Nostalgic Niche: Bringing Back the Butcher Shop
After 10 years working in restaurants and three years in private client services for Bear Stearns, Justin Rosberg was ready to go into business for himself. The Eliot, Maine, native considered opening an eatery but knew that food service is a grueling business.
"I ultimately made my decision based on lifestyle," he says. "I didn't want the long nights and early mornings and all the other stuff that makes a restaurant challenging."
Instead, he thought back to his childhood and to the friendly neighborhood butcher shops that were quickly disappearing from New England. It seemed to him that with a few modern updates, the boutique butcher shop/grocery could appeal to foodies, local-food advocates and consumers weary of giant, impersonal supermarkets. So he brought aboard longtime friend Jason Parent, and they laid out their plans for The Meat House.
"We wanted to bring the fine-dining mentality to a retail atmosphere," says Rosberg, who opened the first Meat House in 2003 in Portsmouth, N.H. It hit a sweet spot--while specialty meat markets around the country were closing, The Meat House added eight stores in its first three years.
In 2008, the Manchester, N.H.-based company began franchising; it now has 30 stores in 10 states and plans to open 10 more franchise locations this year. Rosberg and Parent took off their aprons to tell us how they're reviving an old-time institution.
What sets The Meat House experience apart?
Parent: It all starts with the relationship. People are going to feel comfortable asking questions when the relationship is strong. We have customers who come in and say, "What should I have for dinner tonight?" We're really proud to have that trust, for them to approach us and say, "I trust you so much, I'm going to ask you what I should feed my family."
I think it's all cyclical. Before the big-box stores, people had Sam the Butcher. We're smaller and more manageable than a big-box store. People consider us a revival of the local butcher and grocer that their grandma used to take them to, and they like that.
As a franchise system, can you cater to local tastes?
Rosberg: When we go into a new store, we know about 78 percent of the products customers want. But what we carry is based on the ebb and flow of what those customers tell us. If they say they want a certain local grocery product, we take their name and number, and when we inevitably get that product in, we give them a call. The products on our shelves are reflective of each location. Marinated steak tips, chicken and pork are big in the Northeast; they like rib-eye and prime filet mignon in Oklahoma; sirloin, pork and tenderloin are big in the Carolinas; in Saratoga (N.Y.) we sell local Smith's Orchard pies. The products we sell are the best products we find in the area.
How does your meat differ from supermarket products?
Parent: We sell pretty much the top 20 percent of meat, top choice and above. The majority of big-box stores will have select grade products and a few grades above. We wet-age on-site and partner with local distributors who dry-age beef for us. We hand-select the plants our products come from. Even within a brand with 10 plants, the product might have the same grade, but one or two plants will usually have a more consistent, higher-quality product.
Rosberg: Best is when we can find a good, wholesome product on the local level. Better is when we can source meat regionally. Good is when we can get a product only on a national level. Consumers want to buy local products whenever they can, and we want to make sure we provide that.
What's your favorite cut?
Rosberg: I'm a huge fan of bone-in filet. It's an exceedingly lean, healthy meat, and the bone is a heat conduit that helps cook and provides flavor.
Parent: You cannot beat a thick-cut rib-eye or sirloin. I go back and forth depending on the day. My love for beef has only continued to grow over the past decade.