Inventing a New Business Model for Butchers
One day in early 2004, Jessica Applestone, then a fussy, unhappy, "bacon-exception" vegetarian, told her husband Josh that she wanted to eat meat again. The catch? She refused to give up the principles that led her to vegetarianism in the first place: The ethical and sustainable treatment of animals.
"We thought 'We live in farm country. There are plenty of impeccably sourced meats raised here. There has to be a place we can get just one lamb chop,'" says Jessica. "Turns out, there wasn't. So basically, we started Fleisher's for me. Josh gave up his career for my selfish meat desires."
Fleisher's, located in Kingston, New York, is more than just a successful butcher shop. It's a school of thought, and education is paramount. The chatty couple—both fast-talking Long Island natives—say it isn't unusual for them or their staff to spend 20 minutes with a customer, teaching them about the origins of their product and how to cook it. The shop even offers a butcher training program, which is six to eight weeks long and teaches meat lovers how to cut down a whole lamb, pig, and steer.
"Starting this business was an education process for us too," says Josh, who spent 15 years in the restaurant business. "When we started this in 2004, there wasn't anything else like it. There wasn't any model to follow. We had the idea in February and opened in June."
The couple got their basic training and some operational know-how from other butchers, who thought the idea for an old-school shop that sourced only organic meats was, well, a little crazy. "They helped us out of sympathy and pity," quips Jessica. "And curiosity," Josh adds earnestly. "I think they were interested to see if we could revitalize this type of place."
When the shop opened, the couple split the duties quickly. Josh handled most of the meat processing and cutting, while Jessica, who came from a media background, handled marketing, training, and customer relations. "Basically, he handles everything with four legs and I handle everything with two legs," says Jessica.
A bit of interesting history: Josh's grandfather was a butcher in Brooklyn, New York, at the turn of the 20th century. And although Josh never learned any of his skills from his grandfather, he does credit his grandfather for his unshakeable high standards.
However, both Josh, 41, and Jessica, 44, were involved in perfecting their source list. It took nearly three years to find the farms that consistently had the most delicious meats and also met their ethical standards. "At first, we expected everything would be from Old McDonald's Farm. You know, the perfect-looking animals and the perfect-looking land," says Josh. "But, in fact, we went to McDonald's Farm," adds Jessica. "And it was beautiful. But the two steer we got from him were totally inedible. In the first few years, we did this dance 100 times."
They learned quickly how to tell if a farm would be worth their time. For example, Josh says the best livestock farmers were the ones who grew the best grass. Bad grass equals bad meat. "We used 15 farms when we first opened, but now we use six. We thought it would be sexy to have a lot of variety, but consistency is much more important. Consistency sells," says Josh.
Today, Fleisher's is thriving. Including Josh and Jessica, it employs nine people and sees about $4,000 a day in business (compared to a modest $300 a day when it opened). That's not counting the revenue from the classes, merchandise, deliveries, or side ventures. The Applestones are currently planning to open a Brooklyn location in the foodie-friendly neighborhood of Park Slope sometime in the near future. They're also releasing their first book, The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat, which hits bookstores in June.
"Our guiding principle has always been that we would never sell anything we wouldn't eat ourselves," says Jessica. And they're sticking to it.