By Analiese Paik
Ryan Fibiger discovered after four years running Craft Butchery just how complicated the business of pastured, whole animal butchery is to do the right way on a small scale. And the corners that other companies cut – buying boxed meats, outsourcing cutting – to keep costs down. “It’s hard to do it at a fair price point, where it’s not just available to the elite. For us, the model has to work for everyone” Fibiger said during an interview in the Westport store.
The single biggest problem Craft Butchery faced as a singular butcher shop doing everything themselves was an overworked and stressed staff. “We just had to break out of the tactician phase of 80-100 hour work weeks where we were trying to do work that should be done by more people” said Fibiger. He knew that working people that hard was not sustainable and therefore the business model itself wasn’t viable long term. He needed a way to efficiently scale operations while staying true to their core philosophy of full-service, whole animal butchery. They had also outgrown their retail space and were in the process of looking for warehouse space when an ideal merger opportunity with Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats emerged. Eight months later a merger agreement was in place and Fibigier described the outcome as “a better product and better business.”
“It’s a 50/50 merger, very strategic” said Fibiger, adding that while it’s not what they originally planned, the pieces of the complementary businesses fit together as neatly as a puzzle. ”We never wanted to outsource to someone else. We wanted to scale on our own terms” said Fibiger. The newly merged Fleisher’s Craft Butchery includes Fleisher’s production space in Red Hook (Brooklyn), retail stores in Park Slope (Brooklyn) and Kingston, New York; and a strategic relationship with Fleisher’s former CEO Mark Justh. Justh is a financial services executive turned livestock farmer who pasture raises pigs and cattle on his property, J&D Farms, and is now exclusively supplying Yorkshire/Tamworth/Berkshire cross pork to Craft.
“Fleisher’s is the most recognized brand in the business and a lot of us wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Fleischer’s” said Fibiger. Graduates of Fleisher’s whole animal butchery school in Kingston, New York, including Western Daughters (Kate Kavanaugh and Josh Curtis) in Denver and Kensington Quarters (Bryan Mayer) in Philadephia, have been setting up retail shops similar to Craft Butchery that appeal to consumers in search of the highest-quality pastured beef, lamb, pork and poultry from area farms.
Fleisher’s 6,500 square foot processing facility in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn now does a portion of the larger, whole animal butchering and preparation of labor and time-intensive café foods, including stocks and chilis, destined for the Westport and Park Slope retail locations. “It’s a great facility with amazing staff” said Fibiger, adding that the operation is large enough to supply eight stores and the USDA certification (pending) will allow them to do shipping and sell to wholesale accounts that include restaurants and retailers. Four full-time butchers are responsible for running the whole animal butchery school and overseeing four to six butchers in training. Retail locations in Kingston, Park Slope, and Westport each remain full-service butcher shops with butchers on staff who do a significant amount of the butchering, especially pork and lamb.
“We upped our sausage game ten times” said Fibiger, referring to the higher quality prepared foods, sausages and charcuteries now being made at Red Hook under the direction of Executive Chef Ryan Byrd, a talented chef with experience in whole animal butchery and charcuterie from his work at Butcher Bar in Astoria, NY. New York City residents can place orders online for fulfillment in the Red Hook facility with delivery through third parties.
Customer-facing staff is more focused on serving customers as they enjoy more reasonable hours and more product fills the cases. “By Saturday and Sunday we were half empty. Customers were understanding; that’s the nature of whole animal butchery” said Fibiger. Now staff can call Red Hook and ask for what they need to be put on the next truck instead of calling a farmer to source another animal. They are rarely sold out anymore.
One of the most significant changes in Fleisher’s Craft Butchery’s newly combined business model is cattle sourcing. The bulk of their sales are beef, but the economics of raising cattle are very different from raising pigs, chickens, or lambs. While a pig is ready for processing between six and twelve months of age, a head of cattle takes two to three years to reach market weight.
There are feed constraints too; pigs will root and eat almost anything, but cattle should be 100% grass-fed when possible or grass-fed and low grain finished when necessary. Fibiger further explained that it’s hard to grow 100% grass-fed beef in the northeast where punishing winters require a diet of high protein hay and small amounts of grain to ensure that cattle will gain weight. And then there’s quality, and how to control it, including sourcing high quality grass and grains that meet their standards. “We are trying to design a model that produces meat that’s not just better tasting, but better for our customers, our farmers and the land we share” said Fibiger.
The answer is a full co-op model for beef where farmers raise cattle exclusively for Fleisher’s Craft Butchery according to their specifications. Fibiger outlined the financial investment made by cattle farmers -$1,500 cost per animal plus pasture, silage, hay and feed costs – which is only recovered after the animal is processed and sold. He found the idea of farmers assuming 100% of the risk so troubling that he flipped the traditional model on its head and shifted the investment risk to Fleischer’s Craft Butchery. “It has to make sense for us and the farmer. In the long run, this we be a huge success for the company” Fibiger said.
The company has purchased a herd of 150 cattle and is paying three farmers a feed stipend to cover the cost of raising them to maturity according to their specifications, at which point the growers receive a fixed price per animal. “The quality is so good and the animals are healthy and happy” said Fibiger. His goal is to own 350 cattle, grown by six or more co-op farms, to supply the operation with twenty to twenty five animals per week. Fleischer’s Craft Butchery established a feed co-op a few months ago to purchase bagged feed corn and soybeans for the cattle, and is offering a premium for Non-GMO. “We can also hedge the corn and soybean market” said Fibiger, “We have the talent to do that.”
Rebranding to Fleisher’s Craft Butchery will take a few months to complete, but first steps are visible. Meat hook and slate signs by the Reworx Collective in Stamford now frame the café area and reclaimed wood tables with a retro feel invite diners to stay and enjoy their meals. Sam Garwyn has been promoted to COO and her job is to “make the culture work” said Fibiger. “The hardest and best part of this business is that people who work here are idealists. Nothing could happen that would damage our ideals because all our employees would leave” he added. A formal board of directors with independent members now provides the company with “good governance that will allow us to keep growing it” said Fibiger, adding that he gave up autonomy for the sake of growth.
The Westport café is open for lunch service from 11 am through 3 pm Tuesday through Sunday, brunch service on weekends from 9 until 3 pm, plus take out and corporate catering. A four-season, twenty-seat patio just off the in-store café awaits additional permitting for a retractable awning and walls. Expansion plans in Fairfield County include a store adjacent to Greenwich Cheese Company and Fjord Fisheries in Greenwich, and the lease is being signed this week.
(203) 226-MEAT (6328)