How to Open a Butcher Shop
Local butcher shops are becoming few and far between, but many people are beginning to wake up to the values of shopping small and local1. Locavores and those seeking an alternative to the big box stores are part of a growing market that demands a small-scale alternative to buying their bacon from the same place they buy their t-shirts. Opening a butcher shop, with the right planning and attention to detail, can put a nostalgic icon back on your community's map and fulfill consumers' cravings for a responsible and sustainable source for their proteins.
Location is Key
Location is a critical consideration when you plan any business, but that rule is especially true of an institution that time nearly forgot. Most people are not in the habit of seeking out a butcher shop when they're planning next week's dinner menus, so you'll have to make yourself known to the community. A location on a busy road with lots of daily traffic is preferable, especially if that location is convenient to commuters on their way home from work.
You should also consider how easy it will be for delivery trucks to get to your building. If your food and equipment suppliers can't get their trucks to your location, you're going to have a hard time keeping stocked.
Finding your Market
Some demographic research2 is in order at this point, too. Not all markets and communities will support a butcher shop. It's unlikely you'll be able to compete on price with national chains, so you need to make sure that there are people in the community with the interest and the money to spend on the value that you add in the form of hometown service, variety, a superior product, and expertise.
To that end, some people may frequent your shop for the novelty of visiting a butcher, but those customers won't be enough to keep open a thriving business. They'll need to be able to get something they can't at a supermarket. Many will be looking for the knowledge and expertise that only one intimate with the food he or she prepares and sells can offer. This means you should be prepared to make suggestions for customers looking to try something new, those tasked with pulling off a once-in-a-lifetime event, and even folks just looking for tips on how to add variety to weeknight dinners.
The home chef will only be part of your clientele; some of your most reliable business will more than likely come from local restauranteurs who may not be able to get the fresh meats they want from a national food supplier. Contact local chefs and ask them what they'd like to have from a butcher that they aren't already getting. Incorporate those offerings into your plans and you've already found a market right out of the gate.
If you could use a little brushing up on your skills before you'd be comfortable starting your own shop, consider enrolling in an accelerated butcher training program, like the Meat Lab3 offered by the State University of New York. Classes like those are essentially boot camps for butchers looking to get up to speed on the skills, knowledge, and certifications required to slice meat for a living.
Butcher Equipment that You'll Need
The art of processing meat requires a unique set of utensils, and the butcher's most important tools are his knives. A well-rounded set of cutlery will include everything from the iconic cleaver and bone saws for making those primal cuts to filet knives for creating those finer slices. Implement safe cutting practices with cut-resistant gloves, and protect your knives and surfaces with the right set of cutting boards.
Fresh, juicy burgers and spicy sausages never go out of style, and whether you're grinding beef, lamb, turkey, or anything else your customers request, meat processing equipment will turn out the meat in seconds flat. These range from manually-cranked sausage stuffers to 200-pound-per-batch grinders.
To give your customers peace-of-mind that they're getting their money's worth, and to help control your own costs, invest in the right food scales. The most advanced models can interface with your computer, even via Wi-Fi, for simple product and price updates. To make your work easier, consider models that compute a price for the product weighed and print a label for you.
Scales that are legal for trade have undergone performance testing to verify that they are reliable, accurate, and acceptable for use in commercial transactions, and your state most likely requires you to have one if you want to legally serve products by weight.
Unless you're dealing in very small quantities of product, you'll likely need a walk-in cooler to keep your products safely stored. Quick-ship boxes are available in a number of common sizes, while custom boxes can be made to virtually any size you need, so long as you have the money and the patience required to secure one. Another important piece of refrigeration equipment, a refrigerated display case, will let you show off your cuts to your customers, hopefully inspiring them to make a few impulse purchases.
A good storage setup won't just help keep you organized, it will also help you stay within sanitation guidelines and keep your customers safe. Classic wire shelving is an affordable and practical solution for storing many of your items. Polymer shelving provides a cutting-edge approach, made with highly break-resistant components and with molded-in antimicrobials that resist the growth of bacteria for a more sanitary environment. They're definitely a good choice in walk-ins where moisture, salt, and acidic products can wreak havoc on metal components.
Additional Equipment to Consider
- Butcher blocks and work tables give you stable surfaces to prepare and package your offerings.
- Film wrappers make quick work of packaging your fresh cuts for sale.
- Textiles, including chef clothes, gloves, aprons, and smocks will keep you and your staff clean and looking sharp.
- Keeping your facilities sanitary and tidy comes down to stocking the right janitorial supplies, from soap dispensers to closet organizers.
Making Your Butcher Shop a Legal Entity
Once you have the perfect location, all the right equipment, and a solid plan, the last step before opening your doors is to do a little paperwork. A number of licenses and permits are required before any new business is allowed to open, and a few will be specific to your status as a foodservice establishment, while you may even need a few butcher-specific permits.
The U.S. Small Business Administration is a good place to start learning about the permits and licenses you'll need to become a legal business4. You should also contact your local chamber of commerce and health department to find out what's required by your local government. Those entities can give you some legal pointers on how to start a butcher shop. Plan on applying for these permits well before you intend to open your doors, because the application and approval process can take several weeks.
"The Lost Art of Buying From a Butcher" The New York Times