It wasn't all that long ago that Nathan Anda was still cutting meat in a 10-by-10-foot room in the back of Tallula, a modern American restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. He was building a name for Red Apron Butcher, which had already gained a following at local farmers' markets. But it didn't yet have a space of its own.
Today, Red Apron has three brick-and-mortar locations — two in DC and one in Northern Virginia — as well as a 3,500-square-foot commissary for processing whole animals and storing cured meats. That commissary provides the meats for all three butcher shops, which is such a substantial demand that Red Apron had to pull back sales to the 16 fellow Neighborhood Restaurant Group-owned establishments scattered across the region. Employment at Red Apron and its various components has jumped from three to about 80.
Not too bad for a year and a half.
A Chef with an Aptitude for Meat
The full arc of Red Apron's expansion is quite a bit longer than a year and a half, of course. It's been eight years since Anda and Neighborhood Restaurant Group owner Michael Babin first conspired to amp the hell out of what was a small-scale butchery operation headquartered in the back of a restaurant. But, in a way, all of this has been building for a decade.
It was the meatiest dishes that stood out on Tallula's early menus.
Ten years ago, Tallula opened in Arlington with Anda running the show. Anda had trained at the New England Culinary Institute and worked in a couple of restaurants in Washington, DC, and Charlottesville, Virginia, before Tallula, but he didn't have any formal training specifically in butchery. But it wasn't long before Anda's skills with meat became evident. In fact, according to Babin, it was the meatiest dishes that stood out on Tallula's early menus. "You could tell he put a lot of love into them," the restaurateur says.
In a 2007 review of Tallula's casual and adjacently located spin-off EatBar, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema seemed to agree, writing, "Anda's menu appeals to caveman sensibilities, with lots of meat. ... Slices of hanger steak come with welcome beefiness and a sauce boat of jus rich with red wine. Diners get a raw deal, emphasis on deal, with the chef's rousing steak tartare for $6: diced sirloin made creamy with aioli and ginned up with chipotle, garlic, capers and mustard. Garlicky bread crisps flank the uncooked meat and turn the plate into a snack worthy of Fred Flintstone."
In those early days, Anda quickly realized that it would just be better business if he learned butchery. "Ten years ago, if you wanted to use local pork, you got the side of a pig or a whole pig," he says. "That's how it started, from going to a farmers' market and saying, 'Hey, I would love to use your stuff,' and the guy's like, 'Well, you can pay this price for the pork loin, or you can pay this price for a whole side of pig.'" To Anda, it made more sense to pay for the latter. And so he taught himself how to break them down.
From Chef to Butcher
Babin wasn't expecting it when Anda approached him in 2006 about shifting his focus from Tallula to Red Apron, but the restaurateur wasn't surprised. Anda had become a man obsessed. "It consumed me," Anda says of butchering. "Maybe a lot of the [other NRG] chefs have been consumed by it too, but they were able to pull themselves out of it, and I just got sucked all the way in."
Butchery consumed me, Anda says.
Anda asked Babin if they could work together to build a production facility where Red Apron would be able to make all of the hot dogs and salami as well as process fresh cuts from whole animals bred responsibly by local farmers. Anda's ambition excited Babin. He was in. And he wanted to take Red Apron even bigger.
It became clear pretty quickly to the two men that Red Apron was going to need to be more than a production facility. As Babin explains it, they started this project at a time when health departments in other parts of the country were beginning to take note of and crack down on restaurants with in-house charcuterie projects and lax certifications. Red Apron would need a bigger, fully certified production facility — and at least a few storefronts that would support it.
"If I had known how long it was going to take and how much it was going to cost and all the difficult twists and turns we had to navigate along the way, I might have thought twice about it," Babin jokes.
It's been like a marathon with a 200-yard dash at the end.
A string of bureaucratic and financial requirements knotted up the next several years. Though Anda left Tallula to focus on Red Apron in 2008, it wasn't until March 2011 that he publicly announced a location for the commissary and revealed plans to build retail butcher shops. The commissary opened in January 2013, followed in the following two months by its stall at the nearby Union Market and storefront in Virginia's Mosaic District development. The third storefront in DC's Penn Quarter neighborhood was the last to open in February 2014, a full two years after the lease was signed thanks to the unpredictability of real estate and restaurant build-outs.
"It's been like a marathon with a 200-yard dash at the end," Babin says.
Red Apron's Ambitious Expansion
There were practical reasons for opening three retail shops to support the commissary, but Anda and Babin had more in mind: The Neighborhood Restaurant Group wanted to bring butcher shops back to neighborhoods. "I think the butcher shop like a great bar or a great market is something that any neighborhood of any size used to have," Babin says. "The bars have stuck around, but the butcher shops mostly went away." Given how much more attention people are paying to their food these days, Babin figured neighborhoods would want butcher shops once again.
"He's a true visionary," Anda says of Babin. "Once he believes in something, everything is possible. His goal with these was to put them in neighborhoods where the shop could thrive."
Each Red Apron shop has a distinct location. Union Market is a stall located in a new artisanal marketplace in a still-developing DC neighborhood, offering a butcher counter, a small selection of sandwiches, beer, and a few bar seats. Merrifield is a full storefront located in a Virginia development, offering a butcher case, an expanded selection of sandwiches, burgers, and sides, plus some seating. Merrifield's suburban clientele opts more for fresh meat, while Union Market sells more sausages and salamis.
The newest shop is located in the busy Penn Quarter neighborhood (where José Andrés presides over his restaurant empire). This Red Apron is particularly ambitious: It is an all-day butcher shop with breakfast sandwiches, lunchtime sandwiches, burgers and salads, with an adjoining meat-centric full-service restaurant named The Partisan.
Engaging in the community is critical for all three shops.
These three locations might all be different, but Babin says that engaging in the community is critical for all of them. That engagement comes through explaining cuts of meat to customers — turning them on to less common cuts such as the secreto, velvet steak, or ribeye cap — but it also has to do with the ethical issues surrounding the meat industry today.
"Meat is the densest food that we eat," Babin says. "It's not just the sum of the way that the farmer treated the animal, but it's the way that all of the food that was given to the animal was raised. So when we think about the communities that we're in, we're trying to offer an exceptional product that's going to obviously be delicious, but also something that moms and dads can feel great about feeding their families with, something that they just don't have to worry about."
It's one of many areas where Babin says he and Anda see eye-to-eye. "He's dedicated," Babin says of Anda. "He wants to make it right."
Red Apron's Influence
Though Red Apron's physical footprint is only about a year and a half old, Anda's butcher shop has already made inroads from its years of farmers' market sales through the opening of the new Penn Quarter shop.
Red Apron has already achieved cult status among DC diners. Sandwiches like the Porkstrami or the pork meatballs on a baguette are the stuff of such legend that Anda is afraid to take them off the menu at his butcher shops — particularly the tiny menu at Union Market, which has been around the longest. "Yeah, the meatball, the porkstrami, and the Italian beef here," he says. "If I took one of those off, I'd run to my car and use protection."
And this past June, Red Apron won the award for regional food and beverage producer of the year at the annual RAMMY Awards gala presented by the local restaurant association. This was the first year the awards included such a category, says RAMW managing director Julie Sproesser. "With Nate's win, I think it really speaks to that chefs are such a part of the product that we're using," Sproesser says. "We're seeing it more and more, and Neighborhood Restaurant Group is certainly helping to lead the way."
Baltimore chef Spike Gjerde agrees. He remembers when he first saw Red Apron products at a DC farmers' market, proving that cured meats could be part of the local food world. "That was an important moment," he says. More recently, Gjerde toured Red Apron's commissary while he was in the process of opening his own butcher shop and restaurant, Parts & Labor, in Baltimore. Yet again, he was impressed.
We're only going up against the biggest food companies in the world.
"We're only going up against some of the biggest food companies in the world," Gjerde says. While the industrial meat companies of the world would like people to keep buying their cheap meat, it takes many voices to explain why it's worth spending more on meat from people who can tell you where it came from. And when it comes to the question of why good meat matters, Gjerde says, "Nate's come up with probably the most interesting answer yet."