Kate Kavanaugh is an unlikely butcher. For starters, she believes in eating less meat.
“We’re a butcher shop with a very different ethos,” she says. “I think a lot of people expect that sort of giant-steak-on-a-plate, talking-about-the-meat sweats type of experience. We really want your food to make you feel better.”
Kavanaugh and her partner Josh Curtiss are the owners of Western Daughters Butcher Shop in Denver, Colorado. All of the meat served comes from animals that were raised and humanely harvested in Colorado. Beef and lamb are 100 percent grass-fed, and pigs and chicken are pasture-raised on an omnivorous diet of forage and feed. There are no antibiotics or hormones involved, and Western Daughters uses the entire animal — for steaks, short ribs, brisket, and more. Also on the menu: wellness sausages made of turmeric-ginger-carrot and beet-garlic, and bone broth. (“We do a booming bone broth business,” Kavanaugh says.)
Kavanaugh fell into butchery in a pretty roundabout way. “I had been vegetarian for 15 years and I was looking at master’s programs in soil biology and land management. I was looking at the way our food system works and becoming more and more interested in the question of: What if food were a byproduct of conservation?”
From there, she dug deeper. “I had been looking at a lot of the work that regenerative grazing practices were doing for grass-fed beef, and for sequestering carbon in the soil, and I decided that I wanted to start eating meat that I felt supported those systems.”
Her first step toward introducing meat back into her diet — and then, building a business around it — was going directly to the source: the land. “I was living in Arizona with my partner at the time, and I started going to ranches and talking to the ranchers. I became really enamored with the idea of what a food system could be,” she says. “I did an apprenticeship in butchery and my partner ended up coming with me, and we decided to open up Western Daughters.”
The first Western Daughters opened in 2013 in the LoHi neighborhood of Denver, which was followed by another at The Source, an artisanal food market. After four years at The Source, Kavanaugh and Curtiss decided to devote their full attention to their main location this year.
Having personal conversations about food is a huge part of the experience at Western Daughters — both between the shop and its ranchers and farmers, and between the shop and its customers. “We fancy ourselves bartenders of meat, and a lot of times people will come in and talk to us about their health problems,” says Kavanaugh. “Food is such an intimate thing. We put it into our bodies three times a day, and it fuels our families and our lives. We’ve gotten to see that intimate side of using food as a healing force, and I think the word has spread.”
For Kavanaugh, those conversations are happening outside of Western Daughters, too. She’s going back to get her nutritionist certification (“so we can talk even more about how food can heal bodies”) and is also active in helping underwrite food legislation that would benefit local Colorado ranchers and farmers.
“Nobody has time to sit in a room with the Department of Agriculture and have a conversation about whether or not you need walls to slaughter a chicken,” she says. “We really wanted to become a part of that conversation, and I sought out a couple of people that put me in touch with a couple more people and got into these meetings.” Now, she’s currently advocating for changing the laws in Colorado around small poultry processing — ”I was looking for excellent pasture raised chicken,” she explains — and testified at the House of Representatives for country of origin labeling.
When asked if she feels that more conscious food consumption might finally take off throughout the U.S., Kavanaugh says it’s complicated. “I see shifts constantly. I see small breaks and I see bigger breaks in the way that we view and treat and consume food, whether that’s at the restaurant level, or the consumer level. But it’s slow.”
“I think as we turn inward and think about our own microbiomes, a very natural extension of that is to begin thinking about the ecosystem that we live in and our place in the ecosystem,” she says. “I think there’s this kind of looking inward before we spring outward.”