by Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
Rob and Allie Levitt made big food news in Chicago in January. That was when they revealed that there are moving The Butcher & Larder, their popular meat shop, from its current small storefront in the city’s Noble Square neighborhood. They will be shifting to a much larger space within the retail market that Local Foods — a wholesale distributor dealing mainly in locally and regionally grown products — is building a couple of miles north in the Bucktown neighborhood.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Rob Levitt about his somewhat unexpected career as a leading butcher and his hopes for bigger things with the move, expected this spring, into Local Foods. Rob previously shared his thoughts in a column published by Good Food on Every Table on Feb. 25, and a companion piece about the Local Foods store project can be found by linking here.
[Levitt will conduct a workshop on charcuterie at FamilyFarmed‘s Good Food Festival on Saturday, March 21. For more information about the Good Food Festival & Conference and to buy tickets, please visit the event website.]
On informing consumers about meat choices:
“I’m certainly not a master butcher. That was never really my goal, to be a master butcher. It was to learn how to do this in a way that maximized these animals that we’re buying. We buy from really good sources and we wanted to get as much out of it as we could. And we wanted to show people there was more to an animal than what we’re used to seeing, strictly for the purpose of giving people more options. There’s a lot of delicious expensive cuts of meat, and there are some really delicious less-expensive cuts of meat. That’s why we’re here.”
Rob and Allie Levitt met while students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and they worked in restaurant kitchens in Manhattan and Chicago. Rob, who developed an expertise making charcuterie from that experience, discusses their decision to open The Butcher & Larder four years ago — and the role social media played in making it an instant success:
“We went to some investors and they thought it was a great idea. It took a long time, but I found this space, the price was right, and everything just fell into place. I had a good amount of time between the closing of the restaurant and the opening of this place to work the social media angle, and people got really excited. People were following everything I would post on my blog or on the shop’s Facebook page or Twitter page. People were really interested in hearing more about it, what we were going to do with all the plans we had. We opened to a whirlwind.”
About the broad range of customers who The Butcher & Larder serves:
“It’s been good. We’ve developed a really, really loyal following of really wonderful people who seem really excited. And one of the things we don’t have is a a specific demographic. We have people who are old and wealthy, we have people who are young and poor, and we have everything in between. They come to us because they know they can find something that they want to eat that they can afford. For some people that’s an endless supply of ribeyes and filets, whatever they want. For some people that’s ‘This is my budget, I’d like something like a steak, what do you have?’ We’ll work with them with the different cuts we have. It’s really nice to work with all kinds of different people.”
About making the butchering process open to the public, and how that is going to be an even bigger deal when The Butcher & Larder moves into the Local Foods space:
“People who come in here and ask lots of questions about the meat that we buy and we are happy to answer them. We’re not trying to hide anything. Wednesday is when we get most of our animals in and we butcher them right at the table. There’s no ‘back room.’ Everything’s right out in the open…. That’s why we’re so excited about this big move to Local Foods, because we can do everything we’re doing but on such a larger scale. We’re going to have a giant curing room and there’s going to be a big window so you can look right in. We’re going to have a bigger butcher shop and there’s going to be a separate cutting room, but there’s going to be a window into the cutting room. In the middle of production, when we’re all back there and there’s meat coming in on rails, we’re happy for everyone to see what’s going on.”
On why he thinks being upfront about why being upfront about how animals are raised, what they are fed, and how they are treated are more important than labels such as “local” or “organic”:
“To me, local sustainable food is important more because it is a community thing. I want to buy beef from Illinois because I want to support a farmer who is my neighbor. As important is I want to buy a product that I know how it was raised and it traveled a short distance, it’s probably going to taste the best. That’s all I really care about is sending people home with a product that is the best-tasting thing. If the best-tasting thing doesn’t come from Illinois, but comes from somewhere else where there are people who are raising things the right way, then that’s just as important. Local isn’t better than non-local if it isn’t a better product.
“The same thing with organic. If it’s not a delicious product, it’s not better than something that isn’t organic but is a great-tasting product. If a farmer raised an amazing apple that isn’t certified organic, it’s better than something that’s grown in Monsanto’s certified organic program. It’s all about the transparency. What is Good Food? It’s transparent food. If you’re shopping at places and they can’t tell you where their food came from, then it’s something to think about.
“We have a lot of people who regularly want to come and learn. Which is another really cool thing about Local Foods is that we’ll have more opportunity to bring people in. Chefs are more interested in buying whole animals and breaking them down and using all these parts. I feel like less common cuts are becoming more of a thing…. I don’t know if it will ever get back to a point in time where there’s a little butcher shop in every neighborhood, but I think that in the restaurant community people are getting more interested in butchering than they ever have been. Which is great, it’s a cool thing to do, but it’s something that people have been doing for generations, so it’s not like this amazing new thing that’s happening. It’s just coming back.
“I’m really not a master butcher, but a guy who had a little bit of knowledge, a lot of interest and did the best I could to do this. I’m pretty good at breaking down an animal, but there are a lot of people who are way better than me…. We’re really trying to make ourselves known and make what we’re doing known. It’s less about being the best butchers, and more about being the champions of something we think is really important.”