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The revival of the old-fashioned butcher shop

by Darcy Rhyno

When I was a child growing up in Lockeport, NS, MacKenzie’s Store was the place to go for meats prepared by a butcher. A big man in a stained white apron would tear off a strip of brown paper, place a stack of custom cut chops, or a local favourite like liver loaf, on it and wrap it like a gift. Then came my favourite part—he’d pull string from a ball hanging from the ceiling, neatly tie up the package, break the string with his hands and present it with a smile.

In those days, stores like MacKenzie’s did things far differently than today’s corporate grocery chains where “butchers” work out of sight and home delivery has disappeared. At MacKenzie’s, the butchers—or meat cutters, as Lockeporters called them—were the centre of attention and still remembered today four decades after the store closed. One of the store’s founders, Art MacKenzie, was the first meat cutter followed by Pat Hardy, St. Clair Decker and Richard Turner.

Others who recall those days talk of the compassion of owner-brothers Lockie and Art, as well as their dedicated delivery service in the days when not everyone could get to the store. For Yolanda Meisner, the store holds a special place in the history of her family.

“My dad always stocked his boats and our home from MacKenzie’s,” she says. After the infamous storm of 1961 that sunk three fishing boats, taking with them the lives of many local fishermen, including her own father and brother, Meisner says, “Lock MacKenzie was so kind and extended a lot of credit to help Mom feed our large family.”

Others from the community say they remember the same kindness from MacKenzie’s Store in the form of extended credit, forgiven debts and COD home delivery. Bonnie Stuart Murphy says, “I can vaguely (remember) Mom telling the story of Mort MacKenzie delivering groceries either during a winter storm or right after. He put them on a toboggan and pulled them down our road.”

The rise of the old-fashioned butcher shop

That kind of old-fashioned personal service from independent stores and meat cutters is making a comeback on the East Coast. It’s not so much that new shops are springing up all over the place, although some, such as the year-old Masstown Butcher Shop and Creamery near Truro, NS, is a shiny new example. It’s more that popularity has returned to the shops that have always been there.

Fourth generation farmer and meat shop owner Scott Drake of Steerman’s Quality Meats near Vernon, PEI says, “My grandfather and my father butchered. They probably stopped when I was 10 or 11. There were a lot of small butchers going out of business. At that time in the early 1970s, farmers were encouraged to produce for large, federally-inspected plants.”

Drake says he ended up on the same treadmill that drove his predecessors out of business. “When I started my little meat shop, buying local wasn’t really the trend. I was looking at raising 600 hogs and 300 head of cattle. The idea was to get bigger and bigger. If that many animals couldn’t keep one little guy making a living, I couldn’t see how twice as many was going to do it.”

When Drake opened his store on the farm, it turned him into a retailer, cutting out those who stood between him and his customers. Now, his most popular item is a monthly special $100 box of beef, pork and poultry that’s different every time the customer returns. Nothing fancy, just great quality meats straight from the farmer/butcher to the fridge, just like it used to be. In Drake’s case, adding a retail butcher shop may have literally saved his farm.

Other butcher shops are doing just as well these days. Albert and Joan Bonnar have been running Bonnar’s Meats for about 14 years in North Sydney, NS, where one of their most popular items is made by another local producer, Horyl’s Superior Sausage. Armour’s near Florenceville-Bristol, NB, sells both smoked bacon made from pork belly and fresh pork belly for those who want to make it themselves.

Nancy Roscoe-Huntley, who grew up in the village of Canning in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, says, “I remember as a little girl coming in and sitting on the huge scale in front of the window. They had sawdust on the floor. Babe Sarsfield had the store for years. He always gave the kids bologna. I can still remember the smell of the sawdust and bologna. It was just a nice place to be.”

That butcher shop has been in continuous operation since the late 1800s, though it came close to closing a few times. In 2001, Nancy and her husband Oscar from nearby Scots Bay bought the store from Emmerson Woolaver, who had purchased it several years earlier, reopening as the Huntley Village Meat Market.

Peering through the two large plate glass windows, you see the original display case, the century-old butcher’s block and wooden cooler door, all suggesting that little has changed since the days when Nancy stopped in for her piece of bologna. Inside, the customer service is just as personal as it’s always been, but the line of products has greatly expanded and evolved with the times.

Nancy has many ways of measuring their success, but one in particular seems most apropos—the amount of bacon they make and sell. “When we purchased the store, it was doing two pork bellies a week. We’ve increased to more than 40.”

From two sausage varieties, they’ve expanded to nearly 30. They also smoke hams, ribs, beef jerky, chicken, pork loin and even a donair loaf that’s popular at local restaurants like Naked Crêpe in Wolfville. Their most popular and successful product is pepperoni made from scratch and finished in their smokehouse. Demand is so great for their smoked meats, they go through 10 to 15 cords of maple firewood every year, in addition to the use of electric smokers.

It now takes 14 employees to carry out all this work, both at the expanded shop in Canning and their smokehouse in Scots Bay. Still, according to Nancy, they’ve managed to retain the personal touch of the traditional butcher shop. “We used to have an older gentleman who would come in every day for one breakfast sausage,” Nancy recalls. He lived alone. “Not a problem. We would give him one sausage and off he would go.”

Butcher shops often have tasty samples of their smoked and processed products for customers to try.

Small is beautiful

Perhaps there’s always been a yearning in our culture for a past when things were simpler and better. “People come back all the time and remember as a child coming in here,” says Nancy Roscoe-Huntley. But the pull of the past seems particularly strong these days. She says, “People love the nostalgia of getting things wrapped in brown paper. It’s a personal thing. We have customers who come from all across the province. We have people from Alberta tell us this is the first stop they make when they get out of the airport to get pepperoni and beef jerky. It’s definitely a back-home Maritime experience.”

However, there seems to be something more substantial than nostalgia going on with the resurgence of the old butcher shop. Canning’s homemade, home-smoked pepperoni is understandably a hit, but simple, unprocessed cuts of meat are also popular. At Steerman’s Quality Meats, farmer and shop owner Scott Drake says people often comment that his beef or the turkey and chicken from his son’s farm tastes like the meat they remember from their childhood, when it came from the local butcher.

“They tell me it’s how meat is supposed to taste,” says Drake. “People say to me, ‘How do you get your meat to taste like that?’ And I say I don’t know. I don’t do anything to it. Perhaps that’s the thing—I don’t do anything to it. These days, people care where their food comes from. They want to buy direct from the farm so they know what went into it or more like what didn’t go into it.”

Although nostalgia for old-fashioned shops and personal service is bringing shoppers to their doors, today’s butcher shops have to face even more competition than that which contributed to the demise of their predecessors. “People will drive into Costco to get a good deal, so we have to be competitive,” says Roscoe-Huntley. “People think these niche shops are expensive. We can’t be overpriced.” Scott Drake agrees, admitting that customers simply won’t return if the quality and the competitive prices aren’t consistently there.

Roscoe-Huntley says part of the attraction to her family shop is that they’re small. “It’s not a big factory,” she says. “We make everything by hand each and every day. If it doesn’t taste good, it doesn’t go out the door because our family name goes on it.”

Evolution to the past

Some butchers are heading in new directions. On the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Jeannot and Gilberte Aucoin recently established a wild boar farm and opened Aucoin des Sangliers, where they sell their homemade meats like pepperoni, paté and ham. Wild boar is new to East Coast palates, but because the meat is made into familiar products, it’s catching on.

Others are doing it the other way around, using animals familiar to Atlantic Canadians and offering them in ways we’ve never before eaten them. At Boucherie Spécialisée Côte à Côte near the ferry terminal on Cap-aux-Meules, also on the Magdalens, Réjean Vigneau sells pepperoni, sausage and terrine, all made from wild seal meat.

When Josh Kane was growing up in Renews-Cappahayden, an hour south of St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador, he’d hang out at P and J Meats, a butcher shop run by two of his uncles who did nothing but cut up and package wild animals brought in by local hunters. “They were 20 or 25 years as a pastime,” says Kane. “One worked for the telephone company, the other was a fisherman. It wasn’t a steady income, but they provided service for hunters.

Inspired by his uncles, Kane ran with the unique concept of retailing wild meats. Three years ago, he and his brother founded Wild Side Meats. “Same idea,” says Josh. “We do a service for hunters, but we also have a licence to buy from hunters.” (Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province that permits the sale of meats from wild animals.) “If a hunter has a moose and feels he’ll only use half or three quarters, there’s an option when you drop off the animal, we can weigh it and say it’s worth this much. We tell hunters it alleviates the cost of getting work done.”

Wild Side buys plenty of moose, but also caribou, bear and hare when available, as well as limited amounts of Newfoundland grown beef and lamb. “We started to get into some party foods—meatballs, eggrolls, pigs in a blanket, all made of wild meat, mainly moose,” says Josh. Their moose pepperoni and burger patties are very popular, but their best seller is, hands down, moose bologna. “Newfoundlanders’ two favourite things are moose and bologna.” Products from Wild Side like rabbit pepperoni, moose salami and that moose bologna provides a uniquely East Coast take on charcuterie.

Recently, I made a trip to the Huntley Village Meat Market, hoping to create my own unique flavours with some pork belly. Nancy’s son, Andrew is the butcher there. He pulled out a slab and set it on that century-old butcher block, deeply scarred from decades of use and asked, “How much?” I took about half. With a couple of practised slices, Andrew had my cut on a piece of brown paper, which he wrapped like a gift, just as I’d remembered from the old days of MacKenzie’s Store.

When I got it home, I trimmed the pork belly to a perfect square, brined it and smoked it to make my own bacon. I slow cooked the trimmings to make Asian-style pork belly sandwiches topped with lime cilantro coleslaw. One bite and it was as if the past was colliding with the present.

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