Don’t Call Him a Butcher

Photo credit: Rachel Barrett
Photo credit: Rachel Barrett

Jake Dickson wants to make one thing clear up front: He is not a butcher. Let alone a rock star butcher. But it’s fair to say that he runs one of the hottest butcher shops in town.

Dickson opened Dickson’s Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market just two years ago. But he started planning the business two years earlier — before, he insists, “this sexy butcher thing even started.”

Dickson had spent six years working in marketing, first for American Express and then as a consultant, when Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book came into his life like a sledgehammer. “It made me realize that though I was a voracious carnivore, I knew nothing about how meat got to my plate,” he says. “And the more I learned, the more horrified I was by commodity meat production.”

After looking hard for better options and finding very few, Dickson had an epiphany. “It just became obvious one day that if you could figure out how to do this right, there would be a business there.”

He started — as business guys do — by putting together a business plan. But the harder he looked at the industry, the edgier he got about his plan. “There was so much to know,” he says, “so many cheats and shady characters. The more I researched it, the more I realized I would lose all the money I’d been saving.” So he threw away his business plan and embarked on a two-year, self-designed (unpaid) apprenticeship.

First stop: the Cornell Agricultural Extension, where he spent four months working with its 1,400-animal herd of sheep, sorting sheep and lambs, pulling sick animals and moving fences and sheep. Only to discover that he didn’t really like sheep — or large-scale farming.

His next stop was at the opposite end of the food chain, working with an artisanal butcher in Minneapolis, where he discovered that he loved the face-to-face interaction with customers, because it let him tell the farmers’ stories. Next he needed to find small farmers and slaughterhouses that shared his ethos. So he moved to the Hudson Valley and, through Kathleen Harris of the Northeast Livestock Processing Service Company, whom he’d met at one of the many conferences he’d been attending, got in touch with the Stone Barns Center and Nichols Meat Processing. Both turned into long-term relationships. Today Nichols slaughters almost all the shop’s meat, and though Dickson doesn’t buy meat from Stone Barns — nearly all of which goes to the farm’s on-site restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns — Dickson calls Craig Haney, its livestock manager (and this magazine’s editor’s husband), his “farm conscience.”

Dickson’s apprenticeship only reinforced the ethos he’d picked up from Fearnley-Whittingstall. While the animals at Cornell weren’t mistreated, he says, they lived crowded, unnatural lives and got sick a lot. “You’d walk down the aisles and the animals would look healthy, but they’d be coughing constantly.” At Stone Barns, on the other hand, the animals are on pasture or in the woods. The sheep are moved to fresh grass daily, spring through fall. The chickens roost; the pigs root.

When Dickson finally began sourcing good meat and selling it to New Yorkers, in June 2008, it wasn’t as a shop but as a stand at two weekly community markets, one in Park Slope and one in Morningside Heights, just a big plastic-topped steel bin full of meat under a pop-up tent (and more meat nearby in his refrigerated truck). He says the scenario was far from ideal. The weather all but dictated his sales: Cold rainy days cut his take dramatically. And to his surprise, his customers weren’t really interested in hearing about the great farms, like Stony Brook Farm in Schoharie and Hernondale Farm in Ancramdale, whose meat he was selling. “People ask a lot fewer questions at farmers markets than in a shop,” he says.

A year later, Dickson was in the final stages of negotiating the lease on a retail space in the West Village, when luck, and Mary Cleaver, rescued him from what he now says would have been a terrible mistake. Cleaver, whose eponymous eco-catering outfit and accompanying eatery, the Green Table, were among the original Chelsea Market tenants, was — and is — eager to see the market get more serious about a regional food economy. She’d been on the lookout for a butcher shop for the market since Frank’s — the Chelsea butcher-cum-steakhouse — closed a few years back. And she wanted one that focused on local suppliers.

For its part, the market was looking for unusual shops that would bring publicity. Once Cleaver made the introduction, the two sides came to terms in a matter of a week. Dickson says the Chelsea Market location is where the shop belongs. “We would have died so quickly in the other spot,” he says. “We would never have done the volume to pay the rent.”

Cleaver says working with Dickson (she let his chef use her kitchen while he was building his; he sells some meat to Green Table and runs up the corridor to her shop with emergency supplies if she runs short) has shown her how much value a good numbers person can bring to a sustainable food business. And she says it’s a pleasure to work with someone who understands both numbers and values. “Jake is a money guy who has brought his heart and his perspective to a business that’s about animals and food, not about widgets,” she says. “We need more people like that.”

For Dickson it all comes down to conscious consuming. “I don’t think you have to meditate on the cow,” he says, “but you should recognize what you’re doing for what it is.” He’s got some clear rules: No antibiotics except to treat illness (large operations give all their animals so-called sub-therapeutic doses to spur faster growth), no feedlots, no hormones, no animal by-products in the feed. Pithily illustrating this philosophy, a black slate pig decorates the shop wall above the counter. Its belly reads: Ingredients: Meat. But Dickson’s ultimate litmus test is less tangible, just a hard- to-define feeling he gets while on the farm. “I want to be able to say with complete comfort that the animals I sell are not just high quality but have been treated well through the end of their life.”

So he doesn’t buy anything unless he’s personally seen how it’s raised. (And customers can see it, too: Each farm he buys from is profiled on his website, and there’s a photo album in the store with pictures of the animals’ lives all the way to slaughter.)

Except for his poultry, which comes (via Madani Halal, a poultry vendor in Queens) from Amish farms, Dickson buys everything — beef, lamb, pork and the occasional goat — direct from the farm as whole carcasses, which he picks up at the slaughterhouse in his own refrigerated van, equipped with railings and hooks to hang them. At the store, they slide down another set of railings into the cooler. To protect himself — and the farmers — he plays the field a bit; he has more than one supplier for each kind of meat, and expects his farmers to have more than one customer. But there’s no question they’re deeply dependent on each other.

Bob Comis, owner of Stony Brook Farm, near Albany, was raising 70 pigs a year when Dickson started buying from him; he is now raising 450 a year and thinking of expanding further. In contrast to commercial pig operations, where many thousands of animals spend their entire lives in tiny pens, Comis raises his heritage pigs on pasture, feeding them grain mash produced at a local mill, unsaleable vegetables from a local farm and farm-grown forage: no synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.

“If I hadn’t entered into this relationship with Jake, I’d probably still be a frustrated low-volume farmer who wanted to be larger scale,” he says. He’s still tiny by national standards, but glad about his modest growth, which is almost entirely due to Dickson. And he says he isn’t worried about being left in the lurch. For one thing, Dickson puts a deposit on each pig he expects to buy, so in the unlikely event that the shop were to go belly up, Comis would be covered. And if Comis gets into a cash crunch, Dickson will help him out by pre-paying for some of his pigs, in a sort of man-to-man makeshift CSA.

Buying whole animals direct from farms is a lot more complicated than buying the pre-cut, boxed meat most butchers deal in. “Old-school butchers don’t think what I’m doing is possible,” Dickson says. “The prices are too high, and the margins are too difficult.”

And unlike other butchers, who can just call suppliers if they run short, Dickson can’t make rapid adjustments when the manure hits the fan. Take the day in March when Dickson’s truck got its windshield smashed by a falling icicle on its way out of Stony Brook Farm’s driveway. His shop was stuck with a half-empty display case till the windshield was fixed and the truck made it back to Manhattan.

But despite the problems, Dickson — so far, at least — has proved the naysayers wrong. Business is growing fast: While he started with just a butcher and a cook, he’s now got nine full-time employees, three part-time and three interns. His shop is equipped not just with the usual butcher paraphernalia (in addition to that cold storage, there’s a really, really big butcher block) but also with a kitchen, his own smoker and a brand new machine for emulsifying meat into hot-dog texture. Even better, he’s making a profit.

A quick look inside makes it clear this isn’t your ordinary butcher shop. Thirty feet from the door, past the lunch counter and the relatively small meat counter, there’s a whole animal hanging from a hook like a gigantic pink punching bag. In clear view, Mexican-trained butcher Jose Manuel is using a 7-inch boning knife to break the carcass down into more manageable chunks called “sub-primals.” Tuscan-trained Gaetano Arnome does more trimming and carves specific cuts for the retail counter. Dickson tries to avoid what he calls “shock and awe” — you won’t find any lamb’s heads in his meat counter — but he also wants to be absolutely clear about what’s going on here. “I want the good, the bad and the ugly on display,” he says. Dickson is one butcher who doesn’t mind reminding you that steak comes from a cow.

Making money out of whole animals requires a fanatical aversion to waste. “The past year has been about finding a path to using every bit of the animal,” Dickson says. Like European butchers, but unlike most American ones, Dickson gets about a quarter of his revenue from prepared food — ≠a business that’s expanding rapidly.

The staff transform trimmings into fine charcuterie, which they’ll soon be shipping nationwide. Dickson has moved his lunch counter to the front of the store and expanded its hours. And his CIA-trained chef, David Schuttenberg (formerly of Cabrito and Fatty Crab), is constantly cooking up new delectable ready-to-eat dishes like smoked pork cubanos, bánh mì and chicken legs braised in salsa verde. He’s also broadening the shop’s take on takeout with new dishes like tomatillo-braised chicken legs and braised short ribs in red wine reduction. Not to mention the accompaniments: pickled red onions with your beef pie? Or maybe a bit of preserved lemon with your smoked chicken?

All this variety takes a lot of work, but — as the cooks among our readers will have noticed — it also lets him sell, at a good price, parts of the animal that otherwise sell for very little or would even be thrown away. (About the only part of the animal Dickson doesn’t sell — in one form or another — are bones too enormous for the stockpot.)

Using up whole animals is made even more complex by the doubly seasonal nature of selling meat. Farms and animals have their seasons, but so do customers. Hamburger sells better in summer. Winter brings more demand for stewing and braising cuts. At Christmas, everyone wants beef roasts. But since Dickson buys whole animals year-round, his supply doesn’t fluctuate with demand, and he’s got to find a lot of different ways of using up what customers don’t want.

Last January, stuck with a staggering surplus of tougher cuts once he’d sold his Christmas roasts, Dickson joined forces with Cleaver to stage New York’s largest-ever chili fest. A good time was had by all, and Dickson got at least the wholesale price for some 70 pounds of beef that another outfit might have thrown out.

But the backbone to the whole-animal business is persuading customers to try cuts that most butchers consign to the chop-it-for-hamburger department. Ever had bistec norteño? It’s the only tender muscle in a beef shank, and you can cook it like flank steak. Or what about a steer’s bicep, otherwise known as platanillo? Dickson urges his customers to use beef shank instead of bottom round for braising partly because of its wonderfully unctuous flavor — but also because he can use the bottom round for jerky. “And we can sell unlimited beef jerky.”

Selling customers on unusual, cheaper cuts also guides them to better values. Prices here may not look high to pupils of Pollan (especially since custom butchering is included), but supermarket shoppers may get sticker shock. Still, while buying a whole pastured animal means Dickson has to charge $34 a pound for tenderloin (there are, after all, only eight pounds of tenderloin in an entire 400-pound beef carcass), it also means he’s got plenty of less expensive cuts on hand, and the knowledge to teach customers how to cook them.

Which makes Dickson’s feel like the kind of butcher shop your grandmother must have shopped at. Not only do they cut meat to order, but they answer all your questions. How’s the lamb belly? (Not tender and fatty, but great when you braise it.) How long should you cook a pork chop? (Four to five minutes, or if you have a meat thermometer let the chop get to 135 degrees then let it rest for 10 minutes.) Last Easter, the store sold 33 baby lambs — whole or in halves — providing buyers with cooking help and a free course in basic lamb butchery.

“We can’t be a butcher shop for everybody,” he admits. Nationwide, he points out, 99 percent of the population buys meat at supermarkets, not butcher shops. “But hopefully,” Dickson says, “we’re going to move the needle.”

Carrie Vasios contributed reporting.

Andrew F. Smith

Andrew F. Smith (Editor in Chief) teaches nine courses on culinary topics at the New School in New York. He serves as the series editor for the "Edible Series" at Reaktion Books in the United Kingdom, and is the author or editor of twenty-four books, including his most recent, American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food (University of California Press, 2012), The Oxford Encyclopedia on Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013), and New York City: A Food Biography (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013).

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