Making the Cut

By Dawn Picken

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Butcher Kurt Thomson has been learning the details of Cherrywood Butchery and takes over the store in April. Photo/John Borren
Butcher Kurt Thomson has been learning the details of Cherrywood Butchery and takes over the store in April. Photo/John Borren

When was the last time you visited the corner meat shop for a steak or sausage? While some independent butchers in the Bay of Plenty are looking to expand, others have closed their stores for good. 48 Hours reporter Dawn Picken talked to meat merchants about how they're making - and changing - the cut.

Visit Merivale Butchery in Tauranga and you'll see thick sirloin steaks, pure spring lamb, free-range pork - and oversized sausages. Owner Jason Clark calls them Big Boys.

"Normal is 100 grams; the Big Boy is 176 grams. It's all beef and lamb."

While Jason has yet to find a gluten-free recipe he likes, he prides himself on making 600kg to 1000kg of sausage each week to sell in-store and at 15 bakeries.

"It's pure beef and pork ... we don't load them up with fat. There are no artificial binders.

Some people put rusk [fine, unleavened bread crumbs] in sausages, which absorbs three times its weight in water."

The shop, tucked into a Fraser St retail strip, dates back to the mid-50s. Furnishings are spare, drawing your eye to packs of barbecue steaks, corned silverside, lamb chops and mince. An electric saw whirs as an assistant slices bones. The shop smells like raw flesh and spice.

Jason, 37, bought the butchery just over a year ago after working as supermarket meat manager. "I wanted to get back to what I was doing, make my own sausages, bacon etc ... "

It's something he didn't do in the supermarket,where meats came from a plant in Auckland. During his two decades in the industry, he says government regulations have become stricter.

"It's good in one way, ingredient labels and trying to come up with traceability, tracing to where something was sold from."

Jason says the Merivale Butchery focuses on service and quality.

A decent steak is what most customers are after.
Jason Clark

As of Wednesday, their Scotch fillets cost $28.99kg (at the time Pak'n Save in Tauranga charged $23.99kg for Scotch fillet). Jason encourages meat eaters looking for value to check mutton and mince. "We have mutton packs, which feed a mass."

Numbers of traditional butcher stores have plummeted, according to Beef + Lamb New Zealand chief executive Rod Slater. Retail Meat NZ, which represents supermarkets and independent meat shops, had 2000 independent butcher members 30 years ago. Today, they have 80 (Retail Meat NZ estimates just one third of independent shops are members, so the number of corner meat shops nationwide could be as high as 240).

"I can promise you it's a decrease, because shops are closing all the time, with the stronger guys [supermarkets] opening six or more stores each year. They're selling meat and the population is not expanding at that level."

Slater says good independent shops can still do well, especially if they actively market their products.

Eighty-five per cent of total meat volume is sold via supermarkets and chains, according to Retail Meat NZ. Some butchers say they struggle to keep prices level. Black Forest Gourmet Butchery specialises in small goods, German sausages and cold cuts. Operations manager Kevin Mueck says the business is surviving, but not growing.

Different cuts of meats available at all good butchers. Photo/file
Different cuts of meats available at all good butchers. Photo/file

"Pork is the main meat we use. Every other month we get a call, the price goes up ... we absorb it as best we can. The last time we adjusted our prices was September 2014."

Mueck says new government food safety requirements, including mandatory testing, also drive up costs.

"We're still practising a food safety programme, but not doing regular testing. Every time we were tested, we were fine. It was a big cost to absorb. We'll have to start again ... which is probably going to kill a lot of small butchers around Tauranga."

Mueck says Black Forest's point of difference is the way products are made.

"We're completely gluten-free. We stick to how it was traditionally done in Germany. It was never flour, just meat and spices."

Mueck's parents immigrated from Germany to New Zealand in 1998 and own two retail outlets, one at Gate Pa Shopping Centre, the other in Auckland. The firm's factory is in Mount Maunganui.

Cherrywood Butchery & Wholesale's window display is a carnivore's dream, bulging with tamarind lime and chili pork loin chops, chicken and bacon roll ups, hickory barbecue pork ribs, Tuscan lamb tucker bags and much more.

Owner Alan Wright says over the past 30 years, people have become more concerned about where meat comes from. They also want ready-to-heat meals and gluten-free products.

"Not so much organic. People like the idea, but don't always want to pay the price."
Alan Wright

Alan's hanging up his apron and passing the knife to new owner and butcher Kurt Thomson, who takes over Cherrywood next month. The 32-year-old says customers shop here for service and gourmet items. "They're buying better quality cuts and buying less of it." Everything in the shop is made from scratch. "There's not many traditional butchers around any more," says Kurt.

Other independent butchers in the Bay include Col's Butchery and Farmer Jones in Mount Maunganui, Classic Cut Meats in Tauranga's CBD, Bethlehem Butchery and Doug Jarvis English Butchery in Papamoa. Some offer online ordering and delivery.

The list of independent shops that have closed the past 18 months includes Cambrian Meats in Tauranga, Steve's Traditional Meats in Te Puke and Russell's Quality Meats in Rotorua.

Glenn Brake, who bought Russell's five years ago, at one time owned three butcher shops. He closed his last retail outlet six months ago.

Garth Bostock, of Bostock Butchery in Te Puna, says he's attracting customers from as far as Waihi Beach and Te Puke, including those who used to shop at Cambrian Meats. He sells only New Zealand meat, including five kinds of bacon. "People think quality costs, but it doesn't."

Merivale butcher Jason Clark and his Big Boy sausages. Clark makes 600 to 1000 sausages per week at his shop in Merivale and sells them to 15 local bakeries. Photo/George Novak
Merivale butcher Jason Clark and his Big Boy sausages. Clark makes 600 to 1000 sausages per week at his shop in Merivale and sells them to 15 local bakeries. Photo/George Novak

Meat safety

The national Food Act 2014 came into effect March 1 this year.

Existing businesses have been given time to make changes over three years.

Retail butchers have until March 31, 2018 to register under the new law.

A Ministry of Primary Industries spokesperson says, "The new Food Act takes a risk-based approach to food safety, where higher risk activities are regulated more strictly than lower risk activities.

"Making meat products and handling meat, e.g. at a retail butcher, is higher risk. These businesses will use a written plan, called a food control plan, to help them manage risks to food safety on a day-to-day basis."

Businesses operating in one local area will register their food control plan with council, and have regular checks to ensure they're following their plan. Those who manage food safety well will be checked less often. The Food Act 2014 applies to most retail butchers, except home kill processors.

Source: Ministry of Primary Industries:

- Bay of Plenty Times

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