Bold about business

by Steve Krut
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Never trust a skinny butcher. That is the mantra at a relatively new specialty meat shop in the historic town of Front Royal, Va. And when customers see the Two Fat Butchers behind the counter, they know they have come to the right place for hand-worked quality.

Kyle Loyd and Roger Smith were no strangers to the meat business when they developed the idea of starting their own butcher shop two years ago. Roger’s father had a farm in the lush Shenandoah Valley where he operated a custom slaughter and processing operation. It was at this Sterling, Va.-based facility that he learned slaughter, processing and, most importantly, to listen to the customers. Their dads were close friends and that bond has carried into the next generation with a flourish.

Twenty years ago, Kyle took a job at a nearby Safeway store and learned meat merchandising. As he was nearing 25 years in the trade, he and Roger decided to go into business for themselves. Indeed, Kyle still works at Safeway part-time.

Roger came from a background in construction, but assisted at the Sterling custom plant and has 25 years in slaughter and processing experience.

The two portly meat men agreed there was a fertile market in personalized meat cutting. They were joined by their wives, Della Loyd and Janine Smith and together leased a strip-mall shop in hopes of being their own bosses.

Based on their physiques, the name Two Fat Butchers LLC was a natural pick for the new enterprise. Maybe it was the novelty of the name that played a part in their immediate success, but the mainstay was their personalities and drive to please every customer that vaulted them to become the boutique darling of Front Royal meat aficionados.

"A couple of things that were big for us were personalized service and the source of the product we sell," Kyle explains. "People want to know where their meat comes from. So when they read or hear about problems with meat, they come to us and look us in the eye and ask about our products. We eat our own product and they know we are just as concerned with handling top quality as they are."

Custom service

Whether it’s beef, pork or chicken, the Two Fat Butchers go out of their way to spell out all the product information to their customers. But they take it a step further and carefully interview their customers to ensure their satisfaction.

When a shopper recently asked for four porterhouse steaks "cut this thick", indicating a 1-1/4-inch slice, Kyle went right to his assigned task, holding out the fresh cuts before his eyes. Janine then asked the customer if he would like them marinated. He wasn’t sure so she led him to a selection of 12 varieties of rubs and liquid flavorings, taking time to ask what flavors he liked and detailing how to cook them. He opted for a dry-rub seasoning and she applied them like she was preparing them for her own dinner table. The customer’s eyes were wide with excitement as though he could taste the steaks before they were wrapped. As he was handed the butcher-wrapped package of steaks, he commented: "I gotta bring my wife in here."

"He’ll be back," Janine asserted. "He knows a lot more now about his options for the grill and he seemed a bit intrigued by some of the other flavors. We just want to maximize his enjoyment of those steaks."

Starting out in the new business was a challenge, but "space was the real killer for us", Roger recalls. "There was only so much we could do with about 800 square feet of retail store area and another 600 square feet for processing and storage."

The shop features some frozen food display cabinets where the more unusual items like frog legs, rabbit, deer burger or premium homemade Trickling Springs ice cream are displayed, and the colonial store-front retail area offers oyster specials and the inevitable Virginia country hams. Many homes may have more foodstuffs in their pantry than can be found in the shop, but it all points to the reason customers come in: It’s all about the meat.

By most standards, the processing area is simple and primitive, with a hand-pump sausage stuffer, which looks like a toy in the ham-like hands of Kyle, the heftier of the Two Fat Butchers. There is a band saw, basic vacuum wrapper, a small and an even smaller grinder, along with tables and sinks and the cooler area.

But it’s the personalized attention and emphasis on quality that is the company’s calling card.

"The sausage is the best we can offer and the customers love the original one handed down from my father," Kyle says. "It’s a blend of beef and pork and bacon with our family seasonings. "We have andouille, chorizo, Italian and kielbasa and they’re all made with the finest ingredients. We started out with some base ingredients and experimented. There was a lot of trial and error, but the key is that our customers feel we got it right."

The store is inspected by the Virginia Department of Agriculture. Kyle and Roger offer to process or slice meats for farmers or sportsmen. The first year they did 300 deer, but last fall they processed 600. One challenge was the lack of space to install a smokehouse.

Not to be held back, they took the pulse of their customer base and made decisions about the best allocation of space to meet those needs. A few months ago, they began offering a changing variety of hot and cold sandwich specials from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. This move also triggered a requirement for restaurant licensing and inspection.

Their merchandising savvy continues in other promotions. With a limited advertising budget, they invest in some successful radio ads and sponsor a racecar at the local dirt track.

It is the company’s marketing message that speaks the language of their clientele. A small bundle is called the Six Pack Attack, offering a choice of six pounds each of ground chuck, chicken, link sausage, bone-in pork chops, roast tip or eye round London broil and a half-dozen premium three-quarter-inch cut steaks (ribeye, N.Y. strip or porterhouse). Bundles ranging from "Half Hog," "Choice Steak Pack", and "Freezer Filler" are complemented by four versions of weekly variety packs, each of which provide the meat for seven dinner meals and two breakfasts for $99.99. All weekly variety packs include a choice of three types of bread, a gallon of milk, a quarter-pound of Amish butter and a dozen eggs.

In the more sophisticated world of home foodservice, this concept often includes home delivery and is called "family meal planning." However, at Two Fat Butchers the regulars come in to pick up their orders and that facet of the business could be called "very smart."

All meat is wrapped in shrink film and freezer bags and all ground meat is sold in freezer bags. They offer the option of vacuum-sealed packaging at an extra 25 cents each.

The partners have developed a popular Web site (www.twofatbutchers.com) and are convinced that it is their "connection to reality" that is responsible for their success. Local media and food critics have written about the shop in an almost affectionate manner.

Customer favorites

Kyle says they developed their own shopping list of customer preferences: "Our chicken is naturally raised and we don’t believe in pre-packaged meats from a large packer," he relates. "We want our customers to feel they are kind of in a family kitchen. We make our own beef and deer jerky [farm-raised] and scrapple in the store.

"Most recently, we came out with our own pulled-pork barbecue and that has really taken off for us. People shopping at our store tell us they like the smell of things we are preparing…that it really gets them," he adds.

There is a refreshing, upbeat atmosphere in the butcher shop. Customers seem to be smiling and eagerly anticipating their next eating experience. Kyle’s young son, Cody, has come on board to apprentice in the processing area and work the service counter.

But perhaps Roger best summarizes where they go from here.

"We only want to grow with what we can manage very well," he reflects. "Maybe in five years we could be looking at another store in another location. But whatever we do, it will be done like we cut our meats…hands-on.

"We’ve thought about smoking meats and maybe even wholesaling our products, but that’s another world that we’re not quite ready for at this time," he adds. "We want to establish our reputation and build a loyal customer base so that when they see the name Two Fat Butchers they know it represents quality and caring."

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for MEAT&POULTRY, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.

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