They’ve Got Chops
The new school of old-school butcher shops
interview by Amy Standen
by Julio Duffoo
ORGANIC-FED PORK, raised
on a small family farm in Northern California, for less than
a quarter? The three women who run Avedano’s Holly Park
Market in San Francisco felt obliged to paint over the “Ham:
22 cents per pound” sign
when they took over the old Cicero’s butcher shop in
June. But they’ve kept many of the shop’s other
anachronisms, including the 16-foot ceramic deli counter, the
wood-paneled walk-in freezer, and the mosaic longhorn on the
floor. Blur your eyes a bit and it’s like you’ve
gone grocery shopping in Mayberry.
When it opened in 1955, Cicero’s
was one of the city’s
many family-owned neighborhood butcher shops. It closed in
the 80s, unable to compete with the big-chain supermarkets,
and was mostly left to gather dust — that is, until Tia
Harrison, Angela Wilson, and Melanie Eisemann started pestering
the landlord for a lease.
The three women have all worked in
restaurants (Harrison remains the executive chef at the San
Francisco restaurant Sociale), but none had worked in a butcher
shop before. They say the time-warp ambiance of the place alone
was enough to inspire a career change. Eisemann and Wilson
took out an equity loan on their house, and soon Avedano’s — rechristened
in honor of Harrison’s Italian grandparents — was
Harrison, Eisemann, and Wilson are reviving the
role of the traditional neighborhood butcher — the kind
who knows your kids’ names and can get a couple pounds
of marrow bones for you on a day’s notice. Like others
in the specialty meat business, they’re taking a gamble:
Will customers forgo big-chain convenience? Will they pay a
premium for meat that’s humanely and sustainably raised
by small, often local ranchers? So far, so good, said Harrison
and Wilson in a recent conversation with Meatpaper.
So what does a modern-day butcher do, exactly?
Harrison: It depends on whether you’re doing full sets.
A full set is a carcass, a full cow. You can order a full set
or a half set from the producer. It comes bled and gutted,
and then — if we were to do them here, which we hope
to at some point — we would break them down into primal
cuts in our refrigerated room. Primal cuts are, say, a side
of pork with the shoulder or butt attached to the chops. So
right now, we buy primal cuts and divide them into the final
pieces, like a pork tenderloin. We do have the old bone saw,
we just have to get it running.
But being a butcher is a dying
profession. Traditionally, the people you bought meat from
were the people who cut it up. The big [meat suppliers] now
do a lot of machine cutting. They put chickens on [conveyor]
belts and a machine cuts them up. It’s much cheaper to
do it that way, on an assembly line.
Some guy came in and said, “Wow, it looks so good in
here, you couldn’t even tell that girls did it!” But
I think people are more interested in the fact that the owners
are working in the store.
And so that probably means that the people selling
the meat don’t know a whole lot about what they’re
Harrison: We hear that all the time from customers. More than
anything else, they miss having someone who knows what they’re
talking about. I grew up eating boneless skinless chicken breasts.
Our parents were so into the supermarket shopping experience,
where you get the same kinds of meat over and over again. People
really lost the ability to cook a lot of things.
What do you know about the old Cicero’s?
Harrison: Our landlord is the son of the original family who
owned the shop. What happened is that all of the parents
who had bought meat from his parents when he was growing
up here started to die or move away, and their kids started
shopping at Safeway, until eventually the place shut down.
This was more to them than a business. It was their community,
What did the place look like when you three arrived?
Wilson: There were lots of suspender brackets — like,
old man’s suspenders — in the desk drawer. Bullets.
And bullet holes in the glass.
Harrison: These guys were pack rats. We found bottles of schnapps
wrapped in butcher paper. Old nudie pictures in a secret cabinet.
Rolls of decades-old meat paper. Boxes of nails. They saved
What’s your sense of what it was like to be
a butcher back then?
Harrison: Well, the landlord told us that they never used to
lock the doors at night. And they used to sell everything on
Wilson: His first advice was that we should put sawdust on
the ground, “cause if you shuffle your feet around, it’ll
shine that floor real nice!” He read our business plan
and said, “I don’t think it’ll work, but
good luck!” It sounded too fancy to him.
Because what he learned growing up is that you have to be
cheap in order to be competitive, right?
Harrison: Exactly. What we’re doing is kind of like what
his family did before they got squeezed out by the Safeways.
So when he sees us coming in here, trying to be old school,
he thinks that’s a really bad idea. But it’s come
full circle. People want to come in here because it’s
So what’s the difference between what you sell
and the meat that people can buy for much cheaper at the
big supermarket chains?
Harrison: We’re not trying to compete with [the big stores]
at all. We want to focus on the kinds of meat that people can’t
ordinarily get. For example, we’re getting some buffalo
ribeye in tomorrow from Colorado. We have some Kobe beef in.
And we’re getting duck, marrow bones, sweetbreads, quail.
I’m starting to get different kinds of things, just in
little increments to see how they sell.
When customers come in here for the first time, what do they
want to know?
Harrison: You can’t sell anything without people asking
where it comes from, what’s in it. Everyone’s trying
to support local farmers and local producers. Many of them
care less about what the animals ate than how they were treated.
The meat we carry is either all natural — which is no
hormones, antibiotics — or grass-fed or free-range. So
I think that’s all within the bounds of humane, or as
humane as killing animals can be.
Do people comment on the fact that you’re three
women opening a butcher shop?
Harrison: Well some guy came in and said, “Wow, it looks
so good in here, you couldn’t even tell that girls did
it!” But I think people are more interested in the fact
that the owners are working in the store. That makes them more
inclined to talk to us. That’s the problem with meat
markets now, there’s no knowledge. That’s what
butcher shops used to have, and that’s what people are
going back towards.
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue One.