The Loss of Neighbourhood Butchers

He sat across from me in a blood stained white jacket, his ball cap pulled down just above his eyes to shade his face. A man in a black leather jacket approaches and hands over a bundle of twenty-dollar bills, a few hundred dollars worth I’m guessing, maybe three-hundred, maybe even five. They talk chicken and bones then the man walks into the meat locker and closes the door behind him.

This is how business is done at Upper Cut Meats in the heart of the St. Lawrence Market. Bob Stoyanovski started working here to put himself through college. Then a change in circumstances put a butchers knife in his hand and he jumped in with a love for the business, the art of butchery and the neighbourhood appreciation for their butchers. Bob has been a butcher and now an owner of Upper Cut Meats for 36 years and the man in the black leather jacket is one of his trusted
customers where business is based on a handshake.

Bob is a natural butcher, he finds the sight of a well-aged steak as sexy as ever, the smell of fresh blood exciting and what he likes even more—his life, tightly intertwined into the fabric of the neighbourhood. Bob is the go-to meat guy in the St. Lawrence Market who has cultivated tight relationships with 38 restaurants, 57 caterers and countless regular customers; they get the best meat, Bob gets to be the best butcher.

“About forty years ago you would find a butchers shop on almost every street corner in the city,” laments Bob. Back in the mid 1970s, your friendly neighbourhood butcher was as highly regarded as the doctor or lawyer. But with meat so
easily available and seductively displayed at large grocery stores, most people have opted for one-stop shopping and have turned their backs on the relationship they once had with food, the people who grow it, raise it, harvest it and especially those that sell it. These are our greatest friends, our avenue to optimum health and our best access to food in its prime, in this case, meat.

I ask Bob about the future of butchery. “There aren’t many butcher stores so not many jobs left,” explains Bob, but is quick to add, “no one wants to be a butcher anyway. No one knows what good meat is anymore.” Bob explains how everyone thinks it’s romantic, even nostalgic to be a butcher, but butchery is a really difficult job involving the strength to lift a 220-pound carcass, the patience to be splattered with blood, the tolerance to smell raw meat and the stamina to slice and saw large volumes of meat in cold conditions. The days are long, it’s stressful and not so glamorous. “I start out with a clean white jacket at 5 a.m. every morning,” says Bob pointing to his blood stained overcoat.

But most of Bob’s customers know a little about meat, that’s why they come to a butcher, “they know we have the best. It’s the job of a butcher to know what he’s doing.” Bob spends some of his time at abattoirs selecting the best carcasses, and that often means with some
aging. Then he hangs them in his cold storage where he ages them even longer. He makes sure his cuts are aged a minimum of three weeks, often more. Bob points to a few steaks that have a brownish ring near the outside edges. Like a fine wine, the brown ring eludes to aging.

Bob sees the future going towards more Halal and Kosher meats. “It’s the same price so why not,” he says. There’s more demand because of the growing populations.

But time has not been kind to butchers. With the expansion of supermarkets in the 1980s, huge hinds of meat were now starting to be cut at large packing facilities and distributed. This was the first departure away from butcher shops and away from butchers who were once as well compensated as plumbers and electricians.

Throughout the next decade butchers grew less and less relevant and the industry was no longer willing to pay well for a skill set that could be done more efficiently with general labourers at huge meat packing facilities. The devaluing of butchery as a trade coincided with people spending less and less time in the kitchen, consumers were losing their culinary skills and opting for one-stop shopping at grocery stores. Now, the neighbourhood butcher is almost extinct and consumers seldom understand the difference between a flank steak and a tenderloin.

Today we see chefs and artisan farmers learning a few butchery skills to offer consumers ‘nose to tail’ cuisine, but unfortunately this new interest hasn’t revived the profession. Today, grocery chains have taken over a market that once belonged to independent butchers.

Most grocery stores today have full service meat counters as well as ready-cut options available in large meat departments. The efficiencies of central cutting facilities means that meat can reach the consumer at a better price and for those who want a specific cut of meat, well, the full service counters have trained staff that will happily do it for you. Abe Van Melle is Resident Butcher and Technical Manager at the Canadian Beef Centre of Excellence (CBCE), owned and operated by
Canada Beef in Alberta.
Abe is a butcher at the heart of butchery worldwide.

Abe works with beef industries from all over the world from France to Argentina, China to Norway. “We’re all learning,” says Abe who goes on to give an example of French butchery. “The way they cut meat in France is different than Canada,” says Abe who explains they’ve learned that if they isolate a certain muscle in the shoulder of cattle, they can take an otherwise tough piece of meat and make it a tender piece just by the way it’s cut.

As quickly as our meat industry discovers new ways to bring us delicious cuts of meat, consumers would rather buy a steak in a restaurant than venture into a meat counter surrounded with choices never available to their grandparents. Today, we have more types and grades of meat with dozens of different varieties of cuts, thickness levels, grades and degrees of marbelling. It’s all a bit confusing for consumers.

To reacquaint consumers to the best way to enjoy meat, Canada Beef has developed a phone app called, Roundup (available for iPhone,
Android and iPad). This simple app is geared to helping consumers buy, cook and get more enjoyment out of every mouthful of beef. If you’re like most consumers who wander the meat department of a grocery store until you’re inspired by a great looking cut of meat.
Now you can instantaneously look up dozens of different ways to cook it complete with recipes. Then, while you’re still in the grocery store, you can pick up any other ingredients to make the recipe for dinner that night. It’s brilliant. Just search the Roundup app for your free download.

While our meat industry has become global, stronger and increasingly efficient with more choice in more places for consumers, it has also become less personal. While consumers are excited to have industry wide advancements like never before, we still pine for our neighbourhood butchers who put a trusted face behind the food we feed our families. It is a new world meat lovers so embrace it. Now get out your iPhones for that’s now the new way to choose a great piece of meat.

Written By Lynn Ogryzlo

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