New local butcher shop provides an outlet for regional, family-farmed meat
For Chris LaVeque, it’s all in the details. Bronze-coated sausage link handles open the door to his new shop in the Swift Street Courtyard, where a 1960s cherry-red Butcher Boy meat saw sits prominently on display, welcoming customers to a new source for all things carnivorous.
“It adds to the experience of coming into a real-deal butcher shop,” says LaVeque of his refurbished saw, which was a gift from his father. “Every meat eater should experience from start to finish what they’re eating.”
After gracing Santa Cruz’s farmers’ markets for the past year, El Salchichero butchery formally opens shop on Friday, Feb. 11. Santa Cruz has lacked a locally owned and sourced specialty butchery since the closure of Severino’s Community Butcher in 2007, which LaVeque worked for.
El Salchichero offers customers everything from the customary beef, pork, lamb, chicken and turkey, to the less common rabbit, goat, duck and goose. The meat is sold fresh, smoked and cured and the charcuterie offerings are varied and numerous—from salami, prosciutto, bacon and ham, to chicharrones, jerky and pate.
The opening of the shop coincides with rising awareness of the problems associated with large-scale factory farming and an increasing demand for locally and more humanely raised meat, particularly in environmentally conscious Santa Cruz.
LaVeque hopes his shop will be part of a movement to encourage more small-scale purveyors of ethical meat. Currently, he says the demand isn’t high enough and thus the prohibitive costs have left small-scale butcheries in the niche market category.
“I like good meat and there’s no source for truly local meat where you know where it came from, and where you’re friends with the dude who raised it,” LaVeque says. “That’s part of the allure for me, providing people with a source for that kind of meat.”
LaVeque can name the three “dudes” raising the animals that will become his meat, including Mark Pasternak at Devil’s Gulch in Marin County, the Prebilich Family of Gleason Ranch in Bodega Bay, and Tommy Williams at N-A Ranch in Santa Cruz, where his cattle are raised.
“You can see the cows from Western Drive,” LaVeque says of N-A Ranch.
Mark Pasternak has been raising animals since 1971 at Devil’s Gulch Ranch, which today supplies LaVeque with his pigs and rabbits. Pasternak explains that one major underlying problem for farmers raising animals is the unavailability of USDA certified slaughterhouses. By law, four legged animals—cows, pigs, goats, sheep—must be slaughtered in a USDA certified slaughter house, regardless of where they are raised, in order for the meat to be sold.
“It’s expensive to transport livestock to slaughter and it’s not ideal from the standpoint of the treatment of the animals as well as the quality of the meat,” Pasternak says. “The federal government will not allow us to [slaughter our own]. You have to haul them to one of these plants to do it.”
Pasternak explains that there are not many custom slaughterhouses in California, or operations that will slaughter another farmer’s livestock. He takes his pigs to one of two locations, both a three-hour drive either north or south. Driving these distances not only exerts a heavy fuel cost on the farmer, but also increases the carbon footprint of the meat itself.
Committed to the welfare and treatment of his animals, Pasternak laments the fact that he can’t be involved in what happens to his animals during slaughter. In response to this, he has taken measures to ensure he’s getting his pigs back.
“Once you unload, you don’t see them again, [and] I completely lose control,” Pasternak says. “I took that challenge and met it by tattooing my pigs.”
In the spring of last year the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service released a report recognizing the problem of “existing gaps in the regional food systems regarding the availability of slaughter facilities to small meat and poultry producers.” As part of the federal Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, the USDA hopes to close the gap between producers and consumers as a whole.
LaVeque’s relationships with local ranchers are an example of closing that gap. Pasternak delivers his slaughtered animals to LaVeque whole, who then butchers, cures, and prepares them accordingly to sell in his shop.
“You can’t go from an animal in the ranch to being food on a plate without going through the initial processes of slaughter, [processing, packaging, and distribution],” Pasternak says. “All of those are huge challenges. That’s what is so great about what Chris is doing—the era where we used to have actual butcher shops where we actually cut up whole carcasses is gone but there seems to be a resurged interest in it, which is great.”
Beginning construction and renovation on the shop in spring of last year, LaVeque has fielded the question ”When are you opening?” one too many times. The many delays that he has run into have been frustrating and can mostly be attributed to difficulties assembling equipment properly. “The hardest part was converting a Brussels sprout packaging facility into a butcher shop,” LaVeque says frankly. “That has been the hold up.”
The shop had to be built according to California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) sanitation guidelines, which was not particularly rough, just tedious, says LaVeque. In addition to weekly CDFA inspections, LaVeque himself had to become a certified inspector so that he can check the facility every four hours during operation.
With an extensive culinary background, including stints at local restaurants such as Manresa in Los Gatos and Gabriella Café and Cellar Door Café in Santa Cruz, LaVeque’s passion for quality meat is clear.
When asked what his favorite meat dish to serve to his family would be, LaVeque seems immediately overwhelmed by the question, saying, “It depends on who I’m cooking for, what the weather is, [and] what I have that day.” Put on the spot, he couldn’t produce just one answer, but it clearly wasn’t for lack of options in his mind.
Where most chefs are driven purely by what tastes best and produces the best end result, LaVeque says his belief in more humanely raised animals and a superior final product are complementary.
“They pretty much go hand and hand,” he says. “I’ve never tasted meat as good as happy animals raised on a small family farm.”
The local reception from the community in anticipation of El Salchichero’s opening has been great, says LaVeque, but he is especially humbled by the response from some members of an unlikely group: non-meat eaters.
“A lot of vegans and vegetarians have thanked me for doing [this] on a legit level with humanely raised animals,” LaVeque says. “That’s pretty gratifying for me after putting in all the hours I do.”
El Salchichero will be open for business starting Friday, Feb. 11, at 402 Ingalls St., Suite 5, Santa Cruz. Hours will be 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. More information, visit elsalchichero.com.