Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.
Sure, being a butcher may not seem like a “dream job” on par with being a stuntman or movie director, but as Danny Catullo, owner of Catullo Prime Meats, explains today, the job has become a whole lot hipper and more desirable than it used to be. And not just because it offers all the Turducken you can eat.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).
Daniel “Danny” Catullo. I am 29 years old. Born and raised in Youngstown, Ohio. Graduated with a degree in business communications from The Ohio State University. I am currently back in Youngstown (the meat called me home), running a third-generation family butcher shop. I’m married, with one child, Antonio, and trying for a second (lucky me), and a boxer named Boom Boom after the great Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini from Youngstown. I’ve been working at the shop for 15 years. Started at the age of 14 following my grandfather’s footsteps. I now do it all, from making sausage, to taking orders and waiting on customers, to all the bookwork/finances/headaches on the back end. I run a business with 22 year-round employees, which explodes to 34 during the busy holiday seasons. I’m basically crazy, and loving what I do.
2. Why did you want to become a butcher? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?
When I was younger, my grandfather was my idol, my mentor, and the guy I went to for advice. What he said was the golden rule. After all, there really is no arguing with an Italian guy who’s holding a meat cleaver in his hands. At first, I wanted to be just like him. Then came college, where I thought my life might head in other directions. He passed away while I was finishing school. It was then I knew, after I was graduated, I would need to come home and help my father and uncle run the show.
3. The “So You Want My Job” series is about “desirable” jobs for men. But some men might not think being a butcher falls into that category. What would you say to them?
Maybe they didn’t read the part about talking to an Italian guy with a cleaver in his hands? All joking aside, I think that for a long time this was an undesirable job due to long hours, working in the cold, dealing with customers, and basically working your tail off during the times that others were off (holidays and weekends). The Food Network and other food related shows changed that. I get more requests than ever to show and teach part of my craft. My cooking classes at our Culinary Arts Center are always done at a packed house. I love the fact I’m called on by local TV stations as the expert in my field. We are like celebrity chefs… except we have more facial hair, swear, and never ever take the fat out of our chuck roast.
4. How do you learn to become a butcher? Is it something you can take classes in? Do you apprentice under someone else?
My father and grandfather had the foresight that if I would ever take over their business, I would need to know everything: back to front. I still remember my grandfather writing notes on how to cut down the beef or cut a ham correctly. The meat cutters (two fiery Italians named Jimmy and George) would teach me one way, then my grandfather would yell about how they didn’t know anything and then my father would eventually teach me a third way. Sound confusing? It was as a 17-year-old, too. But my roots have made me into the fine food artisan that I am today! (At least that’s what my mama says). To learn the art of meat cutting, one would have to apprentice under a skilled butcher. They have the knowledge and technical ability to teach about the different cuts of the animals as well as train on the machinery.
5. You’re a butcher who also owns his own shop and online business. Do you handle the business side of things yourself, or do you have someone who takes care of it for you? How important is business savvy to success as an independent butcher?
I took over the store when we were financially struggling; my father and uncle both became disabled within 3 months of each other. Learning how to run a business on the fly was definitely challenging, but I’ve been so lucky to have great mentors along the way. Understanding cost analysis, profit margins, and monthly expenses, for example, have made me a better cutter and has been instrumental to our success. As much as I enjoy cutting, especially on the 14th hour of the day during the week before Christmas (don’t laugh… it’s an amazing high), I look at myself as a business owner first and a butcher second. I also have three store managers who help out on the business end, as well.
6. How does an independent butcher compete with big grocery stores and attract customers?
This is a great question and I think the answer is constantly changing. I’ve seen so many independents retire or lose their business. It is pretty scary out there.
I think the biggest reason why we’ve been able to survive and eventually thrive is that I’ve been so picky about quality and service. My product is “good, fresh meat” as my son calls it. Prime, local beef, all-natural free-range chickens, fresh fish — you get the drift. We still get in hanging beef off the rail. It’s harder work, but you can taste the difference. So much better than boxed cryovac beef.
My guys are the best of the best. They wait on you hand and foot when you come into the store, and we still offer to carry our goods to customers’ cars. But isn’t that the way it should be? There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than bad service. I treat my employees like they are waiters. I make them lunch daily to taste what they are selling.
You have to separate yourself from the pack and our customers have come to taste the difference!
7. What is the best part of your job?
Having someone come back and tell me that I made their holiday meal. It’s the most stressful time of the year; I work so much my wife could bring home another man and I wouldn’t know (hopefully Antonio would give him “the look” with his plastic cleaver), so, nothing replaces that feeling of “we did it again.”
8. What is the worst part of your job?
Having to tell customers no. Firing employees is not something I like to do either, but I’m getting better at it. I have some simple rules, but mess with me and I’ll fire my brother (twice–just ask Angelo).
9. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?
What’s balance? I’m the boss of multiple family members; including my aunt, three brothers at various points, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and cousins. So I can get my fill of extended family fast.
The hardest part is being away from my wife and son. I keep telling myself that the hours will lessen and it will be easier to make money. But then a compressor breaks or Thanksgiving is around the corner and I find myself writing emails and balancing the books until 9pm at work. I guess I call it a work in progress…but when I hear my son cry this year on the phone…it may be a bit of a failure.
10. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?
That we make as much profit margin as cooked food. It’s not even close. And we don’t have our customers paying for our waiters and bartenders through tips. It’s a crazy cow-eat-cow world in the fresh food world. You have to stay on top of things.
If not that, then it’s not understanding how much goes into making products. To make sausage, for example. You need to take out the Boston butt (aka shoulder) and bone it out. Grind it. Mix it with seasonings you measured. Stuff the machine. Clean out the casings. Stuff the casings and then sometimes even smoke it. Did I mention cleaning the machines?
11. Any other advice, tips, commentary, or anecdotes you’d like to share?
Advice: Always use a sharp knife. It’s easy to cut yourself when working with something dull because you tend to increase pressure and thus slip more.
Tips: Off-cuts may not be as popular as your traditional steaks or chops but can be even more delicious when cooked correctly. Get to know flank steak, chuckeye steaks, pork steaks, and pork shanks.
Commentary: America’s culinary habits are funny. After years of people laughing off short ribs, beef brisket, pork shoulders. and the like, we have seen a tremendous increase in old fashioned (like my grandparents) cooking. Dust off those old cookbooks and create a meal that you can share with your family. No cell phones.
Anecdote: Last Thanksgiving, I thought I was prepared for the massive amounts of turkeys we needed to brine (soak in our solution of water, brown sugar, apples, and spices). Out of the 1300 turkeys, we brined 10 in 2009 and 100 in 2010, so I thought 200 would be sufficient to more than cover the orders and still have extra for “off the street.” At 10pm on the Tuesday before, as I did my count, we were 60 turkeys short. I had been there since 6am, but I needed to make sure every order got filled. So I locked the door, blasted some Adele, and got to work. When I got home at 1am, I was pretty certain I would be fine with never seeing a turkey again.
Other: Please be a S.L.O.B. — Support Locally Owned Business