Last year, just before Christmas, Salt & Time co-owner Ben Runkle got a call from Iben Kadri, a member of the Danish Club of Austin who was in charge of tracking down the meat for their annual Christmas party. This was a very particular cut of meat, a pork roast left on the rind that's often the star of the traditional Danish Christmas celebration Julefrokost. In previous years, Kadri had ordered the pork roast to be shipped in from a Nordic specialty food store in Berkeley. She'd also once tried another local butcher, who had gotten it wrong, leaving the fat on and the rind off. Then she found Salt & Time.
Not that the restaurant/butcher shop normally leaves the rind on a pork roast either. But Runkle and his business partner Bryan Butler have built Salt & Time's reputation on the promise of custom cutting. Not only did they agree to Kadri's request, but they added a note to Salt & Time's website letting any other potential Danish customers out there know it was available.
That pork roast success was only possible due to the still relatively revolutionary way that Salt & Time approaches the meat business. Like others in the new wave of butchers cropping up across the country, Salt & Time deals in whole animals. It's more burdensome than, say, asking a farmer for a few sides of beef and selling off the prime cuts. But it gives the butchers at Salt & Time more flexibility. "There's no cut of beef, lamb or pork, we can't do for people," Runkle says. That customization is precisely what has made Salt & Time the go-to butcher shop for everyone from the Danish Club to Paul Qui.
From Veganism to New Wave Butchery
This is the point where it has to be said that Ben Runkle used to be a vegan. Most stories about Salt & Time bring that up and that is because a vegan's slide into butchery is a hell of a plot twist. But it's not all that extraordinary.
Josh Applestone of Fleisher's Grass-Fed & Organic Meats in New York State was a vegan for 17 years. Tom Mylan, owner of Brooklyn's Meat Hook, was once a vegetarian. Berlin Reed wrote a book about being a vegan-turned-butcher. In 2012, NPR profiled a young Andrew Plotsky under the headline, "How One Former Vegan Learned to Embrace Butchering." Linking to that article, Vegan.com declared, "Another annoying vegan hipster becomes an annoying butcher hipster. It's pretty clear that if you want a free ticket to media exposure as a butcher, all you have to do is claim you used to be vegan." (Naturally, a vegan-turned-butcher trendpiece followed a year later on Food Republic.)
Vegans become butchers for the same reason they became vegans.
Vegans and vegetarians become butchers for the same reason many of them became vegans and vegetarians: They care about the humane treatment of animals. As butchers, they get to have some say over that in working with farmers they trust. That was the case for Runkle, who broke his veganism at a crab boil with his family on the Oregon coast. That day, he was able to make the connection between the fresh crab and the fishermen who raised it. Runkle says that being "a new and very concerned and interested consumer of meat" is what made him a concerned and interested purveyor of meat.
Around that same time, Runkle left his job at a health care labor union to apprentice in butchery at Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes Station, CA. After taking on a few more jobs in meat, including at Northern California's respected charcuterie and butcher shop Fatted Calf, Runkle and his wife moved to Austin in August 2009. He started up Salt & Time, working out of a small kitchen in Niederwald, Texas with the help of culinary students and family members. Runkle did some pop-ups and catering events, but mostly could be found selling at farmers' markets.
A mutual friend introduced Runkle to Bryan Butler, a longtime butcher who had trained in the Meat Fabrication and Market Management program at Texas State Technical College. A year later, Butler teamed up with Runkle to become a co-owner and master butcher of Salt & Time. Over the next three years, the duo transformed Salt & Time into a full-scale butcher shop and restaurant that incorporated the philosophy Runkle had been brought up with in California: sourcing locally and using whole animals, an ethos that is typical in the new wave of American butchery but atypical pretty much everywhere else you get meat.
I would have been shocked if you had told me we'd be the first of this new wave of butcher shops.
"When I started this, I would have been shocked if you had told me we would be the first of this new wave of butcher shops to open up," Runkle says. But it was. Sure, there are other places to get meat in Austin. Jesse Griffiths' Dai Due, a farmers' market staple that's just about to open up its own retail shop, is also working with whole animals. But Austin's early adopting dining scene was surprisingly late to the new wave butcher shop game. Salt & Time arrived just in time, pun intended.
Texas Salami and Custom Cuts
Salt & Time's focus on whole animals and local sourcing might sound like just a bunch of buzzwords, but in fact it's an approach that is woven into all of the butcher shop's daily practices. It's also what allows Salt & Time to offer things like Texas salami.
Sourcing locally had become ingrained in Runkle during his time out in California. When he arrived in Texas, he wanted to know more about the regional culinary traditions and reflect that in Salt & Time's charcuterie options. A little bit of experimentation has led to the creation of a cumin-rich N'Duja Tejano or a take on Calabrian salami made with Mexican oregano and chile pequin. It also led to a pecan-studded spicy-sweet salami that was Butler's brainchild. "I thought he was out of his mind," Runkle says. "Any time you introduce something as volatile as nuts into your dry-cured products, you don't know what you're going to get. But it's fantastic."
That kind of creativity is also evident in how Salt & Time processes its whole animals. The butcher shop doesn't adhere to any one technique: Texas-style butchering, California-style butchering, French-style butchering, those are all in the mix. That's to say that they'll make you Texas brisket if that's your thing, or, if you're a California person, they have your preferred tri-tip, too. Salt & Time will cut traditional South American grilling meats or leave the rind on your pork roast if you're celebrating a Danish holiday. And they'll even do whole racks of beef ribs, a rarity considering that it takes a whole cow just to get one rack.
Salt & Time brings in an insane amount of meat each week.
Fortunately, Salt & Time brings in an insane amount of meat. Each week, they get about 5-7 Red Wattle hogs, 5-8 Dorper lambs, and one Angus beef. They supplement that with a couple hundred pounds of Wagyu/Angus cross primals, as well as a couple of dozen chickens. They have to in order to make it worth the farmer's while, Runkle says. Working with that volume of fresh meat necessitates a certain kind of creativity far beyond your prime cuts.
"It is the reality in the industry that we're in that we'll never be able to compete in price and efficiency with the industrial processing facility that's set up to do huge volume," Runkle says. "So we have to find ways to do things that those places can't do. One of the things they can't do is custom cut five hogs in five different ways to get different customers what they want. We can do that."
Flanken Ribs, Slayer Chops, and Restaurants
When Paul Qui was opening his flagship restaurant Qui last year, he knew there wasn't much meat available in Austin beyond the large-scale purveyors. Having worked with Salt & Time before on a customized hot dog for East Side King, Qui knew how passionate Runkle and Butler are about meat. He likes working with passionate people — "being passionate is infectious," he says — and so Qui reached out to them.
Salt & Time never really intended to get into the business of wholesaling meat to restaurants. There are too many regulations involved and no easy way for a shop specializing in whole animal butchery and custom cuts to guarantee specific cuts on a consistent basis. But, in the end, Salt & Time agreed to supply meat for Qui.
You just don't say no to Paul Qui.
"You just don't say no to Paul because he's insistent," Runkle says. "When he wants something good, he's going to get it." And when Paul Qui wants something good, everyone else wants it, too. Other local chefs came knocking once Salt & Time started working with Qui, Runkle says. Salt & Time works with some of them now, too, on the condition that they are willing to take whatever Salt & Time can give them.
Sometimes that might be a Flanken Rib or a Slayer Chop. These cuts — the former being a cross-cut of the flank and the rib, while the latter is a large T-bone of pork chop — have both been on the menu at Qui. Tendons and various muscle groups, too. The first six or seven months at the restaurant were educational for Qui and his cooks as they learned how to use the cuts that Salt & Time sent over.
"I've gotten rid of any preconceptions that I have, especially after getting to know Ben and just being able to trust them to just send me the best things that they have," Qui says. "That makes me feel a lot more free as far as what I can try to do with the cuts."
Of course, he has a little help. When Salt & Time brings meat to Qui, the butchers explain more than just the cut, what farmer the animal came from, and how they aged or did not age the meat. They also offer tips on preparing the cut, such as whether it needs to be braised a little longer to break down the muscle. As Qui says, "It's good to have that kind of dialogue with your butcher."
Teaching Meat in Austin
Dialogue and education are what's really at the heart of the new wave of American butchery and what Salt & Time is doing in Austin. The butchers learn about new cuts from customers like Kadri with the Danish Club. Then they come up with their own custom cuts and teach restaurants and customers alike how to use them.
Dialogue and education are at the heart of new wave butchery.
And those customers continue to grow steadily. Even though Salt & Time has now been open for a year and a half, Runkle says that every week they get two or three people coming in for the first time declaring their joy at having finally discovered a custom butcher shop in Austin.
"When we see somebody who comes in for the first time and they've got a big grin on their face and they're pointing and taking pictures, and they're so excited about it, that's like the best part of it," Runkle says. "That's why we do this, ultimately."