For those that remain, old-school butcher shops look to the future while clinging to the past.
Photo by Brent Fuchs.
There was once a time when the term “meat market” had a literal meaning.
Like its modern contemporary, it was a place where one sought carnal delight. But that’s where the similarities end. In the classic context, meat markets were local, friendly places where neighborhood butchers knew every customer’s name – including the youngest patrons – and had a nearly encyclopedic memory of what most regular customers were coming in for.
Like so many other examples of classic Americana, these true meat markets have fallen, more or less, into fading memory. Yet for those meat markets that have withstood time’s punishing advance, the ability to modernize while maintaining yesteryear’s folksy approach to doing business has proven the difference between becoming a memory or a living icon.
By any definition, 100 years is a long time for a business to keep its doors open. But that’s exactly the distinction enjoyed by Oklahoma City mainstay Bill Kamp’s Meat Market. Standing strong in its 103rd year, owner and manager Bill Kamp says his family-owned business has learned how to change with the times.
“The critical thing is to have a niche, and strive to provide the best quality you can,” he says.
Kamp’s sentiment is a belief shared by Tulsa’s Perry Isom, owner of Perry’s Food Store. Now in its 73rd year of operation, Isom represents Perry’s second generation of ownership. “There’s not a whole lot of markets around,” Isom says of mom-and-pop butcher shops. Specializing in meats while offering a grocery selection as well, Perry’s is a small grocer by modern standards. However, Perry’s recently opened a second Tulsa location to complement its long-running midtown operation. “I’ve gone with the items (customers) can’t get anywhere else,” says Isom.
Where local butcher shops were once the go-to place for even the most basic cuts of meat, the modern butcher shop has morphed into an operation catering to an increasingly knowledgeable and discerning clientele. Kamp attributes the change to the dawn of the internet era, the rise of the so-called “foodie” movement and the comparative ease and availability of international travel when compared to two generations ago. “The business model that I came up in wouldn’t work here,” he says, citing an example of a customer showing an internet picture of a cut and requesting Kamp duplicate it. “We’ve been in it so long, we’ve done it all. It’s just crazy.”
With large-scale supermarkets having virtually eliminated these small-scale meat operations from the cultural landscape, both Isom and Kamp say dedication to the art and a family legacy continue to contribute to their respective success stories. Where large market operations often use industrial saws to harvest their meat, Isom and Kamp speak almost reverently of their butchers’ ability to extract choice cuts, commonly using nothing more than a hand-held knife. “We have an extraordinarily skilled and experienced staff,” Kamp says. “We’re basically doing the same thing we’ve done for 100 years.”
However, undeniable long-term success and a dedicated clientele have not clouded Isom’s vision to the modern realities of small-scale meat markets. “We make it look easy,” he says. “But it’s not easy. It’s a scary business.”