Artisan Butcher Shop Keeps Locavore Customers Curious and Engaged
It's said that there are few things worse to witness than the making of sausage. The implication is that if you saw what went into it, you wouldn't want to eat it.
The truth could not be any further from my view at the open work table at Rose's Meat Market and Sweet Shop in Durham. Butcher and co-owner Justin Meddis crafts about 30 distinct sausages in the downtown business, which opened last June in a former auto dealership. At least five varieties can be found in the display case at any given time, and none resemble the commercial brands commonly found in supermarkets.
"A lot of grocery stores mix a certain amount of meat with a spice packet and call it sausage," Justin says with disdain as he smoothes the front of his dark green apron. "We don't do that."
Rose's sausage uses no bread or filler – and no preservatives. Instead, they feature the best bits of pork, beef, and lamb salvaged from whole-animal butchery. Ground meats are blended with luscious pork fat and flavored with everything from French wine to Chapel Hill Creamery's Harvest Moon cheese before being piped into natural casings. Made in small batches to ensure freshness, they are snatched up by in-the-know regulars for a simple, savory, and reasonably priced supper.
While Justin breaks down pasture-raised animals carefully sourced from local growers, his wife and business partner, Katie, is in charge of the bakery on the other side of the sun-drenched store. Customers choose from an enticing assortment of breads and sweets, including delicate French macaroons and decadent cream puffs. She also bakes vegetable-based savories that routinely attract vegetarians willing to ignore the meat case.
"I know some people find it strange that there's a bakery in here, but we don't," says Katie, who grew up nearby in Chapel Hill. "We're really nothing like the old-timey butcher shops some people remember. There's no sawdust. No bad smell."
Indeed, the aroma inside Rose's is a fairly intoxicating mix of spices and smoked meats balanced with the sweet, buttery appeal of fresh baked goods. If you're the sort of who can stand strong against the temptation of seasonal galettes, which Katie bakes throughout the day, prepare to melt when you taste the soft caramels made with house-rendered lard.
Another difference between Rose's and your grandfather's butcher shop is that Katie has established a strong social media presence for their brand. Wondering which sandwich or spicy ramen soup is the daily special, or whether there's any fennel ice cream in the freezer? Answers can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
Justin and Katie met seven years ago while working for the same restaurant group in Charleston, South Carolina. They began shaping their vision for Rose's – named for Katie's mother and grandmother (it's also her middle name) – during the three years they spent cooking in top San Francisco kitchens. She was a pastry chef at the fabled Chez Panisse; he was executive chef at the Michelin-starred Ame in the St. Regis Hotel.
While Katie had not planned on returning to North Carolina, they discovered that downtown Durham had everything on their list, including family support. And, importantly, it was missing something essential.
"There were all these great restaurants centered around local foods, but there was no butcher shop," says Justin, who learned the art while working at Cypress in Charleston. "In the beginning, I liked butchery because it was mysterious. Now, it's more about quality. I always feel like I can become better at what I'm doing."
Before opening Rose's, the Meddises participated in several pop-up events where they collaborated with local growers and chefs. The exposure helped to build a diverse and loyal following, which continues to grow by enthusiastic word of mouth. "I'm glad we settled here," says Katie, noting they are considering another food-related business for the area. "I have a lot of pride in owning a business in my hometown area."
Casey McKissick is program director of NC Choices, which promotes North Carolina's local and niche meat industry. He believes the timing is right for operations like Rose's, as well as his own Foothills Farm & Butchery, which opened last year in Black Mountain.
"Consumers are demanding local, pasture-raised meats, and new brick-and-mortar butcher shops are helping to tell the story and create new experiences," McKissick says. "It takes you back to an old way of doing things, of having relationships with the people from whom you buy your food.
"In the last decade, we've seen enormous growth of farmers bringing heirloom vegetables and artisan products to the market," McKissick adds. "A full-service butcher shop is the next logical step."
Alan Wade, director of meat and poultry inspections for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, believes such entrepreneurs are having a positive impact on the state. In 2002, there were two participants in the then-new Meat Handler Registration program, which allows farmers or growers to market their locally grown meat products to retail stores, restaurants and the general public. As of early March, 716 were registered and the office fields new inquiries weekly.
"A lot of the people involved are younger, which is great for the industry," Wade says. "They are very health conscious and responding to consumer demand for local foods and value-added products, like house-made bacon. We see this as evidence that the farmers, growers, retailers, and inspected establishments are much more willing to work together."
Whether it's making sausage or ensuring that consumers have access to an array of humanely raised meats, Justin sees education as a key part of his job. He offers seven variations of smoked pork bacon, for example. And he works hard to interest customers in unfamiliar cuts of meat – such as the rich pork collar from a hog's neck area and the ranch cut from a beef shoulder, a tough slab typically braised for pot roast.
"When you take it out by itself, it's almost the texture of a New York strip," he says. "The fact is, New York strip accounts for maybe 30 pounds of a 750-pound steer. People might expect [familiar steaks] if they're never been here before, but these other cuts are what bring them back."
The couple is planning more ways to keep customers engaged and curious. By spring, they'll expand their offerings of products from culinary cohorts and offer evening classes. Summer will bring fresh produce, making Rose's a one-stop shop for those who want a simple way to create a local dining experience at the own dinner table.
A steady stream of shoppers files in on a Tuesday afternoon, including Shannon Healy of Durham craft bar Alley Twenty Six, who is hoping for duck to serve on his own dinner table. Justin asks an employee to fetch a few from Rose's walk-in freezer. Some customers select fresh-cut meats for that night's dinner while others consider pre-cooked meals that are available late day, like five-spice roasted pork with spring vegetable fried rice or smoked beef with new potato salad and green garlic chimichurri. Katie warmly greets a regular who stops by for a loaf of bread.
"Hey, I'm making vanilla caramels," she tells the woman, who promises to return the next day. "That's what happens," Katie says later. "People come in here for one thing and keep coming back for more."