Tuesday September 18, 2007
The knives are out in a changing world, but business is looking up for those tough enough to adapt, Rita Erlich reports.LEO DONATI is the last butcher standing in Lygon Street. He's the remaining link to a food culture that has evaporated as shopping and eating habits change. Donati recalls that when he took over the store from his employer in 1972, there were four butcher shops in the short block between Elgin and Faraday streets, and another four in the block to Grattan Street.That picture of decline is repeated in street after street, in suburb after suburb.Butcher Brendon Watts recalls that when he started his work in Richmond in 1972, there were 34 butchers in Richmond and an abattoir. In 1980, when he bought his Bridge Road business, there were 16 butchers in Bridge Road alone. In 1991, the year he moved out, there were five. Five years later, there was none.Butchers seem to be a dying breed. But there is good news too. There are certainly fewer butchers than there used to be, but most of those who remain in business are doing very well, according to figures from industry body Meat & Livestock Australia. Meat sales from independent butchers rose by 2.5 per cent over the past two years.MLA organisations trade marketing manager Lachlan Bowtell also says butchers are spending more money on fixing up their shops. He says the average refit for a store now costs about $100,000, which is a fair commitment for a small business. There's more than one reason for the resurgence, just as there is more than one reason for the decline. It is easy to blame supermarkets: 65 per cent of meat sales in Australia are through Woolworths/Safeway and Coles. Independent butchers now have 22 per cent of market share.But supermarkets are only part of the story, as Brendon Watts can attest. Watts, a "traditional butcher", moved from Richmond to Doncaster East when business got tough. He says the surrounding food stores had gone, most of the women who were his main customers had themselves joined the workforce, and parking was limited, which hadn't mattered when people walked rather than drove. "I moved to Doncaster, where there was parking, other (food) shops, and larger families," he explains, adding that the best location for a butcher shop is near a good greengrocer - as he is.The importance of neighbouring shops is an opinion shared by others, such as Paul White, manager of Yarraville Village Old-Style butcher, in Anderson Street. The presence of a good greengrocer is an indicator of a lively shopping area, which probably contains a baker too. Add reasonable parking and strip shopping is looking very healthy. Leo Donati calls himself an old-fashioned butcher. He sells meat and some smallgoods - his own hams and sausages, his own smoked chicken. He and those who work with him take cuts of meat from the bone with the skill of a surgeon and the grace of a fencer. Modern butchers are less likely to display their skills in public and they tend to sell more than just meat. The new butchers sell meals. The Village Butcher in High Street, Berwick, sells Yarra Valley pasta, makes its own meat fillings, and carries cheeses and grocery items. At the Yarraville Village Old-Style there is olive oil from Victoria, olives, honey, eggs, and a range of other items. Just a block away, Andrew's sells a considerable range of products - condiments, pasta, sauces, cheese - that make up a meal. In the store, owned by Andrew Vourvahakis, about a third of the meat display counter is taken up by cuts of raw meat. The rest is, as they say, "value-added". There are sausages, of course - they are renowned. But there is lots of ready-to-cook meat such as seasoned, rolled lamb. At Watts' store there are stir-fry mixes, curry mixes, seasoned meats and meat prepared for the pan or the oven. Some butchers even sell fish on certain days of the week.As Vourvahakis puts it: "We're creating a food environment."At Donati and other similar Italian butchers, customers often discuss cooking and the finer points of flavour and technique. At the modern places, butchers give advice and reassurance. Tenderness and ease of cooking are what most consumers want. Most of them do not want to buy a week's supply of meat, and neither do they want anything that's going to take hours before it gets to the table. Vourvahakis says that about 10 years ago, the Yarraville store would sell 300 legs of lamb on a Saturday morning. That was one of the busiest times of the week. These days, he says, there are about three legs of lamb on display, and 30 kilograms of ready-prepared lamb kebabs. He says that when he first prepared kebabs, everyone said he was mad. "When we started making smallgoods (in 1992), everyone laughed because they said it wouldn't last."Eating habits have changed, as have cooking and shopping patterns. Both Vourvahakis and Watts say people want to eat restaurant-style food at home.People used to buy meat for the week in a single visit to the shop. Now they shop three or four times a week.Bulk meat is not necessarily much cheaper these days; cheap meat was never sustainable, certainly not for the producer. The cost has changed, and so has the quality of the meat we buy. Much of it is better quality than it used to be, and we are buying different cuts. Vourvahakis' lamb kebabs are one example, as are the backstraps, once a near giveaway that cut now fetch premium prices.Apprentices and new staff are also an important topic in the industry. "Everyone wants to be a brain surgeon or a solicitor," Donati says. "The trades are in a bad way." Vourvahakis, whose exuberant energy is compelling, says he tells his new staff that if they don't want to come to work, if they don't love what they do, they should go and find something else. Watts points out that we're in a time of low unemployment and stresses the importance of staff training and good management. The hours are long, certainly, but not as long or as physically demanding as they used to be. Vourvahakis regards the current scene as a marathon for butchers. "The great will survive," he insists. "The rest will fall by the wayside."Watts has just invested $50,000 in a modern display counter and Vourvahakis built a factory to make his smallgoods.Supermarkets may have the lion's share of the market but butchers are now the specialists. The expert knowledge they can provide must be part of the service.And they have a secret weapon - something that makes up for the long hours and hard work. "You can't get tired of something you love doing," says Vourvahakis.