Do you remember as a child, visiting the local butcher shop? The distinctive chill of the air as you stepped into the shop; the racks of meat hanging on shiny metal hooks behind the counter; the free cheerio which the butcher would hand to you with a conspiratorial wink.
Rod Slater, Chief Executive Officer at Beef + Lamb New Zealand – and the face of their new campaign – remembers these days well. Rod’s father, Des, was a butcher since the depression when Rod’s grandfather paid for his son to start an apprenticeship in the trade.
Rod grew up in the house next door to the family’s butcher store in Auckland’s Mt Albert. His first official job at the age of 10 was delivering meat parcels around the neighbourhood after school. “The basket out the front of the bike was loaded up and I’d set off. It was so full the only way to stop was to fall off!” he laughs.
Later Rod worked in the shop after school, and was kept busy with jobs such as the daily cleaning of the sausage machine. “In those days the butcher was the local confidant,” says Rod. “Housewives would tell the butchers all their problems, and they would dispense advice on life and on the chops to buy for dinner."
At 15 years old, Rod left school, ready for some adventures. On his OE in England, he worked in south London where he was hugely impressed by the talent of the local butchers in displaying their wares. “They were way ahead of where butchers were at back home”, says Rod. He was also struck by the wonderful rapport they enjoyed with their customers.
Back in New Zealand in his early 20s, Rod bought his own butcher’s shop in New Lynn. Building up the business during the day, he also studied towards a business degree at night school.
Over the years, Rod has seen huge changes in the butchery trade. “My father had a cat called Ginger who’d lie on the counter to greet the customers – imagine doing that today!” he laughs. “Giving out free cheerios to kids stopped about 20 years ago – some butchers switched to giving out lollies, but you couldn’t do that today either."
In the early 1980s – at a time when butchers were striking over the new Saturday shop openings – Rod established the Mad Butcher retail chain with Peter Leitch. “Peter was a brilliant marketer,” says Rod. “Like the traditional UK butchers he was a natural at developing repartee with customers – only he used radio to develop this relationship. Pete’d get on radio and within 20 minutes the shop would be full.”
Giving out free cheerios to kids stopped about 20 years ago – some butchers switched to giving out lollies, but you couldn’t do that today either
These days more than ever we put a high value on food that's local, healthy and naturally free-range. We care about the provenance of the food we eat and when shopping for a special meal we want to make sure we’ve got details right, such as the cut.
Do you know your wing rib from your thick flank? If the answer is no, perhaps you should take the time to meet your own butcher – either at your local butcher store if you have one, or at the supermarket meat counter. “My father’s cooking knowledge was minimal compared to today’s butchers,” says Rod. “We’ve become have much more of foodie culture and the skills and professionalism of the modern butcher is outstanding.”
Talking to a butcher may seem like an antiquated notion, but summon the courage to ring the counter bell next time you’re buying meat, and you may be amazed at what you discover.