to less-familiar cuts, like pork sirloins or lamb belly. Unlike butcher shops of old, many new butchers are professional chefs who serve cooking advice as well as meat. (Speidel himself was nominated for a James Beard Award for his cooking at his restaurant, also called Persimmon.)

"Don't feel trapped by what you think is the right thing to buy," says Jessica Applestone, co-owner of Fleisher's. "People are often limited by their imagination." For everyday, affordable meals she recommends ground lamb, boneless chicken thighs, and quick-and-easy pork cutlets.

She's also got some advice that might shock a younger generation: "Pick up the phone." She encourages potential customers to call ahead, ask what looks good, or what the butcher has cooked recently. But be wise about timing: "On a Saturday morning, when the farmers' market is outside the door and there's a long line, that's not the best time for a 20-minute chat," Applestone says.

Avoid the Saturday morning rush, come with a budget in mind and a general idea of what you want to do -- braise, roast, grill -- and after a chat or two with your neighborhood butcher, you will be a recognizable regular in no time.

SEE MORE: 25 Quick and Easy School Lunches to Pack for Your Kids

The Recognizable Regular:

"Like a good bartender, we know your order when you walk in the door," says Champe Speidel. The consistent regular receives extra perks, such as placing standing orders and calling ahead to arrange a pickup -- eliminating wait time.

"We will give a customer a call when a favorite hard-to-find item comes in," says Jeremy Stanton, of The Meat Market in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. "Some orders aren't even put in the case -- I keep them in the meat locker for my regulars. And I'm always ready with something special, like new charcuterie, to taste."

For Amelia Posada, of Lindy & Grundy, those special orders might be shabu-shabu cuts, porchetta, or experimental sausages. The recognizable regulars often get hooked up for birthdays or anniversaries. As Posada says, "I know you, your wife, your kids, your regular order, and what you might want to try." This familiarity reveals an important role of the recognizable regular: making the butcher shop a community center. It is a place for interaction and connecting with neighbors, not just for picking up dinner.

And it's that ongoing interaction -- bringing you into the butcher shop so frequently and with such enthusiasm--that lets you graduate to semi-official VIP status.

The VIP:

Customers might know the regular trimming, tying, and butterflying that the butcher is capable of, but what about special offers and services? Speidel mentions "access to secret products saved only for the restaurant." Eley sayys. "From alligator to antelope, if you don't see it in the case, we can get it." This opens the door to hard-to-find products such as acorn-finished pigs.

Very special customers are often treated like family. As Applestone describes it, "When we're done cutting and cleaned up for the day, we will still cut for a special customer." Posada treats her very special customers like family and even "invites them over to our house for a barbecue."

Your butcher might store a whole pig, rub it down with spices, and deliver it to your house (as Paesanos Meat Market in Brooklyn regularly does for editor Matt Gross's whole-animal barbecues). Your butcher can brine a pig or order half a steer on your behalf. Many of these shops also offer butchery classes, and some thank their best customers with complimentary tickets to pick up a knife and learn some of the craft.

Eley sums it up with: "If it's legal in the U.S., we will do it for our special customers."

New York-based writer Jessica Colley learned how to tie bresaola from her Italian grandmother who often frequented the local butcher shop. Follow her on Twitter @jessicacolley.