This story was originally published on Civil Eats.
Every part of the chickens, pigs, cows, lambs, and goats that arrive at Grass & Bone in Mystic, Connecticut, get used. Take the fat: It gets turned into beef-fat chocolate chip cookies, made into candles, and used to cook with instead of butter or canola.
“It’s easy for us to sell the New York Strips, filet mignons, and ribeyes, but you’ve got also rumps and shanks and neck and fat and bone and oxtail and liver,” says co-owner Dan Meiser. “Not only do we not want to be wasteful, but we’re also paying for all of it, and to make the model work, you have to sell every pound.”
Instead of simply selling meat, Meiser and his business partner, James Wayman, opened a butcher shop with a restaurant inside. The two-year-old eatery serves not only as a place to pick up hamburgers or learn how to cook a new cut of meat, but also as a place to get a meal. All the while, the owners and staff are working tirelessly to reconnect area residents to their local meat producers.
“We’re really lucky in this part of the world,” says Wayman. “We have a very strong and historic farming tradition, with lots of families farming for generations.”
At one time, butcher shops were a staple of most communities. But in the 1970s, “boxed beef” cuts which butchers could then cut into smaller cuts, became more popular. As a result, there was less of a demand for whole-animal butchery, and today, many supermarkets sell everything pre-packaged.
While traditional, whole-animal butcher shops have largely disappeared, a new type of business has popped up across the U.S. in recent years: the butcher shop/restaurant hybrid. In addition to Grass & Bone in Connecticut, similar establishments and others have launched or added restaurants to make themselves more financially viable and draw in clientele who might not otherwise seek them out. Some of these include Foothills Meats near Asheville, North Carolina; Kau in Greensboro, North Carolina; Revival Meats in Houston; Laurelhurst Market in Portland, Oregon; Clove & Hoof in Oakland; and Belcampo Meat Co. in multiple locations.
In addition to serving fresh and local meat and supporting nearby farmers, these establishments also hope to make whole-animal butchery affordable and cut down on food waste.
“You know when you’re buying from a local butcher who lives in the community that they’re vested in the area, and the money is going back into the community,” said Danny Johnson, vice president of the Butcher’s Guild and owner of the California market and butcher shop Taylor’s Market.
Johnson says the return of the neighborhood butcher shop is one of many side benefits of the farm-to-table movement and the fact that more people want to understand the origins of their food.
More than a decade ago, Wayman and Meiser helped to start the farm-to-table scene in southeastern Connecticut, when they opened Oyster Club, the establishment that eventually paved the way for them to run a whole-animal butcher shop. At the time, it was a trailblazing move to feature the names of farms on a menu that changed daily, depending on what the chefs could procure.
Oyster Club led to a resurgence in local food in the Mystic area and the overall strengthening of the local-food economy. And it also created a demand in the community for access to the type of meat that Oyster Club, with its on-site butchery team, was dishing out.
“I’ve been butchering for almost 15 years, and when we opened Oyster Club, we did [whole animal butchery] right away,” Wayman said. “I think it’s important for our cooks to know how, and it’s an important part of our local food chain.”
Several years after opening Oyster Club, Meiser and Wayman launched a second restaurant in town. The Engine Room, with a focus on burgers that the team butchered and ground in-house, created an additional need for a butcher shop. The two knew if they wanted to do whole-animal butchery and source the animals locally, they would need to find a way to make it work economically. The result is Grass & Bone.
Near Asheville, North Carolina, Casey McKissick started a small family farm that raised cattle, hogs, and chickens back in 2002. In 2013, he opened Foothills Meats — and eventually turned the establishment into a butcher-and-restaurant concept, with a separate food truck.
“The business model has been an exercise in stubbornness in trying to figure out how to create a sustainable business centered around whole-animal butchery and utilization,” McKissick said. “By taking responsibility for the ‘whole beast,’ we are preserving the craft of butchery and helping farmers continue to farm.”
Foothills Meats’ two Butcher Bar restaurant models feature a fully stocked and serviced retail butcher case in restaurants that offer simple, approachable food menus. They also host a high-end private Butcher’s Table Dinner series.
“Over the years, we’ve been very intentional about creating menus and marketing the respective dishes, so as to maximize yield and value from the butcher shop,” McKissick said. “Our burgers and our hotdogs are the biggest sellers, and there are good reasons why from a whole-animal standpoint. Steaks and charcuterie items are also very popular but comprise a sustainable [enough] percentage of overall sales that we’re not forced to go out and buy boxed and/or commodity beef to meet demand. It all works quite well together.”
Like McKissick, Wayman and Meiser focus exclusively on local meat. Everything they bring in comes from New England farms — some of it organic, some grass finished, but all of it local. “They’re all from farms where the people farming are doing it in a manner that we’re happy with and proud of,” Wayman said.
For many small farmers, the butcher shop/restaurant hybrid model also provides a unique sales channel.
“Whole animal butcher shops, especially the ones with restaurants, allow small producers to showcase the quality and nuance of their operations through their product and get paid a fair price,” said David Zarling, Director of Butchery at Belcampo Meat Co. The company, which sells cuts of meat direct-to-consumers online, has butcher shops restaurants in California and New York City and raises its own animals on a ranch in Northern California.
“We’ve hung our hat on transparency, and as far as I’m concerned, raising your own animals is the most thorough way to ensure quality and total traceability through your supply chain,” Zarling said.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, Kayne Fisher takes a different approach to sourcing the meat that comes into his butcher shop restaurant, Kau. While the pork and poultry is sourced from farmers in the area, the majority of the beef comes from Braveheart Farms in Iowa City. “They checked every box I was looking for — prime, humane, antibiotic free, no feedlots,” said Fisher, who opened Kau — an idea that had been in the making since he was five years old — in 2018.
“I spent summers in Detroit with my grandparents, and I would go with my grandfather to this local corner store, where we’d get that night’s dinner. They’d be cutting chicken, beef, and pork, and you could get cuts to order. I was so intrigued by it; I started thinking that one day I would open a restaurant that had a butchery market,” Fisher said.
The butchery component inevitably influences Kau’s menu. “We use every component of everything we cut down,” Fisher said.
Still, the model is a challenging one.
“It’s antithetical to our fast-paced, ready-to-eat-while-driving culture that seems to be all the rage right now,” said Belcampo’s Zarling. “Butcher shop restaurants harken back to a different time, a different pace, where skilled trades were held in high regard and folks would break bread together at the end of a day of satisfying work.”
But places like Belcampo, Kau, Foothills and Grass & Bone are proving that whole-animal butchery with minimal waste and lots of consumer engagement is completely possible.
“We have a team of butchers and chefs who can say, ‘Hey, why don’t you try this?’ If we can show you how to take this amazing cut of meat you’re and turn it into something flavorful and delicious, there’s a real joy and sense of accomplishment on our end — and for our guests — when they can pull it off,” Meiser said.