David Theiss is never too busy cutting meat to stop and sharpen his knife or his business acumen. The owner of Butler Gourmet Meats in Carson City, Nev., gathers his own front-line intelligence on customer trends and preferences in his daily contact with those who enter his shopping mall, old-fashioned butcher shop.

“When a government report or food-industry survey comes out, it seems I knew all about what the survey was going to say two months earlier,” he comments. “Retailing meat and listening to customers gives us a very strong advantage over large supermarkets. When they ask questions, we answer them, but what they are asking about gives us great insight into their concerns and their eating preferences…and that’s something the large grocery chains do not have.”

The store offers customer a variety of Butler-branded sauces and spices.

David knows that lesson well and 30 years behind the counter has done much to steel his marketing senses. He came on board at the Carson City meat store at age 12 to sweep the floors and clean-up when shop owner and neighbor Robert Butler offered him part-time work.

His mentor, Butler, retired in 2006 as a meat instructor at the Univ. of Nevada-Reno’s Dept. of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources. During his service at the university, Butler was the manager of Wolf Pack Meats, an award-winning enterprise that taught students how to make and merchandise meat products and earn income for the department via sales.

Butler, a former president of the California Association of Meat Processors, established the Carson City company as Butler Meats in 1973 and sold it to David Theiss 10 years later.

Out of hiding

After years of on-the-job training, Theiss has fine-tuned the enterprise to bring it out of hiding from the local community, which has mushroomed from a sleepy agricultural fraternity with about 15,000 residents to one now bustling with a population of about 50,000.

“About 15 years ago, I decided to change the name to Butler Gourmet Meats,” he explains. “This was to let people know that we were not a wholesale house or a bulk quantity supplier, but rather the old-fashioned, old-school, full-service butcher shop where they could get something above what was available at supermarkets. And to emulate the quality of our meats in our name.

“I didn’t worry about trying to be competitive on prices. I never even looked at big-store ads to see what they were selling at what price,” he says.

Theiss says he does some advertising in the local paper during the holidays, but gets “free” advertising by writing a meat column about six times a year. He doesn’t suggest 50-ingredient master chef recipes in his articles, but rather focuses on simplicity and informative knowledge on such basic meals as making a good pot roast.

This exposure brings readers to his store where they are greeted with solid facts about making consistently good meals from items he features.

The 3,000-sq.-ft. facility has about 1,500 sq. ft. of retail floor, decorated with antique meat-industry tools and equipment. He has between five and seven employees, depending on the season, and uses his two sons, brother, brother-in-law and some nieces and nephews to work during busy times.

“One of the most cost-effective things I’ve done was to have a local company develop our website, butlermeats.com,” he confides. “This has really brought people into our shop who can see what we offer before they come in and understand that we are more than just another place to buy meat.”

Theiss says that years ago, about 70 percent of his 40 ft. meat case was devoted to red meats, but today that category represents only about 15 percent.

Game processing remains a big part of Butler's processing business.

“Much more of our sales are represented in specialty products that offer greater convenience,” he points out. “This would be items like pulled pork, breaded veal cutlets, chicken cordon bleu and fully cooked ribs. They are great foods that we’ve put the extra work into and the customer can take home and enjoy.”

Butler Gourmet Meats provides a strong selection of quail, duck, rabbit, pheasant and organic poultry and other foods, including buffalo and grass-fed beef.

Additional endeavors

Theiss, now 50, began selling products at the local Saturday farmer’s market four years ago and calls his results from that endeavor “outstanding.”

He features two types of frozen sausage and has an employee prepare samples from a grill. The type of sausages are changed each week and the five-hour weekly promotion regularly translates into about 150 lbs. of sausage sold at that location. He offers interested shoppers who don’t buy a coupon good for 10 percent off any purchase at the store until 4 pm that day and attests that nine out of 10 coupon holders come in to make a purchase the same day.

The meat store sells about 200 take-out deli sandwiches and subs Tuesday through Friday from 11 am to 3 pm and provides a well-rounded take-out catering menu for office parties and special events. This business is very strong during the holidays.

But Theiss has taken his catering flair a step further with the purchase of a teppanyaki mobile grill that he uses for off-site events.

“We have gone out as far as 250 miles for these catered events,” he notes. “These tend to be smaller and more intimate parties with perhaps 10 to 20 people. We do a Benihana-restaurant-type of meal served right from the grill, offering filet, pork-fried rice, shrimp and even Kobe beef. This is a higher-dollar catering program, costing $40 to $60 per person. But our grill is completely self-contained and attendees just sit around the grill and enjoy something out of the ordinary.”

One change Butler’s has made is in the custom cutting and inspection.

“The population growth has meant a major decline in the number of ranches and the USDA was creating a nightmare for us in their requirements for inspection for such a low volume,” he adds. “We made a decision to give up inspection and go almost entirely retail.”

Theiss’s business remains very strong in big-game processing, processing about 500 deer, elk, moose, big horn sheep and antelope for hunters per year. They process whole carcasses and make a popular variety of value-added items, including snack sticks, jerky and six versions of sausage.

For regular retail customers, Butler Gourmet Meats offers no fewer than 45 types of sausage, both fresh and smoked.

His counter-front intelligence gathering has led Theiss to reflect on the challenges that lie ahead:

“Doing it the right way is a one-on-one people business where you get to know the customer and they know you on a first-name basis and trust you,” he says. “The younger generation is too imbued with hand-held electronics, tweets and blogs and their communications are impersonal and not real relationships. They will tend to be customers who like self-serve. Here lies the challenge.

“Running an old-school meat and butcher shop means staying old-school and knowing the first names and faces of your customers,” he adds. “Enticing people to a place like this in the future remains possible but strongly depends on the experience they have when they come in and the enjoyment they get from eating something above their expectations.

“My son is 19 years of age and has expressed interest in taking over some day,” he continues. “He is a ‘natural’ behind the counter because he regards everyone coming in as a person he can help and form a bond with and have a reasonable expectation that if you treat them right they will keep coming back,” Theiss explains.

Like most family owned small meat processors, David Theiss says he and his family and his employees begin the new year by sitting down to talk about new directions for their business and new products they might want to offer their customers. They are “dialing in” new recipes for tomato/basil, bacon/jalapeño and artichoke/gruyere cheese sausages.

“We recently came out with a Battle Mountain Burger…an 8-oz. beef patty with chorizo infusion popular with their area Basque residents,” he says. “This product is named after a nearby old mining town called Battle Mountain and we just can’t keep them in stock. It makes us keep thinking about what else we’re capable of doing and that’s the really fun part of this business.”

Steve Krut is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues.