Professor's House

The Demise of the Meat Department and Loss of your Local Butcher

Progress may not be such a good thing. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. A lot of the things we do nowadays aren’t necessarily better than the ways they replaced…just more complicated. Of course, this is just the authors opinion, for what it is worth.

I am very sorry that young people today are unable to experience many of the things some of us older people got to enjoy. A simpler time, when a persons character was more important than how fast he/she could do something. A time when your neighbors were almost like family, and everyone looked out for each other. Those days are long gone. Modern attitudes are what contributed to the demise of the Meat Department and loss of your local butcher.

I am going to tell you of a different world. A world that existed 40 or 50 years ago. People were expected to have high morals and ethics. Everyone personally knew most everyone else in their neighborhood. The Policeman was not just a faceless entity behind the wheel of a patrol car. He walked the same streets everyone else did, and knew everyone by name. He was friendly and helpful, but tough when the situation called for it. He was a Peace Officer, rather than a paramilitary Rambo wannabe.

Businesses were different as well. When your car needed gasoline, you didn’t pull into a place that sold lottery tickets, beer, and had a stranger behind the counter, and automatic pumps, where you had to pay before you could pump your own gas. No, you pulled into a Service Station, where all they did was sell gas, and other car stuff, and when you pulled in, 3 or 4 people ran out, started cleaning your windows, and checked your tires, oil and other fluids while your car was being fueled. You never had to get our of your car, and all of the people knew you by name. Milk and eggs were brought to your doorstep, and when you went to a department store, the clerks actually knew everything about what they were selling, and would assist you in finding just what you needed.

And one of the best things about those times were the local butchers. Back then, the butcher shop got whole sides of beef, and they could custom cut whatever you wanted. If you needed a 12-pound roast for a large family get together, it was no problem. They could offer you advice on how to store and cook the different cuts. They would grind your hamburger to your specifications. And, they knew your name, and most of your family members. Everyone was a member of the community, and no one was anonymous. The goal was to provide service to customers, not just generate profits, or cut costs.

Then came…..the supermarket. This was the beginning of the demise of the Meat Department and loss of your local butcher. In order to get better prices, the new large supermarkets bought meat in large quantities. Meat Processors shifted their focus from neighborhood Butcher Shops to larger grocery stores, and began to ship meat in pre-cut cryovaced blocks. This allowed the stores to only order the cuts they wanted, and could sell quickly. This was still OK for the Butcher Shop, because it allowed them to also key on the cuts they wanted. But there was a down-side to it. It reduced the need for meat-cutters. As time went on, there were fewer and fewer skilled meat-cutters, and less people were learning the art. Now, if you needed a custom cut, you would be out of luck. The focus had shifted from providing a service, to selling inventory. Your specific needs took a back seat to the companies moving meat, and getting your money. Their convenience became more important than yours.

Now, we are into the next stage, where pretty much all meat is cut into individual cuts, and all the stores do it weigh and re-package it. Gone are the skilled meat cutters. Meat department employees are little more than store clerks these days, wrapping pre-cut meat and simply placing it on the shelves. Local Butcher Shops have been replaced by the Delicatessen in the grocery store, where pre-made lunch meats are simply sliced to order. Now, instead of getting advice on cheaper cuts of meat like ‘Merlot Steak’, and ‘Hanger Steaks’ when you’re on a tight budget, you are treated to a view of nothing but rows of plastic-wrapped foam trays.

Now, in the 21st century, all of our services are preformed by strangers. In many cases, people live next door to each other for years, and never know each others names. Seldom do you get ‘Service with a Smile’, anymore. The majority of our food is pre-measured, pre-wrapped, and pre-priced.

There may be a bright spot on the horizon. In some areas, public demand has brought back the local butcher shop. In places like New York, Boston, Berkeley, Indianapolis, Portland, and other cities, custom meat cutters are returning to the market, and the customers are responding. The faltering economy has created a renewed interest in cheaper cuts of meat not available through the mass-market model, such as pork bellies, oxtails, and trotters (pigs feet). Now, more and more local butchers are hanging out their shingles.

It’s too early to tell if this trend will can continue, but we can only hope. There is a renewed interest in all things involving empowerment, such as home gardens, canning, and pickling. Some stores are beginning to return their focus more towards customer service, in order to recover business lost to the internet. And people are beginning to take an interest in one another, once again. As long as these companies can realize an acceptable profit margin, maybe these trends will continue. Who knows? Maybe we can look forward to fresh milk and eggs on our doorsteps every morning, like we used to. It is possible that these trends could reverse the demise of the Meat Department and loss of your local butcher. Keep your fingers crossed.

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