Putting The Labor Back In The Meat Department

Third-generation butcher offers bold ideas for enhancing the shopping experience.

Recent industry studies have indicated that one of the things shoppers long for most from their grocery store meat department is information — knowledgeable, approachable personnel who can solve the mysteries surrounding the preparation and serving of specific cuts.

Kari Underly is on a mission to meet that need, as she aptly notes, by “putting the labor back into the meat department.”

A third-generation butcher and author of “The Art of Beef Cutting: a Meat Professional's Guide to Butchering and Merchandising,” Underly is the meat consultant for Standard Market, a new fresh-focused concept store that opened its first location last month in the Chicago suburb of Westmont. The market offers locally sourced beef, pork, lamb and poultry; cuts and grinds all of its own meat; makes its own sausage; and smokes its own bacon. Packaged meat is vacuum-sealed in-house for optimal freshness. Most beef is the top third of choice, while all dry-aged beef is prime (the store dry- and wet-ages on site).

All beef sold is aged a minimum of 21 days, which presented a challenge for Underly to procure enough product for the store's grand opening in early November. Hitting the ground running, Underly is outspoken about her views on a first-class in-store butcher shop.

“The first thing I would recommend is to hire meat department staff who have a food or culinary background,” Underly says, explaining that Standard's meat team includes foodies who were trained as butchers, along with expert cutters. “Working in the meat department requires more than just wrapping a piece of meat. Staff who understand the products and how they are prepared will have better success engaging with customers and selling product.”

Further, Underly suggests adding what she calls call a “meat concierge,” or, at the very least, “empowering the meat department staff to walk the floor and engage customers. Often, we rely on the label, signage or a sticker to communicate with customers, but having that personal dialogue with them about their needs and the products enhances their shopping experience and helps build the relationship,” she affirms.

As such, Underly is constantly on the move, from cutting steaks back of house to serving customers at the counter to mingling with shoppers on the sales floor.

Ideally, she continues, a store should have a full-service counter that's neatly organized and clearly labeled. She also advocates aggressively highlighting local or niche products such as heritage-breed pork or organic chicken, a tactic Underly says demonstrates that a grocer is “in tune with the types of products customers are looking for. For example, lamb and veal are often overlooked, but we have been promoting these cuts, which customers seem to be keenly interested in.”

Underly also urges retail meat managers to ensure that the products offered are of the highest quality possible. “Obviously, this will vary depending on a store's demographic and demand, but it is important to manage the quality,” she says, “from what is brought in the back door, to how it is handled, packaged and, finally, presented in the case.”

Her collective recommendations help meet what Underly sees as the basic needs of most meat department consumers.

“Some of the things I think consumers are looking for most are high-quality and well-aged beef, value-added products, new cuts, and tools that help them choose and use the products,” she says. “Today's consumer has more sophisticated tastes and is more savvy about learning where the products they buy come from.” It's therefore crucial, she continues, “to infuse the product mix with a selection of high-quality products and unique value-added items that are on trend and fit their lifestyles. At Standard Market, we are attracting new customers with some of the new filets and smaller-portion-size cuts that they won't find elsewhere.”

A Few of Her Favorite Things

One of Kari Underly's favorite cuts of meat is the ribeye cap steak. “I like it brushed with a little olive oil, salt and pepper; thrown right on the grill; and sliced — it's like butter,” she gushes. But her new favorites among Standard Market's unique offerings are “a Berkshire thick rib-end pork chop, along with a brined boneless, skinless chicken breast. The brine keeps it extra-juicy and tender.”

She also encourages meat retailers to develop comprehensive staff training programs alongside high-visibility merchandising tools “that help consumers choose and use the products — from clear signage, to recipe ideas, to cooking demonstrations.”

Underly firmly believes there's a great opportunity for meat departments to become a resource for customers to learn about at-home meat cutting, and to highlight this as a point of differentiation. “Those stores that have a demonstration area can illustrate how economical it can be to purchase and fabricate subprimals, by having a live demo,” she asserts. “To go a step further, retailers can highlight the meat department and staff by offering up a one- or two-hour class on at-home butchery techniques.”

‘Staff who understand the products and how they are prepared will have better success engagingwith customers and selling product.’ —Kari Underly, Standard Market

Ultimately, Underly says it's the people that will make or break a meat department. “Any time you introduce a new program, you have to give it time to develop in order to get a true gauge of the consumer response,” she notes. “Retailers can be quick to take new products out of the mix, but it's important to take the time to educate consumers. This is why staff training is so critical.”

Indeed, from the cutting room to the sales floor, “Standard Market is committed to bringing labor back to the meat department,” Underly declares. “They have five apprentices in the back all learning unique skill sets, to ensure the programs we are implementing in the meat department are successful. When you are talking about high-quality, unique or value-added products, it takes a lot of hands.”

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