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Could Athens, GA, support an "indie" butcher shop?

Flipping through the Saveur 100 issue and saw the squib about indie-punk butchers. It's long been my feeling that Athens is lacking in the meat department, and I wonder if enough people would patronize a real butcher shop here to make it worthwhile business-wise? It doesn't have to be a fancy one with completely "sustainable" grass-fed this and that (for which the local CSAs are probably good enough)—just a plain old meat shop where you can get good thick pork chops cut to order, lamb, game (even frozen—say, quail), maybe dry-aged beef for special occasions. I'll admit that the Ingles I go to (near Hull) is pretty good, and the fellows at the East Side Publix have been great about cutting to order, as well as special-ordering things like sweetbreads and such, but wouldn't a dedicated meat store be just grand?

And while I'm fantasizing, how about a good fishmonger? I've never managed to hit the Baxter Street seafood stores when they've been open for business, and didn't one recently close for good anyway? I've gotten good—if very expensive—meat and fish at Earth Fare, but have been pretty consistently disappointed in the store's selection and in the staff's general laziness and unreliability (if you've ever tried to order something in advance, or even find out what they'll have available on a given day, you might know what I mean).

But if EF, in the heart of Five Points, isn't motivated to improve, would any other place be successful? My husband says there might not be a large enough professional class in Athens to support a good butcher shop. I think you don't have to be rich to want to throw something nice on your grill every once in a while (although maybe the "once in a while" is the problem). What do you think?

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  1. Tough call. Both of the Baxter seafood shops closed, which doesn't bode well for a stand alone butcher either. But I agree, aside from going to EF or getting to know your butcher, meat selection is weak or expensive in Athens.

    5 Replies
    1. re: Dax

      1. That both seafood shops on Baxter closed would not bode well for a LOUSY butcher. Both of those places were just awful.

      2. The Grillmaster has been open on Epps Bridge for years. It's not exactly what Liana is describing, but I think it provides ample evidence that a trained butcher can do well here.

      1. re: littlecsr

        Please tell me more about Grillmaster; I've never heard of it.

        1. re: Dax

          Go to grillmaster.net. He also usually has something at the Taste of Athens, which is at the end of the month.

          I've not bought a whole lot there, but have always been very pleased with his lamb chops when he has them.

          1. re: littlecsr

            I thought Grillmaster was more of a prepared foods place than a butcher shop, but I've yet to stop in there. I've been meaning to check it out, though.

            1. re: Liana Krissoff

              Anything that you can buy prepared, you can also by raw.

              As I said earlier though, its not quite what you described at the top of the screen.

    2. There's actually a decent organic butcher shop in Winder called Bentley's. I've gotten a pork loin and a bunny (albeit frozen), and both were quite tasty.

      They are... very enthusiastic, and the owner was helpful both times. Prices seemed decent for organic meat (no where near the horror that is the Whole Foods butchery), and everything looked fresh.

      And, there's always http://athens.locallygrown.net , which is just cool anyway. Looks like there are listings for assorted lamb and beef cuts. Not exactly a butcher shop, but worth a try. I've got my eye on a leg of lamb for an upcoming dinner.

      1. I'm not sure if Athens could support it. I was crushed when I learned that one could not get fresh soft-shell crab in Athens in the summertime, and it looks like the meat and fish situation is only getting worse. Athens-Clarke County is one of the poorest in Georgia, so businesses like a nice butcher shop (and restaurants/food stores in general) really have to directly market to the university population. There are enough culinarily-inclined professionals and professors to sustain places like Gosford Wine and The Rolling Pin, but unlike these types of businesses, a butcher shop cannot afford to leave any inventory in the store for multiple days at a time. I don't think Athens has a very large young professional population, unlike some other college towns like Chapel Hill, NC for instance (which has a wonderful butchershop and fishmonger). Unfortunately, this means that the businesses that tend to survive are bars and restaurants that serve cheap food made from cheap ingredients.

        I would love some more options, however. I get a lot of my meat from the mexican carniceria on barber st - they have shrimp fresher than the kroger or publix here, as well as various (sometimes comically fatty) cuts of beef.

        3 Replies
        1. re: batdown

          I love the carniceria. After bantering back and forth in stunted English and Spanish, with lots of pointing to body parts to show them what I want, they always ask if I want the foot attached to my picnic ham. Of course I want the foot. I also thinks it's awesome to watch them unload whole frozen pigs out of the back of a truck. And unfortunately we can't sustain small butchers and fishmongers.

          1. re: batdown

            108 out of 159 is actually a lot lower than I thought Athens was for household income.

            http://www.georgiastats.uga.edu/saswe...

            Also, Chapel Hill also has the benefit of being part of the Research Triangle area including Raleigh, Durham and Cary, which greatly increase population (even just considering Durham and Cary plus CH you're at a population of 400,000+ which is almost 4x ACC) plus UNC, Duke and a host of smaller colleges and the RTP business, the area attracts even more professionals than Athens could sustain. Not apples and oranges but McIntoshes and Granny Smiths at best.

            1. re: Dax

              Fascinating website—thanks, Dax; I know what I'll be doing today. Sounds like it's the ATL and the carniceria for us, at least for the time being. Would the proposed med school on Prince help the situation, or would it just drive out the carniceria and its Latino neighbors? I guess med students don't necessarily have the time or the disposable income to go around buying meat and fish from special places, but maybe the actual doctors would? Ah, who knows.

          2. I'll chime in and concur with the general sentiment here. Athens seems doomed to remaining primarily a college town for the foreseeable future. That implies many things, among them a very small likelihood that a proper fish monger or butcher could find any real traction. As the college kids go, so goes Athens, and there ain't too many UGA students clamoring for high-quality raw meats....

            Comparing Athens with the Triangle area of N.C. is truly a waste of time. Worlds apart, as are the respective states. Nothing in common aside from a shared language.

            8 Replies
            1. re: uptown jimmy

              You guys don't think that restaurant sales alone could keep a good butcher afloat?

              I know of more than one restaurateur that really wanted to use Athens Fish Market, but they just weren't very good. I personally had been there more than once, but never bought anything because the selection and service was so lousy.

              It just seems to me that if Earthfare can get away with what they charge for meat and fish ($19/lb. Tuna last weekend), someone could make a living here.

              1. re: littlecsr

                It's a fair question, but no, I don't think that most restaurants in Athens are serving the sort of food that would motivate them to purchase really high-quality meats, seafood, and cheeses. Most of the up-market places are really just masquerading as such, really. I wish it were different.

                Even in the case of an Athens restaurant serving good quality food, beef and pork are not necessarily the dominant themes on the menu. And seafood is ALWAYS going to be a bit of a problem in areas far from the coast, except in the case of really high-end joints like 5&10 where you pay the price required to eat that well.

                I do think one of Earth Fare's strong points is seafood, expensive as it may be. I have been unimpressed with the quality of the beef they sell. We got a ribeye there a while back and it was just awful.

                1. re: uptown jimmy

                  If nothing else, I'm not willing to invest the money to prove you wrong. So I must at least think that you're "a little" right!!

                  I, too, have had terrible steak from Earth Fare, but in fairness, my wife picked up the best NY strip that I've ever seen there this weekend. Taste was perfect.

                  The seafood is great, but without having anything to compare it against, I suspect we're getting raped on the price.

                  1. re: littlecsr

                    Their pricing seemed roughly in line with Whole Foods and the like the last time I was there.

                    1. re: littlecsr

                      Yes, I've gotten excellent NY strip at Earth Fare, and good (if very expensive) tuna I used for tartare. I'd like to see more interesting offerings in the seafood department, though: more whole fish, e.g. And once I asked for halibut and they said it'd cost $30/pound; I was being reimbursed for this so I said okay, please order a bunch for me—but then the day rolled around and it turned out no one had ordered it, and I was just out of luck. (Explanation: The person I'd talked to on the phone about this order several times didn't even work there! And I was given a dressing-down from the person who does work there about wanting to eat a less-than-"sustainable" species. That kind of thing I can do without.)

                      1. re: Liana Krissoff

                        You must be kidding!!

                        I've never really had bad service there, but if that happened to me, it would be the last time that I (apparently tried) to shop there.

                2. re: uptown jimmy

                  I wouldnt go that far. I lived in chapel hill for about 15 years before i moved to athens in 2006, and i think there are substantial similarities between the two towns. in fact, i have frequent deja vu walking around downtown athens because of the nearly identical look and feel to franklin street in CH. but yeah, chapel hill harbors a much smaller university, and more natives without university ties due to the proximity of the rtp. Rainbow was around for a long time before it closed, was it not? I'm not sure it closed due to the lack of demand for fish and seafood; in fact I suspect it may have closed because of their pitiful selection and strange location (put near five points, where the professors all live).

                  1. re: batdown

                    The Triangle is not comprised solely of Chapel Hill, as you know. And the area is vastly different from Athens in far too many ways to list here, but the food scene is one of the obvious ones...

                  1. re: hacheson

                    Please elaborate Mr.H.A.! I'd really like to hear your take on it.