“That openness is where it starts” – Meating

A classically-trained restaurant chef turned butcher and charcutier, Rusty Bowers opened Pine Street Market, a retail and wholesale butchery, in 2008. He recently partnered with Riverview Farms, his main sourcing partner for the last decade, to open another retail store, Chop Shop. Rusty sat down to speak with us about selling meat retail, his approach to meat waste, and how he’s seen customers change in the last decade.

Pine Street Market Rusty Bowers Weighing Meat Scale

Corinne Kocher: Pine Street Market has been around since 2008. How has it grown and changed over the last decade?

Rusty Bowers: I’ve been going over old documents recently, and I found my early 2007 business plan. It was going to be a tiny room, two household size refrigerators, one for raw product and one as a curing cave. I was going to have four wholesale customers and that was it, no store, no nothing. I started as only salami, because I thought that no one would spend money on higher-end sausage, because you can get sausage at the grocery store for like four bucks. 

About six months after we opened, I realized I had to grow to stay alive, so I started making bacon. And then with the trim from the bacon, the trim from the salami, I started making sausage. Once the retail store was open, our customers started coming in saying, “I want a pork chop”.

 Originally I had envisioned it as a sort of charcuterie shop, but what I quickly realized is that our customers and neighbors were excited about humanely raised meats and wanted to try heritage  pork chops, grass fed steaks, humane chicken, the everyday meats that they would have throughout the week.  

Pine Street Market Rusty Bowers cured sausage

So it slowly grew. Later in 2009, we were able to grow to processing whole animals, starting with sides of local, heritage pork. And it made more sense – I had always wanted  to showcase the beautiful pork and grass fed from Riverview Farms and humanely raised chickens from Springer Mountain Farms. Now we can be more sustainable with the farms; we can take more from the farms.

In 2008 it was just me. Now we have four full-time butchers, we have a general manager, retail associates, delivery drivers, and we’re growing.

Currently, you practice “whole animal butchery”, working with entire animals. But when you first started your business, you used “primal cuts”. How did you make that transition?

I don’t see a way around that [using primal cuts] at the beginning. Because we had to learn on the job and be as close to zero waste as possible. We would have had high waste if we had started with whole animals. My fear was that I buy a whole animal to make salami, I can’t sell some of it, and I throw half of the animal away. I was going to disrespect the life of the animal. 

So originally we were just buying the hams and shoulders. And by the middle of 2009, we could finally handle doing whole animal. Now, every Monday we get a side of beef from Riverview Farms, and six whole pigs that we break down each week.

From a waste perspective, what is it like doing whole animal butchery?

For me personally, being a classically trained chef and working as that for 15 years before I started Pine Street, what really helped was that I worked under extremely frugal French chefs. The executive chef would go around the kitchen as we were prepping for dinner service. He would empty your trash can into a roasting pan, and add up what he thought you had incorrectly thrown away. He was looking for trimmings of carrots, the top of the red pepper, the tiny pieces you assumed didn’t matter. He would add it up in his head, holding out his hand and demanding in a thick accent, “$2.50, you owe me $2.50 and if you do not pay me you must leave.”

Living that example on the day-to-day gives you that mindset – not only from a cost standpoint but out of respect for the animals and farmers. Our goal at Pine Street is that you can lift the trash can with two fingers at the end of the day – it should be, at most, some spent bones from a broth, paper towels, empty boxes of spice containers, plastic wrap, that kind of stuff.

The other thing that’s really helped me is the several avenues of sales that we have – wholesale, butchering classes, retail, farmers markets, and our new store, Chop Shop. A great example of this would be wholesale customers like George and Michael with Korean Wives [Atlanta-area restaurant group] and Noona, Ramen Station, Taiyo Ramen – buying the leftover bones, skins, and trotters. These lesser used cuts make amazing broth, soups, and ramen that are difficult to sell at the retail counter. True whole animal butchery means finding ways to use every last piece.  We wouldn’t have it any other way.

What really helped was that I worked under extremely frugal French chefs… would empty your trash can into a roasting pan, and add up what he thought you had incorrectly thrown away. He would add it up in his head, holding out his hand and demanding in a thick accent, “$2.50, you owe me $2.50 and if you do not pay me you must leave.”

How does this differ from grocery stores?

Grocery stores are not butchering at the store; it is cases of vacuumed sealed big cuts of meat that they cut and portion for the meat case. These boxes of meat are coming from a distribution center of mass-produced, commodity meat and have usually spent several months in a freezer.  These are animal breed for mass production, not from a local farm where they are raised for flavor.  

For us, we have the beauty and freedom of two shops, so we can always do something with the meat and not waste it. A big box grocery store doesn’t have that freedom – when our staff have an idea, we let them go for it. For example, our staff a while ago realized that we were ending the week with extra beef fat. Together we came up with a solution: Beef Butter. We render the beef fat with black pepper and herbs and blend it with grass fed butter. We now offer it to go with the steak you’ll be cooking at home. What better way to compliment a steak?! 

I don’t think you have that flexibility in the grocery store, so their waste looks different. But we’ve developed that flexibility to go with using whole animals and day-to-day business.

I think one of the most difficult things about selling meat retail, compared to restaurants, is that people at restaurants may be more adventurous, because they don’t need to prepare the meat themselves. But in retail, education about meat has to be central to what you do, because they will cook it themselves.

I agree. We are so proud to be working with Riverview Farms and we want to share that love with our customers. Beautifully, humanely-raised pork – birthed on the farm, which is really important to me. It grows; it’s processed. It comes here, Danny [production team leader] and the crew cut the perfect pork chop. It goes up in the deli case, you take it home, you burn it, and you say, “that’s a bad pork chop”.

[laughs] And I immediately think, “Only one person in this circle messed up. And it wasn’t us.”  So the logical step is to help inform our customers on how to properly cook the meat!

Customers want and need tips on how to cook humanely raised meat because it cooks differently than grocery store pork. I love that! So we’ve started to show people how to dry rub, talking about the love of brining (with brining it’s a lot harder to overcook). Or we talk about the right way to cook sausage, because everyone cooks it backwards. We’re educating people through demonstrations, classes, newsletters, pamphlets.

But also, customers will come in and say, “what do you guys have?” So the education starts with the employee, and then it goes to the customers in the shop.

Pine Street Market Rusty Bowers shop

This company has gone through hard times, and still not let go of quality. So people come in, and we say, “hey, have you had a Pork Secreto? They’re delicious!” and they say, “everything I’ve had here is delicious, I’m going to try a Secreto!” If we’re going to be part of this community we’ve got to do everything we do consistently week after week.

How do you deal with attitudes people have about meat, especially meat that they are going to take home and prepare themselves?

Part of our job, and we talk about this in the training for the retail counter, is taking the fear out of meat. When you walk into the shop, it can be intimidating. So that’s part of the reason why we do things like making recipe cards, explaining how to cook pork, chicken, and beef – to take that fear out of it, so you can just grab the card and say, “oh yeah I knew that”, and feel like you got it.

I think people are starting to realize that you can’t just eat ribeye steak or tenderloin. I do have customers come in, and they say, “okay I want 60 pounds of tenderloin” and it’s like, man, that’s not possible – we don’t even get that in a month. But it’s just what they’re used to – we’re all sensitive, all of us, and we don’t want to be told that were wrong. So to go to the butcher shop, and you see they don’t have boneless skinless chicken breast, so you think you can’t eat chicken, or they don’t have a ribeye or New York strip so you can’t eat steak, you don’t know what to do.

There are also other expectations people have, from other places – we have “all-natural pork and beef frankfurter”. It’s a long title, but it needs that because if I call it a hot dog, you’re going to think it’s $4 a pound. If I call it a pork and beef frankfurter you’re going to say, “what’s really in there?” So it has to be “all-natural pork and beef frankfurter” for people to be like, “okay, that title fits in with my view of meat”.

Pine Street Market sausages

You partner with Riverview Farms to source your animals. A humanely-raised pig can take something like eight months to get to the weight you want. What are the challenges that come with sourcing on such long timelines?

Right now, the weather is driving us crazy, because we haven’t had one of those long cold snaps to where we can get some beautiful fat back on a pig. We need that fattier stuff, that richer flavor, to do things like cure lardo. But if a pig is sitting outside, all hot in a mud puddle, they’re not going to take on a lot of fat. That is the beauty of whole animal butchery combined with such a strong relationship with our farmers, together we have to make it work.

So how do you deal with those long timelines, when you’re trying to meet retail expectations?

The only way it can work is by having the different outlets. Like I said, we sell online, wholesale, retail at Pine Street and now Chop Shop, farmers markets, etc. We have high-end clients who say, “send me four different types of charcuterie this week.” That saves us, because our cured meats take anywhere from 3 to 8 months to cure and something like an unexpected change in the weather or increased retail demand can affect what we have on hand. We make projections of what we’re going to need, but that’s mostly just from the gut. Things can change, and we have to adjust.

How have your customers have changed their expectations or buying habits over the years?

When we first started we could not sell pancetta. Customers thought that was weird, “why would I buy pancetta, that should be at a restaurant.” But now we sell guanciales, ears, rillettes, and pates – our customers are growing with us.

We are forever growing, like doing monthly butcher boxes to test out new ideas – the next one will have lap cheong salami and nduja, which no one would have tried in 2009. Having our customers trust us and try the new items we make means the world to me.

Pine Street Market teaches a lot of butchery classes to the public. How does this fit in with your business model?

I learned a lot in school [at the Culinary Institute of America] about making us “sticky”, making customers stick to us. I view us as not being a butcher shop; we are a “lifestyle shop”. 

We look at it from that avenue – you could go to Walmart, you can go to Kroger, you have all these take places that sell beef and chicken and pork. But you’re choosing to come to Chop Shop, Pine Street – you’re choosing to buy into that culture, being a part of humanely raised, local, sustainable food.

We have a sausage making class, and at first I thought it was just going to be  good ol’ boys who go hunting and want to make some deer sausage, which would have been fine. But as it turns out it’s about fifty-fifty male-female. Most often, it’s people who want to learn about what we do, and then they say, “I get the process, but that’s too complex, so I’m going to go buy sausage in your store.”

Pine Street Market stuffing sausage

The same with the whole hog class, they learn that the butt comes from the front of the pig, why spare ribs are better than baby back, and why chops should be brined. Explaining those stories and reasons, it helps educate our customers, and it helps our whole business.

When people visit Pine Street Market, they can see directly into the butchery side of the business. Why that design?

For me I need to know where our animals come from I want to meet the producer, walk the farm, tour the slaughterhouse, all before I feel comfortable working with that supplier. That openness is where it starts – building trust with the customer means being wide open. That’s why we have a plexiglass window in the store; it’s like an open kitchen. You can stop in at anytime.

What do you think the future of butchery shops, retail meat looks like?

I think I think we’re going to see more and more beautiful boutique companies, celebrating regional stuff popping up. I think we’re going to see Tyson, Purdue, Cargill, Hormel, all the larger meat producers looking for people like us to partner with. It is the same as Anheuser-Busch wanting to buy up high-end boutique craft breweries, and having it in their portfolio and distribute it on a larger level.

I think distribution, supply chains are opening up – people, especially small and medium companies, can open up more slaughterhouses, more cold storage. We’re seeing all that smaller infrastructure that we lost fill back in.

Pine Street Market wrapped packaged meat

What’s next for Pine Street Market?

We are excited to be figuring out how to expand our production to be able to supply mid-level grocery chains and large boutique stores. This starts with securing financing, additional humane meat suppliers, and a much larger facility!

This interview was done as part of Shared Plates’ Meating series, interviews about the meat we eat and how it is sourced.

“It’s an ethereal f**king experience” – Meating

Brian Wolfe is the executive chef at Kimball House, a restaurant in the Atlanta that serves “food and drinks that reflect the seasons, farms, and personalities of the people preparing them”. Brian brings a long-time interest in butchery to the kitchen, and he spoke with us about his choices as a chef in the protein-ordering process at Kimball House.

Kocher: How does your kitchen approach buying meat?

Wolfe: At Kimball House, I purchase all proteins for the restaurant except oysters. For our oysters, Bryan Rackley [Kimball House owner] knows all the oyster farmers and has visited most of the farms. So I try to base my ordering within that kind of ethos – ordering as local as possible, as sustainable as possible, and trying our best to know all the people we get our stuff from.

Evans Meats out of Birmingham has taken a lot of our business. They’re family-owned and small, which I’ve learned is a great sign for ordering proteins. We get seafood from them, caviar, a lot of stuff.

We do get some non-regional beef. Beef is hard – most of our beef comes from coops in the Midwest, and we buy prime beef because I think the taste and quality of prime beef is better than grass fed. But we also do work with local farms- we get rabbits from a guy in southern Georgia, pigs from a guy in southern Georgia, pigs and beef from a place in Nashville, lamb from a farm near Athens.

Brian Wolfe butchering whole hog

What are other approaches to sourcing proteins have you seen?

I’ve been cooking for 13 years or so, and in control of ordering only in the last 5. But you see all kinds of different systems at different places – some places rely on orders that are completely questionable. You should order from people you trust; you shouldn’t want to only look at dollars per pound. I mean, ethically, you should be driven by what you think is the best-sourced product, the best animals. Some places, you get a list and you order from cost analysis only – that was always really frustrating to me because I wanted this sustainable practice that wasn’t really there.

If you’re dealing with a purveyor who does a super high volume, when they’re purchasing they only think about money. It’s only about monetary value and quantity and profit. I get it; it’s a business. But that said, when they buy large amounts of meat, their quality control is very low, and the variance in quality of the product we receive is wide. Some of it will be beautiful, some of it will be awful.

What cuts of beef do you buy?

We order “subprimals”, four to five whole ribeyes and/or strip loin a week, and we break everything down in-house from there. We don’t order individually purchased steak.

I’m pretty proud of our beef program, because we don’t buy that much but we’ll use literally everything. There’s no waste at all. All the fat gets rendered to cook in, bones and silverskin are roasted for stock, all lean trim gets ground for family meal, for the menu we get bone-in ribeyes – we confit and deep fry the ribs and use it as an entree.

For example, we get hanger steaks, which is on the diaphragm of the cow. There’s only one of them per cow. It’s kind of an odd muscle with a large piece of meat separated by cartilage that runs through it, and people typically trim that middle part out because they don’t cook it properly. But we cure it and cook it for 24 hours at 135 degrees fahrenheit, low temperature, basically make a perfect mid rare and melt the cartilage – so we get to a full yield. 

Kimball House behind the scenes

The quick turnaround to getting it butchered, cleaned, cured, cooked, and on the menu within the week is necessary – because that’s a large expense, and margins are thin for every restaurant.

 You have to be organized and use every single thing – not all of it turns into profit, but most of it does. Our outlet for beef, mainly, is a steak dinner portion of our menu and hanger steak entree. Steak is popular on the menu, but there’s not much else we can do with it. I prefer buying a whole loin as opposed to a tenderloin, so I have all of the other parts, the bits and bobs, to use. 

Most people in our kitchen are trained to break down the steaks – they already have their vessels and containers, they know what they’re going to get. We have it pretty streamlined and make it quick.

Why the focus on a quick turnaround?

For any beef loin or half hog (I never get a whole pig unless it is smaller) or lamb, the quick turnaround to getting it butchered, cleaned, cured, cooked, and on the menu within the week is necessary – because that’s a large expense, and margins are thin for every restaurant.

For us it is more cost-effective to get a half hog. There’s only so many cuts on it but if you utilize it well, and it doesn’t go to charcuterie and remain standing inventory, you can make your money back pretty quickly. But getting it on the menu and sold has to be the priority.

We get incredible, show-quality lamb from Two Brothers Sheep Company, out near Athens, Georgia. It’s expensive, but when we put it on the menu, people buy it and love it and we can get that good turnaround. But I need to have a goal in mind from the second I start, because the guy will ask if I want a big lamb or a medium one when I order – so I need to know how busy I’m going to be that week and what I can sell.

What’s the key to making your money back on selling local meat?

Whenever our food cost allows, we try to get ahold of a whole or half animal, because it is really cost-effective in the long-run. Then, as a team, we figure out what we’re going to do with it. But having an endgame in mind – from the beginning – allows you do make your money back, not waste things, use it appropriately, and move forward from there.

For example, if I buy a pig, we might buy multiple heads. A lot of people don’t use the head because they think they can’t make money off of it, or they think people won’t eat it. But we do head cheese or Coppa di Testa, sell three slices of a pig’s head for $16 with a bunch of garnishes and accoutrements. But from that $25 head you can get 50 slices, and that’s a ton of money – you can almost make enough money on the pig’s head to pay for the whole pig. That’s what I’m looking for.

A lot of people just want it to be simple. They want easy, they don’t want to have to worry about what am I going to do with this, they just want to open a vacuum seal bag. But for me, this is more interesting.

Another example: we get trout from Bramlett Farms in North Georgia, non-eviscerated, and my butcher processes them. If we get enough eggs to cure for caviar, we can cure our own roe and sell it on a caviar service for $30-$50 a piece. If I sell five of those, I purchased all the trout and then I’m still selling trout fillets, and every bit of those sales are profit.

A lot of people just want it to be simple. They want easy, they don’t want to have to worry about what am I going to do with this, they just want to open a vacuum seal bag. But for me, this is more interesting. You start with an endgame in mind, and know how much everything is going to cost – that’s what allows me to buy local, high quality proteins like that.

So how do you sell an entire animal to a public that prefers certain prime cuts?

Part of buying whole hog, whole sides of beef is knowing what you’re going to do with it – but it’s also educating guests to value all of it, not just the cuts that they’ve heard of. 

Kimball House housemade brine

How do you educate the guests then?

I’ve never worked with more interested, engaged servers than the ones at Kimball House. The staff, the front of house, they want to talk about things before service, and they’ll watch me butcher.

I talked about the pig head earlier – people think that they won’t be able to sell it, but that’s the job of the front house staff: to sell. Guests usually want to be told what they need to get. People want to be sold an experience.

Our sales are funny, especially in proteins. With interesting proteins like head cheese, terrine, offal, weird stuff, if our sales aren’t good I’ll first look at the way it’s worded under the menu. Because it’s wild, how that manipulates our sales to an insane degree. So I look at the menu first, and then I’ll cook the dish for the servers. I’ll make them eat it, I’ll plate it for them, I’ll show them pictures of the farmers, we’ll discuss it – and the sales will go up.

People who know what head cheese is, love it. It’s probably like 70/30 for people who try it for the first time. The 30% who don’t like it just think about it too much, with their own head cheese.

So you find a generally positive guest reaction to using all the “bits and bobs” of an animal?

We are very fortunate to have a relatively knowledgeable clientele for the most part. I’m very lucky. We don’t have a big sign out front, we don’t get many people who randomly walk in not knowing what they’re getting into.

Of course sometimes servers will come back and be like “Well, table 12, seat 3 wants to know where this is from, where this is from, where this is from” [editor’s note: please watch this Portlandia sketch] When that does happen I feel decent about the fact that I have an answer for every single one of those questions. And most of it is very local, I know the names of some of these animals.

The animals you get have names? Or numbers?

No, some of our animals have names. It’s not sad for me, but the lady who brings the pigs in is sometimes crying when she delivers them, because she helps raise them. We had one named Socks – they fucked up, because that’s too cute – and she came in crying and saying, “I know I fucked up and spent way too much time with this pig, but I saved it for you guys because I know you’re going to do a really good job”.

And then that night after service we butchered this pig and I told everyone, “the lady who delivered this literally cried in our kitchen, so you need to be really careful with how you handle this animal.”

It goes down the line, from the people who raise the pig all the way down to the servers who are selling it. People take it really seriously and respect it.

What is it like to run a kitchen with a butchery focus? 

Cooks who get to work with the whole animal get creative. It’s a morale booster; people enjoy it. It gets people’s creative juices flowing. A lot of restaurants literally never butcher animals, because it is more work than one person can do in a reasonable amount of time. But it’s something I’m really passionate about, and it completely runs down the line and I can get people involved with the different parts of it.

And looking at the animal, you get acquainted, you can see the kind of life that it had. That’s changed who I’ve ordered pigs from in the past. If you get three pigs in a row that obviously had tons of kill stress – and we test the pH of the pork when it comes in, and you can see what happens when a pig has released hormones and adrenaline and was stressed out – it does change the feeling, the texture of the meat. It has everything to do with the final taste of the product.

Kimball House Brian Wolfe processing whole hog

In the culinary world, there’s the growing consciousness of eating seasonally – guests are increasingly willing to pay for local fruits and vegetables in season. But we rarely talk about eating meat seasonally. Is there a season for local pork belly?

Historically there was seasonality, but we don’t see it as much anymore. Feed and shelter are so readily available now, so the fat and the health of the pig should be good year-round. A hundred years ago, that wasn’t the case – you had a long spring and summer into fall, and when food is plentiful the pig is plentiful and healthy and fat. So you would kill your pig in the fall, because that’s when it is the largest, and you need all that fat for preserving things in the winter.

But now we don’t feel that seasonality as much – there are lamb and goats, animals that reproduce at specific times, there is a seasonality to when that animal is becoming ready. Rabbit is something I brought under the menu in the last couple of months, there are rabbit breeding seasons when they are healthier and more plentiful. But really, we’re only affected by the volume that we can get, not the quality, because animals in the modern age are taken care of way better.

Where you see seasonality in protein more is with fish and shellfish. You can only get flounder a couple times a year because of their migration and reproduction patterns. Crabs, crustaceans, bivalves, sure, but you don’t see it in meat on the sourcing side.

Do you ever apply the seasonal, local ideals we use for fruit, vegetables, etc, to the meat you buy and use on your menu?

You do see the seasonality in the preparation. Seasonally, when it’s cold, people want comfort foods, we’re going to braise more things, so pork sells better in the winter time because there are more large braising cuts. But the seasonality is mostly based on what we want to be doing at that particular moment, which is exciting and fun.

The choices we make in proteins honestly comes from what vegetables we have available. That also leads to creativity – “oh, we have these dope carrots in the walk-in, we’re going to do something with that”. It’s full-circle.

We’re very well connected with proteins, and we can get whatever we want whenever we want it for the most part – but I kind of wish it was harder to get, you know what I mean? I like a challenge of you “we have these things to work with, what do you do?” That’s kind of where we are with produce. Because we can get the same meat each week, but the produce is going to determine the menu.

I get excited by the seasonally available produce. Sometimes you have a lot to work with and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you want to have a beet dish, but no one’s growing beets and you can’t. It was like that this year here, not many people grew beets for whatever fucking reason. 

A majority of my produce ordering is with farmers. Chefs and farmers are built way different, but I love working so closely together with them.

Kimball House Brian Wolfe whole hog

Why are sourcing your proteins this way and butchering so important to you?

Fitting in whole animal butchery is difficult. I don’t want it to be like that, but you have to have practice or learn under somebody. I’ve had years of practice at it and I’m finally getting better at it. But a lot of people get a whole pig and then they don’t know what the fuck to do with it and then they just go back to precuts. That’s why they get pre-portioned steaks and they don’t give a fuck about utilizing whole animals. And that’s a shame.

I’m learning and I’m able to teach people and I enjoy both of those things equally. When I have a deer that I or my dad killed at the restaurant, and I’m there late at night, listening to music and butchering it, it’s like an ethereal fucking experience that I really enjoy. It means a lot, and I think a lot of people miss that.  

When I have a deer that I or my dad killed at the restaurant, and I’m there late at night, listening to music and butchering it, it’s like an ethereal fucking experience that I really enjoy. It means a lot, and I think a lot of people miss that.

 I started to get this series of epiphanies at the beginning of my cooking career. One of them was about how I had watched my dad hunt my whole life. Eventually, I understood the importance of knowing where everything comes from – it was a crash course of “you go get it yourself or you don’t get one”. My dad had that hunting background, and he grew up working on farms, every summer from 7 until he was 19.

But I missed out on that agricultural experience that is a major part of his background, so I feel like I’m trying to make up for lost time in what I do. I deal with farmers everyday. I also help maintain our garden at Kimball House, and I think I look at things differently than some chefs who have never had the opportunity to be on the farm side. I was fortunate to be exposed to it, and now that makes it very, very important to me.

This interview was done as part of Shared Plates’ Meating series, interviews about the meat we eat and how it is sourced.