Masters of Craft: A trip to the butcher

In today’s new economy—in which “good” jobs are typically knowledge or technology based—many well-educated and culturally savvy young men are instead choosing to pursue traditionally low-status manual labor occupations as careers. Masters of Craft by Richard Ocejo looks at the renaissance of four such trades: bartending, distilling, barbering, and butchering. Check back each week for a post by the author on one of these jobs. This week, learn more about butchering. 

Ocejo“Hi, can I help you pick something out?” asks Ted, a counter worker at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, a whole-animal butcher shop, to a customer. It’s a simple question, common in all types of retail stores. But this customer, a woman in her early 40s, walked into the shop with a surprised look on her face, and has been staring at the shop’s fifteen-feet-long display case for thirty seconds, wandering from end to end. She says she’s not sure, and takes a step back as she notices another customer next to her has a question.

“How would you prepare lamb steaks?” he asks Ted.

“In a hot, hot pan, both sides. You want it to be rare. It really has that funky, lamby flavor to it.”

The customer orders two arm chops. Another comes in and goes right to the beef section.

“No skirts left?” he asks.

“I don’t think so, but let me check,” replies Ted, who then he asks Giancarlo, one of the butchers, to look in the walk-in refrigerator. There are none.

“OK, what else do you have that’s like it?”

“Um, well, we have the feather steak and the sierra. They’re [from] a different part of the animal than the skirt. Sometimes the sierra’s left on the rib eyes as a flap of meat, but when it’s taken off it’s sierra steak. I think it has more flavor than skirt and it’s a good alternative.”

When a customer walks into a typical neighborhood bar, barbershop, or butcher shop (or meat counter Ocejoat a supermarket), it doesn’t take very long for what they see to “make sense” to them. Most of these businesses are set up in similar and familiar ways, and the routines for ordering are pretty standard. But the special businesses that I studied, like Dickson’s, disorient the senses of customers and clients. Craft cocktail bars are dark with sweet smells and sounds of forceful drink shaking. Upscale men’s barbershops accentuate the vintage imagery of classic shops, or feel like hunting lodges, complete with taxidermy. And whole-animal butcher shops feature tray upon tray of meat, with strange cuts of all shapes and sizes. The owners of these businesses want first-time entrants to feel like they’ve stepped into a different world, and to check their expectations at the door. And more than the décor and other sensory stimulants, it’s the workers and their brand of service that really turn the visit into a unique experience.

What does it mean to receive elite service? To be accommodated at an extreme level, to be treated like someone of great importance, and to feel like every immediate need is catered to, even to the point of feeling pampered. We typically think about elite service at places like luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, and high-end retail outlets, like BMW dealerships. These places still exist in today’s cities, but I’ve found that they’ve been joined by a new set of businesses with meanings behind the products, services, and experiences they offer that are also distancing with airs of exclusivity. Unlike their more common versions, craft cocktail bars, upscale men’s barbershops, and whole-animal butcher shops aren’t just selling drinks, giving haircuts, and selling meat. They’re also selling the ideas behind the unique products and services they offer and the experience of consuming them within head-turning, transporting environments.

That’s why having workers, like Ted in the above example, who are knowledgeable and passionate about their industry is essential for these businesses. People who strive to work at a craft cocktail bar don’t just want to create, make, and serve drinks with elaborate recipes. They also want to match customers with a drink that suits their tastes, while informing them of why their drinks taste the way they do. People who work at upscale men’s barbershops don’t just want to do as many haircuts in a day as possible. They also want to show clients how they can achieve a certain style that fits their personalities, lifestyles, and careers. And whole-animal butcher shop workers don’t just want to cut and serve meat. They also want to explain the importance of using the whole animal, the ethics behind sourcing meat locally, and the differences and similarities in taste and preparation between cuts that come from various parts on an animal’s body. The sets of cultural knowledge behind these products and services, which these workers communicate to their consumers through service, are what push these businesses above and beyond their mundane versions. In these places we’re seeing how important providing in-depth, rarefied knowledge has become in the world of consumption.

OcejoRichard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His books include Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City and Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy.