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.

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.  

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.

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”.

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.”

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.

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!