Can Craft Butcher Shops Help Transform the Meat Industry?

Small, artisan shops have the potential to encourage more farmers to switch to pasture-based practices, and could help scale up the market for better meat.


For a long time, Americans bought their meat at neighborhood butcher shops, but over the past several decades, most of those shops have disappeared as ground beef and boneless, skinless chicken breasts have become cheap commodities that shoppers can toss in their carts at the supermarket.

Now, a new breed of butcher shops are making a comeback. These shops generally prioritize buying whole animals from local, pasture-based farms and free-range poultry.

Some of these new kids on the block include The Pigheaded Butcher in Baltimore, Kensington Quarters in Philadelphia, Clove & Hoof in Oakland, and Western Daughters in Denver. High-profile chefs are also getting in on the movement, with Curtis Stone’s Gwen Butcher Shop opening this summer in Hollywood and April Bloomfield set to open White Gold in New York City soon.

In the Big Apple, alone, there’s The Meat Hook, Harlem Shambles, and Fleishers, which opened its fifth location (and first in Manhattan) in August. Fleishers opened its first shop in Kingston, New York in 2004, and has been a driving force in the industry. CEO Ryan Fibiger says he’s seen his business expand as the industry has picked up speed across the board. “When you look at all of these little butcher shops that have popped up all over the country—it’s been in the past five years,” he says.

Fleishers’ Immersion Program Set the Standard

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Fleishers’ Butcher Training Program has also trained a new generation of passionate nose-to-tail butchers with its 12-week immersion program. Many of the program’s graduates have gone on to open their own shops around the country, such as Jesse Griffiths, who founded Dai Due in Austin.

Adam Danforth, now a renowned butcher and educator who travels the country teaching, says that when he sought out butcher training seven years ago, Fleishers was one of the only programs that existed. Danforth was surprised by the lack of resources on the topic and went on to write two how-to guides on humane slaughtering and butchering, one of which won a James Beard Award in 2015.

“Slaughtering and butchering are now in the kitchen as conversational topics,” says Danforth.  “It’s not something that people are shooing or are content to disregard or keep in the shadows anymore,” he says. “Part of the conversation around meat is the death, the kill.”

This shift makes sense in an era when consumers are increasingly demanding more knowledge around how their food was produced, and it’s one reason Danforth says craft butcher shops, which value transparency and often proudly include butchers wielding cleavers while customers shop, are important.

“I think they do a great service in bringing awareness around meat and bringing the conversation around better meat to urban areas and also providing farmers with an outlet to sell their animals,” he says.

CEO Fibiger says not only has Fleishers created another outlet for farmers using humane, sustainable practices, but they’ve also been a catalyst for dozens of local farms switching to those practices, especially as prices for conventional beef have dropped and farmers who were selling to larger companies like Cargill would prefer to be paid the premium Fleishers offers.

“Some of them have been really pumped that they get to go back to farming the way that maybe their dad used to do it … actually farming animals and raising livestock in a dynamic way that’s not just ‘this much corn per day, don’t let them move,’” he says.

Fibiger adds that he’s heard that a number of farmers have gotten a hold of the Fleishers protocol and, “are looking at potentially opening a pasture or two to do more pasture-raised livestock farming, and I think that’s really exciting.”

Not Everyone Can Afford to Support Craft Butchers

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Of course, the elephant in the barn is that most craft butcher shops are located in high-income urban neighborhoods and are selling meat at prices that can be as much as double what conventional meat costs. So how big of an impact can they really have on the overall industry?

“The shops do a great service for people who would potentially buy their meat from Whole Foods or a farmers’ market,” Danforth says. “But how do we really change the system and figure out how to create accessible price points for meat that’s humanely raised and better for the environment?”

Fibiger says it’s “the biggest topic we wrestle with internally,” at Fleishers, and one strategy they’ve focused on is educating consumers on cheaper cuts of meat—like brisket and ground meat—rather than prized cuts like rib-eye or boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Danforth agrees that diversifying the “quality” of meat available and selling different levels is crucial, and he also advocates for utilizing older animals like spent dairy cows, which cuts food waste and costs.

“There’s this meat fetishizing and narcissism in which we feel like we deserve to have the greatest incarnation of meat every time we eat it, instead of prioritizing things like the farmers, accessibility, and cost,” he says.

Higher prices may also inspire some consumers to get more out of the less-desired parts of the animal, such as the bones, and reduce the quantity of meat they eat, to a few times a week, rather seeing it as a daily necessity.

“Responsible butchers will tell you that people should eat less meat. We eat way too much f*cking meat, it’s crazy,” Fibiger says. And that’s coming from a guy whose business depends on selling it.

Photos provided by Gwen Butcher Shop and Fleishers.

View Comments

  1. Jen
    Friday, October 21st, 2016
    Craft? Is that code for small? There's nothing "craft" about it. Let's stop bastardizing the meaning of words.
    • Tuesday, November 1st, 2016
      Butchering is absolutely a craft and an art. Dont belittle it if you haven't tried it.
  2. Friday, October 21st, 2016
    In Portland, Oregon, we're lucky to have several whole-animal butchers, including Old Salt Marketplace, where owner Ben Meyer practices whole animal butchery to supply his two restaurants and a fresh meat case, plus offering butchery classes to consumers and professionals alike. Classes are also given at Proletariat Butchery and the Portland Meat Collective, and many small pasture-raised farms offer everything from whole animals to custom cuts direct to consumers or through CSAs and at farmers' markets.
  3. Anna
    Saturday, October 22nd, 2016
    Pay twice as much to eat less desirable cuts? Pay twice as much for meat from older spent dairy cows? Seriously, this is the grand plan for breaking out of the affluent elitist market? No thanks. I love eating meat and conventional meats are consistently good quality at reasonable prices. Why should I overpay for poorer quality meat just to enrich a boutique butcher and a hobby farmer? Some of you people have too much money and too little respect for ordinary people on an ordinary budget.
  4. Tuesday, October 25th, 2016
    One way to increase usage of lower cost cuts of meat is to foster knowledge of how to use these in home made pet food. I teach this and sell locally sourced meats in my store, but I have great difficulty obtaining enough of it. Yet my local Whole Foods refuses to mark it lower and prefers to throw away nutritious cuts, organs, etc that don't sell at $8.95/lb. The demand is high and growing. The distribution chain is far behind. Let's figure this out! The pet food industry is one of the most cynical, deceptive and hideous on the planet, and there are pet owners waiting for access to good, affordable meat for their little carnivores!
  5. Laura
    Friday, October 28th, 2016
    Try visiting your smaller local grocerss. For instance, Calef's Fine Foods in Barrington, NH is a small local grocer who specializes in custom cut meat in their butcher counter. Alough they are not a whole animal butcher because their refrigerator is not _that_ big, they sell high quality meats that are more fresh than any chain grocery store around here. And their prices are comparable. So folks, you can find a local gem without it being a high priced specialized shop.

    Also think meat community supported agriculture and or splitting a side or portition of a steer from a local farmer with other folks .
  6. Paul Underhill
    Saturday, October 29th, 2016
    Fibiger is right. Everyone eats too much meat. It's not sustainable for a large percentage of the human race to eat as much as eat as we currently do. There's no reason why every Caesar salad has to have chicken in it, either.

    Everyone who eats meat should be eating the cheaper cuts, making broth with bones, etc. For the most part they are tastier than boneless, skinless, etc. parts you just need to learn how to cook them. If you want tasteless protein, just eat tofu.
  7. Susan
    Sunday, October 30th, 2016
    Fair Food is teaming up shortly with the great La Divisa butcher (Nick and his team)...why not write about them?
  8. Susan
    Sunday, October 30th, 2016
    And also Heather from Primal Meats who started as the main butcher at KQ in Philadelphia, she is fantastic!