The Case of The Missing Butcher Shop

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

With summer cookout season kicking into high gear, New Yorkers will be buying lots of meat in the weeks and months to come. But where will they be buying it?

One thing that seems certain is that they’ll be buying less of it in neighborhood butcher shops than in years past. With consumers increasingly opting for supermarkets, upscale gourmet markets, or FreshDirect, the number of small, independent butcher shops in the city has been declining for years, and most of the ones that remain are devoting more and more of their business to catering and prepared foods. The traditional butcher shop, specializing in steaks, chops, and roasts, appears to be an endangered species.

“It’s gone, it’s finished,” said Tony Schatzie, owner of Schatzie’s Prime Meats on the Upper East Side (1200 Madison Ave. at 88th Street, 212-410-1555). Mr. Schatzie looks like a butcher straight out of central casting: He wears an enormous white apron, gnaws on a toothpick, and stirs his coffee with the business end of a boning knife, but he may be the last of his type. “The old butchers are dying, and who do you know who wants to get into this business now? There’s no money to be made anymore.”

Many butchers echo Mr. Schatzie’s sentiments. And most of them identify the same culprits behind the decline in this once robust field:

CONTEMPORARY LIFESTYLES “The customer’s changed,” said Frank Balsamo, who used to have his own meat shop in Staten Island and now works several days a week at the A.S. Pork Store in Park Slope (275 Fifth Ave., near 1st Street, Brooklyn, 718-768-2728). “It used to be that the wife stayed home and cooked, but today you have both parties working and nobody has time to cook, or they don’t even know how. So you have to tailor yourself to today’s families.”

At the Pork Store, that’s meant adding a wide array of new offerings, including sandwiches, fresh breads, and high-quality prepared foods like lasagna and baked ziti. The result is a tiny but vibrant gourmet shop. But that puts the store in direct competition with upscale groceries like the nearby Union Market, which has surprisingly excellent meat, and the new Fairway in Red Hook, whose meat department features its own dry-aging chamber – a rarity for a supermarket.

The Pork Store’s trump card, like at any small shop, is service. Staffers are unfailingly pleasant, and Mr. Balsamo loves to kibitz about food and cooking. “People love going to a mom-and-pop store, if you give them that special attention,” Sal Bonello, the shop’s coowner, said. The question is how many people in today’s cell phone and BlackBerry world will be willing to take the time to enjoy that personal touch.

THE REAL ESTATE BOOM Joe DiMaggio – yes, that’s really his name – who owns the Holland Court Meat Market (1423 Lexington Ave. at 93rd Street, 212-289-8490),had to move his shop from a nearby location 11 years ago because of escalating rents, and he’s feeling the squeeze again these days. He put the situation in blunt perspective: “The rent keeps going up, but how much can you charge for a pound of chop meat?”

Indeed, the happiest, most optimistic butcher in town appears to be Robert Esposito, owner of Esposito & Sons Meat Shop in Hell’s Kitchen (500 Ninth Ave. at 38th Street, 212-279-3298), who owns the building his shop is in. “We purchased it in 1977, so we don’t have that rent pressure,” he said. “That lets us run the business the way we want it.” In other words, he can keep the focus on meats instead of prepared foods. Most of his competitors don’t have that luxury.

DECLINING SKILL SETS The butchers of yesteryear could break down an entire carcass. But many of today’s butcher shops buy boxed meat, which has already been broken down into primal and sub-primal sections by wholesale packers. The result, say the old-schoolers, is a generation of meat men who don’t know how to cut meat.

“There’s not many true butchers left,” Mr. DiMaggio said as he cut apart a rack of lamb rib chops. “There’s mostly what we call supermarket butchers, who use a band saw to cut everything. We don’t even have a band saw here in our shop – we do everything by hand.”

Mr. DiMaggio learned the trade as a teenager by working at a shop after school. Other butchers spoke wistfully of a butchery trade school, now gone, that used to operate in Manhattan. “Now there are just restaurant schools, and they don’t teach you enough about meat,” said Mr. Esposito. “In fact, I have people who come in from restaurant schools who want to work here, so they can learn.”

UPWARD MOBILITY The flip side of the American dream is that the children of successful tradesmen, including butchers, may leave the family business behind. “When I had my shop in Staten Island, my boys worked for me,” Mr. Balsamo, an exceedingly friendly man who was born in Sicily and came to America in 1957, said. “But now they work in computers, upper management, that kind of thing. And this is the kind of business where you need family and close friends to operate successfully.”

Mr. Schatzie had a similar tale to tell. “My kids, one’s gonna be an actor, the other’s gonna be in the insurance business,” he said, deftly trimming a huge porterhouse. “They don’t want to do this, and I don’t want them to – it’s too hard, and they’re better off.”

So where does that leave the neighborhood butcher shop? Most agreed that high-end shops like Lobel’s will always be there to cater to the elite, but the working-class neighborhood meat shop’s days are numbered.

That assessment weighs heavily on Mr. DiMaggio’s partner, Evan Kemp, who at 45 was one of the youngest butchers interviewed for this article. He’s in line to take over the Holland Court shop when Mr. DiMaggio eventually retires, but will the business still be viable by then?

“I’m going to try to stick it out, but I might end up working at a bigger, Citarella-type place,” he said. “One of my kids is working at a fish market in Philadelphia, and he loves the food industry. I could see him attempting to do this, but I don’t think it’s going to be here for him. I hope I’m wrong, because I have quite a ways still to go myself.”

The New York Sun

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