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As Local Butcher Shops Try to Keep Up with Demand, Washington Farms Still Struggle

Home cooks are buying up a lot of meat, but it may not be enough to sustain local suppliers

A closeup of the meat case at Ballard butcher shop Beast and Cleaver
The meat case at Beast and Cleaver
Kevin Smith

Early in March, at the beginning of Seattle’s COVID-19 outbreak, Ballard butcher shop Beast and Cleaver noticed a surge in customers. With nearby supermarkets like QFC and Safeway running low on staples, people began lining up to buy up as much meat as they could from the shop, which is one of the only independent butcheries in the neighborhood. One guy purchased about $400 worth, and it took nearly 20 minutes to fulfill his order. What would have been a normally quiet Tuesday had become a huge sales boom.

Ever since Washington implemented its stay-at-home order to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, business at Beast and Cleaver has continued to be robust. Butcher shops are considered among the state’s essential services, and so are allowed to stay open. With so many customers looking to stock up on supplies, owner Kevin Smith has had to implement strict social distancing measures to make sure they don’t crowd into the small shop. Among them are curbside pickup and an eight-foot cable connected to the payment device, so that there’s enough space between customers and staff (the shop has also stopped accepting cash).

“Our customers have been so good sticking with the government guidelines,” Smith says. “People are listening.”

But while Smith tries to address public health concerns, he has also heard legitimate worries about an overall grim economic picture for Pacific Northwest farms. Preservation Meat Collective, the purveyor that sells Smith premium cuts from local, sustainable farms it partners with, has seen a steep drop in business since the COVID-19 crisis began, as most restaurants have cut their orders way down — or completely to zero. While butcher shops like Beast and Cleaver have done brisk business, it hasn’t been enough for many local meat purveyors to make up for the losses in other areas.

For instance, Paul Klingeman of Pure Country Pork in Ephrata, Washington, says that the COVID-19 crisis eliminated 20 percent of his business in a blink. Though the 40-year-old farm has seen increased orders from grocery stores it supplies, like PCC Community Markets, and butcher shops like Beast and Cleaver, a lot of its revenue will still be completely lost. Klingeman estimates there’s around $250,000 of cash flow that he relied on before the crisis but can’t count on now, as it’s unclear when restaurants will open again. “Right now, we’re trying to protect our workforce health-wise and keep everyone employed as long as possible,” he says.

Washington is not alone. As Civil Eats reports, livestock farms across the country are facing devastating losses in the wake of COVID-19. And while some larger farms may be able to adjust their business plans nimbly, smaller ones that don’t have as many resources or as big of a marketing presence may struggle. More direct-to-consumer sales, such as CSAs, could be one way to help boost business.

Linda Neunzig, who owns Ninety Farms in Arlington, WA, works with other local purveyors and says many are trying to shift to more diversified business plans. Neunzig also says that she’s also willing to do everything she can to help restaurants stay afloat until they can get back on their feet. “The relationships we have with them are invaluable,” she says.

Meanwhile, even if their business accounts for just a small percentage of the overall meat supply, shops like Beast and Cleaver continue buying up as much product as possible from local farms. Smith says he’s doubled the amount of his orders, while The Shambles — which offered dine-in service before the stay-at-home order — has boosted its retail offerings. “We’ve shifted pretty hard, breaking animals into butcher boxes and moving them very quickly,” says Shambles butcher Scott Johnson.

Beast and Cleaver

2362 Northwest 80th Street, , WA 98117 (206) 708-1400 Visit Website