This post appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on January 12, 2005
How ironic is it that here in bucolic Bloomington I often find myself pining for the small town amenities of New York City?
One of my favorite things about New York is that, for all its big-city splendor, it is really just a bunch of small, intimate neighborhoods strung together, each with its own local shops and restaurants. Grocery shopping, here usually a sterile “convenience” store experience, can be an enjoyable adventure in the city — a progression, best done on foot, from the store with the great produce, to the deli, to the butcher shop, to the bakery.
When my Dad lived in Manhattan we always ate well since he knew the people in those stores and they knew him. Shopping for dinner, we’d head to the butcher’s where Mr. Barbour was always greeted with a smile and the thickest, juiciest, most delicious steaks.
One-stop grocery shopping in giant supermarkets may be the height of convenience, but convenience is not everything after all. Friendliness, personal service and not having to walk a mile from the door to the meat counter matter too.
A much awaited arrival
So the buzz was palpable this fall on the east side of Bloomington when the sign went up announcing the impending arrival of the Butcher’s Block. A butcher shop in The rumors flew and the mouths watered.
Rumor no more, the shop opened on Oct. 11, and it is EXACTLY like the neighborhood places I remember. The owners and butchers will be familiar faces to shoppers here — they are long-time Bloomingtonians who have worked in many local stores. They know their community and what the people who live here want, and their number one goal is making sure they get it.
The Butcher’s Block is the brainchild of then-IU business students Jason Schaffer and David Schell, who met while they were working nights at the Mr. D’s meat department. They loved the “Mr. D’s business model” of customer service and, as they talked about the careers they would build after college, they found themselves daydreaming about opening a butcher shop on that model.
In the fall of 2003 Jason was taking a business plan writing class and, with the newly graduated Dave, decided to put together a blueprint for their fantasy business as a class project. Before long, they were doing it for real; what had started off as the really good idea of a couple of college students had turned into meetings with people who had the means to make it happen. When the bank began returning their calls, they knew they were in business.
Highly skilled in their craft
One of their chief assets is the skill of their butchers — old-school artisans Greg Calabrese and Phil Shade, both also late of Mr. D’s, where Greg was head of the Bloomington meat department and Phil was meat director for all the Mr. D’s stores. The kind of experience these men bring cannot be bought today; they are the last of a dying breed whose training was thorough and whose apprenticeships were lengthy. Greg, whose father, also a butcher, used to own Ralph’s T-Mart, has been involved with the meat business one way or another since he was 15. “All I can remember is meat,” he says, “it’s my trade.” Thirty-four years into the business, he still hears his dad’s voice in his head as he works.
What is distinctive about the business model that these guys are committed to is the emphasis on customer service. Being part of an independent business gives them the flexibility to respond to customer needs. While Dave allows as how there may be a few things that they can’t stock, in general they believe that if they can’t get it for you, it probably isn’t available. A cookbook sits on the counter, ready to be consulted (although customers often come in toting their own). They will provide suggestions and good humor to see you through the most complicated cooking projects.
In the course of one long morning spent talking to the Butcher’s Block crew, I can see their model at work. People come in for meat and fish, and leave with exactly what they came in for, maybe with a little advice on how to prepare it, a little chat on the side. Most notably, they leave smiling. In case you haven’t looked lately, this is not the way most people exit large grocery stores.
Even if happy shopping is not important to you, you’ll appreciate the range of products the Butcher’s Block carries. Beef and chicken are there, to be sure (though not just any old beef and chicken — the beef is the highest line of Black Angus you can buy and the chicken comes from Sims, the local distributor), but so are pork, duck, buffalo, rabbit, ostrich, and all sorts of other things not to mention nearly every part of an animal you might want. And they carry impeccably fresh fish and shellfish too.
Perhaps best are their house-made specialties. A smoker in the corner produces fantastic smoked salmon and trout, turkey, chicken, ribs, meatloaf, pulled pork, and sausages. And about those sausages! Made on the premises, they include andouille, brats, chorizo, Polish, Italian, boudin, Linguisa, and many more.
It’s an impressive enterprise but, skeptical by nature, I decide to put the we-can-get-you-anything-you-want philosophy to the test. I can see “chemical free” scallops in the display case, but my favorites are “dry scallops,” scallops that are also free of any additional added liquid. Only dry scallops can be seared or grilled to a caramelized sweetness rather than stewing in all the added juice. They are delicious, though pricey, and normally I can only get them here by mail-order. No problem, says Dave. Though they don’t keep them in stock, they can have them for me the next day.
I’m in personal-service, small town butcher shop heaven. At Jason’s suggestion, I pick up some chicken, shrimp, and andouille sausages and head home to make my husband a spicy pot of jambalaya for lunch. You can’t see me, but I am smiling all the way.
Christine would love to hear from you about food. E-mail her email@example.com. Food Fare partner Jennifer Piurek will be visiting Cafeet Crepe in her column next week.
The Butcher’s Block
WHERE: 115 S. Ind. 45/46 Bypass, Suite E (at Third Street & the Bypass, near the new Starbucks and Best Buy)
CONTACT: Call 336-MEAT (6328).
ON THE WEB: www.btownbutchershop.com.
Creole tradition will warm a winter day
Jambalaya, a favorite of Butcher’s Block co-owner Jason Schaffer, is a great dish to serve a large crowd on a cold day. It’s delicious when made with the Butcher’s Block’s homemade smoked andouille sausage.
4-5 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds boned, skinned chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large onion, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
1 cup of celery, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon oregano
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more, to taste)
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 pounds smoked andouille sausage, sliced 1 inch thick
3 cups long-grain white rice
One 16-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
5-6 cups low-salt chicken broth
2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
salt and pepper to taste
fresh parsley, chopped for garnish
4 green onions, chopped for garnish
Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium heat. Brownchicken cubes and remove from pan.
Add onions, peppers and celery and cook until softened. Add garlic herbs and spices and cook until fragrant, about five minutes, adding a bit more oil if necessary. Add sausage and saute until browned. Return chicken to pan. Add rice and stir to coat.
Pour in tomatoes and their juice and about 5 cups of chicken broth. Stir and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. If mixture gets dry before rice is cooked, add additional broth.
When mixture is cooked, saute shrimp quickly in a separate pan in a tablespoon of oil until pink and just cooked through. Do not over cook, or shrimp will become rubbery. Add shrimp to rice mixture; taste for salt and pepper. Garnish with parsley and green onions and serve.
Serves eight to 10.