Butcher's Guild Holds a Meat Retreat



Thirty top butchers from around the country will descend on Oakland’s Jack London Square this Wednesday for what’s billed as an unprecedented gathering of sustainability-minded meat professionals.

The first-ever Butcher’s Guild Retreat will feature two days of intensive meat education, as participants hone their skills in wielding cleavers and handsaws — but also learn about marketing and managing profit margins.

The retreat comes at a time when butchers have been dubbed the new rock stars of the food world, and when meat that has been raised humanely and in a sustainable manner has started to gain real traction — call it the rise of “conscious carnivorism.”

Butchers Guild cards and brochure.
  • Butcher's Guild cards and brochure.
Against this backdrop, in 2010, Tia Harrison (co-founder of Avedano’s Holly Park Market, a butcher shop in San Francisco) and author and food activist Marissa Guggiana founded The Butcher’s Guild as a loosely organized national fraternity of butchers who are committed to breaking down whole animals — not prepackaged parts — and adhering to a particular moral code. In addition to serving as a sounding board and professional network, the guild focuses most of its efforts on helping members establish a sustainable business model.

“We saw that everyone right now is screaming about bacon and watching butchery demos,” Harrison said. “But what happens in five years when all these people open businesses, but aren’t making a living wage and are working twelve to fourteen hours a day? That is a formula for failure.”

In that sense Butcher’s Guild Retreat will be about bookkeeping and finances as much as anything else — financial sustainability being, after all, a prerequisite for any other kind of sustainability. There will be a class on managing profit margins (taught by a CPA) and another on PR. Even sessions dealing with the physical acts of whole-animal butchery will have an economic focus — how to break the animal down into retail cuts so as to maximize profits and minimize waste.

Many of the classes will be of particular value to guild members who make their living through an institution that’s seeing a strong resurgence: the neighborhood butcher shop. Take Monica and Aaron Rocchino, who opened The Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto neighborhood last year. Monica told me The Butcher’s Guild has been an great resource during what has been a difficult first year of business, helping the Rocchinos set up their pricing structure and providing a forum where they could ask questions.

The challenge of selling “clean meat,” as Rocchino puts it, is that they’re paying twice as much for their product as the supermarket across the street, and, because they’re working with whole animals, they also have to factor in all of the highly skilled labor that’s needed. How can they persuade customers that it’s worth it to pay more?

The Rocchinos are both attending this week’s retreat — Aaron will attend the sessions that have to do with meat fabrication specifically; Monica will learn everything she can about marketing and finances and all the rest.

“I’m just really excited to meet people that are in similar circumstances,” she said. “We’re making educated guesses, but they’re guesses nonetheless. … We’re all just in a little void.”

Tia Harrison teaching a butchery class.
  • Tia Harrison teaching a butchery class.
Part of the problem is that there aren’t many obvious places for new butchers to learn their craft in this country. Culinary schools might offer a couple of classes on the topic, but nothing extensive. The best option is to apprentice at an established butcher shop for six months or a year, but even that’s easier said than done — the total number of butcher shops that are working with whole animals is still relatively small.

Harrison said that’s an issue The Butcher’s Guild is hoping to address in the near future. Discussions are underway about the possibility of collaborating with someone to start a butchery school at a meat processing plant, and the guild has also reached out to culinary schools with offers to help develop curriculum.

The upcoming retreat will be a small-scale incubator for these broader educational goals.

Meanwhile, it’s no accident that the retreat is taking place the same week as Eat Real, Oakland’s preeminent street-eats festival and all-around foodie extravaganza. Harrison said that from the beginning she wanted to tie the retreat to some kind of butchery competition — she was inspired by the European guilds, which use such contests to reward members with a well-deserved dose of public recognition.

Eat Real has featured butchery competitions since its inception, but this year will be the first year the full slate of contests will be run by The Butcher’s Guild. In addition to the usual speed-oriented spectacles (e.g. breaking down a whole pig in 45 minutes), the guild is introducing a new contest called the Master Case Competition: Teams composed of a butcher, a chef, and a charcuterie/sausage maker will have three hours to break down a pork forequarter, a beef short loin, and a leg of lamb and to fill a display case, as attractively as possible, with ready-for-purchase cuts of meat.

The competition will take place at 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 22, at “The MEATing Place,” the booth where guild members will be holding court and doing demos all weekend long.