Ben Rindner is standing over one side of a freshly slaughtered pig. In front of him, running left to right along the butcher block at JM Stock Provisions & Supply, is the animal’s bisected backbone. Below that are loins and chops, shoulders and shanks, meaty muscles tucked into the carcass’s cross-section among organs, bones, ligaments, and fat. On either side of Rindner, the pig’s hooves jut off the edge of the block.
Rindner is ready, knife in hand, to break down a whole animal for the second time in his life. It’s quite a change in scenery for a guy who less than a year ago was on the fast-track as a reality television producer.
“I just got tired of Hollywood,” Rindner said.
The accomplished young producer found his new calling when he stumbled across a Kickstarter campaign for a whole animal butcher shop in Charlottesville. According to the pitch on the crowdfunding site, JM Stock founders James Lum and Matthew Greene were launching a store to act as a retail outlet for local farmers. They wanted to take the middle men out of the meat supply chain and make the whole distribution process more transparent.
Rindner took to the philosophy, and after a conversation with Lum and Greene that further sold him on the movement, he picked up and left L.A. to start an apprenticeship at Charlottesville’s newest butcher shop.
Rindner, Lum, and Greene aren’t the only ones who have bought into the model. For years, people relied solely on farmer’s markets for locally sourced proteins. Now, shops providing farms a storefront operated by skilled artisans who know how to highlight their product are popping up like weeds in a cow patch. According to Marissa Guggiana, founder of sustainable butchery trade group The Butcher’s Guild, about 200 butcher shops nationwide now work with whole animals. She guesses roughly 100 of those are strictly whole-animal focused.
“There are new shops opening every week,” Guggiana said. “All the evidence I have is anecdotal, but I hear from butchers that are opening or in the process of opening at least once a week.”
For JM Stock’s part, Lum and Greene have been dealing exclusively with local farm Timbercreek Organics since starting operations on October 11. They said it’s places like Timbercreek that brought them to Charlottesville in the first place.
“The local agriculture is kind of unmatched,” Lum said. “I don’t even know if people here realize how good it is.”
Every Monday, Timbercreek owners Zachary and Sara Miller deliver their “weekly produce” to the shop—whole cows, pigs, and chickens. The JM Stock butchers then set to breaking the animals down, stacking sides up on the large central butcher block visible from everywhere on the shop floor, and carving away.
According to Greene, who’s been in the meat processing game for about five years and the restaurant biz for at least twice that long, the process of breaking down a whole animal actually requires little cutting. It’s mostly about pulling muscles apart and using a knife tip to free them. (There is, however, a saw involved.)
Whatever the process takes, for Timbercreek, it’s a welcome service.
“There’s a big hole in animal processing for farmers,” Zachary Miller said. “We work with a wholesale processor, but its butchering leaves something to be desired. This really puts the polish on the finished product that we were missing.”
So that’s the end of the story, right? Happy farmers, skilled butchers, healthy consumers? For a while, it seemed so. The local food movement was so highly regarded, no one really questioned it. Food critics became bobble-headed yes-men. Media members laid down their cynicism. Right-wing hunter/gatherer types and left-wing food snobs rubbed elbows at the dinner table. But there was at least one ruffled feather. The food was expensive. Didn’t it seem excessive to pay two times more for a locally raised chicken than one of Frank Perdue’s finest?
For many city-dwellers, local food is indeed nothing but a luxury item, something left for the upper crust’s plate or reserved only for special occasions. Mass produced grub is simply more economical. The question for JM Stock is: Does it have to be that way?
“There is a stigma behind it,” Greene said. “Part of that is the price point, but also part of it is that it is sort of marketed as this luxury, this bourgeois gourmet kind of thing. James and I are not fancy.”
Greene admits JM Stock isn’t going to undersell the national grocers anytime soon, but he insists the store has options for every pocketbook. If you can’t afford New York strip one week, he’s confident he can find you a good cut from the leg, or that he can load you up with enough ground beef to satisfy your taste. Or maybe you’d be tempted by one of JM Stock’s no-frills prepared foods, like funky sausages with pulverized Funyuns, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, or homemade bologna.
And Greene said he and Lum can do one more thing to make whole animal butchery more accessible. If they’re going to send you away with a cut you’ve never heard of, they’ll give you tips on how to prepare it. After all, if you get home and can’t make the meat taste good, you’ll be unlikely to shop local in the future. And that, for Greene, defeats the purpose.
“Buying stuff from Virginia should become effortless for the regular consumer,” he said. “At a certain point, it will become more cost effective, and people will become more and more aware of what they’re eating.”
Ben Rindner picked up and moved across the country to work as an apprentice at JM Stock Provisions & Supply, a local butcher shop that works with nearby farmers.