There is something undeniably sexy about being handed a pork tenderloin by a guy wearing a Darth Vader mask. Maybe it’s the geek in me, or maybe it’s the fact that the men who work at The Meat Dept on the Danforth are so freakin’ hot. The place is a dream come true for het guys, too, with manly cuts of steak and ribs perfect for noshing while watching a football game — and, the day I visit, one is playing overhead on a giant LCD television screen. The shelves are packed with an impressive selection of pickled goods, accented here and there with vintage action figures and other memorabilia. It’s kind of like visiting a super-cool uncle who kept all the stuff from his childhood and just happens to also stock a mouthwatering selection of beef, lamb, pork and poultry.
Zach Davidson put a lot of thought into the design and concept of his butcher shop when it opened in 2010. Back then it was known as The Friendly Butcher, but after he bought out his partner two years ago it was rebranded under the new name.
“I wish I had a better analogy, but when I’d daydream about the sort of business I could run one day, it was like something in the movies,” Davidson says. “You’d see those places and think, man, it would be great if life was really like that. A laid-back environment, where you’re supposed to have fun doing your job, fun working with everybody else there. Where you’re encouraged to just be yourself.”
Certainly the place is full of personality, but it’s also full of interesting products and knowledgeable staff. And as passionate as Davidson is about creating a fun and professional atmosphere, he’s even more committed to the wares he offers. “We’re trying to be different and to just tell the truth to the customers,” he says. “Part of that is reeducating the customer when it comes to the choices they’re faced with when it comes to meat.
“A perfect example of this is the whole grass-fed thing. The problem is that you’ve got a lot of unprepared retailers who have given customers the misrepresentation of how the industry works. The truth is that an exclusively grass-fed animal takes almost three times as long to develop the weight and marbling that customers want in their meat. So if you want to support your local farmer who does that, you’re looking at triple the price.”
So, how do we ensure that our favourite hunk of sirloin isn’t super tough, without coming from a massive complex of mechanically induced torture and chemical cocktails or paying through the nose?
“The only way you can support your local small farmer is if they participate in the supplementation program, where the animal is finished on oats and grain and corn after eating grass for most of their lives. Corn is hard on the animal’s digestion if they’re a young animal, but if you’re giving them corn at the last stage before the slaughterhouse, you get great marbling from the sugar.”
Davidson also points out that an organic label may not always mean what the public thinks it does and eschews labelling his products as such. “Organic only applies to the food, not the conditions of the animals during their lifetimes. The organic section is the fastest-growing segment in the supermarket, and a supermarket’s driving force is to never be out of product. Think of the strain that it’s putting on the organic community itself. You now have these massive organic farms that are doing the same things as the others. It’s like the animals are in prison. They get maybe an hour a day outside, and that’s considered free-run.”
Despite these concerns, Davidson isn’t saying that all organic produce is bad and occasionally has it in his cooler.
“If organic happens to be the best product available, we absolutely sell it. I just won’t market it as organic. I only sell the best possible product, and if that’s it, then we have it.”
The stock certainly is impressive. Davidson has 11 kinds of ground meat, countless cuts of dry-aged beef, sausages made in-store, and even fun stuff like ostrich, bison and a turducken burger — all of it prepared by a group of guys who appear to love their jobs and respect the products they carry.
“For me, it’s truly about honour,” Davidson says. “We are humbled every day because animals gave up their lives for this. If you respect that and pay homage to that, then that’s where this profession finds its honour.”