IC grocery stores slice off butcher departments

Bread Garden Market and New Pioneer Food Co-Op have recently done away with their meat counters — part of a growing national trend.

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IC grocery stores slice off butcher departments

Rylee Wilson, News Reporter

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As the number of butchers dwindles across the U.S, Iowa City grocers are doing away with their on-site meat departments.

Bread Garden Market and the New Pioneer Food Co-Op have recently done away with their meat counters, switching to prepackaged options.

The Bread Garden meat department is now located a few blocks away in Joseph’s Steakhouse. Both are run by the same company, Fresh Food Concepts.

Brian Penrod, the front of house manager for Bread Garden, said 85 percent of the work done by the butcher department at Bread Garden was preparing cuts for Joseph’s Steakhouse — so the move was partially motivated by efficiency as well as plans to expand the store’s deli offerings.

The space once occupied by the meat counter will be used to add a new deli cheese section.

New Pioneer Food Co-Op also now only offers prepackaged meats at its downtown Iowa City location — the Coralville location will still offer a full meat counter.

Penrod acknowledged that the Bread Garden meat counter has been missed by regular customers.

“We’ve gotten a lot of complaints … we do have very loyal customers,” he said. “We didn’t have enough to warrant keeping [the butchers] there and keeping the meat department.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018, the average national hourly wage for a butcher was $15.97, as of May 2018. Iowa had the lowest average wages for butchers in the nation at that time, with a $12.72 average hourly wage and an average annual wage of $26,460.

According to data from Iowa Workforce Development, butchers in the Iowa City area made an average annual salary of $26,600 in 2017.

Danny Johnson, a butcher in Sacramento, California, and a member of a national group of meat professionals called the Butcher’s Guild, said finding young people interested in becoming butchers can be difficult — and the rise of large grocery stores can drive local butchers out of business.

“A butcher used to be engaged in every small town in this country — in parts of the country, it’s dying, in parts of it, it’s thriving,” he said.

RELATED: University of Iowa holds first Meatless Monday at dining halls 

Local butchers are becoming more popular in larger cities, Johnson said, while butchers in small towns may struggle to compete with large grocers.

The disadvantage to eliminating meat counters is the lack of specialized knowledge that butchers can provide, he said, which store employees may not be able to replicate. At his store, he said, he can offer customers cuts based on specific recipes.

“Where as you go into a store fed by a commissary — you’re not going to get that,” he said.

For Johnson, the survival of butchers depends on consumer willingness to put the health benefits of fresh meat over a convenient price.

“You’re going to be healthier — you’ll cut down on trips to the doctor, you’ll feel better,” he said.

Although Bread Garden has received complaints about the loss of the meat counter, Penrod said, the introduction of prepackaged meat options has increased sales. Those sales over the Fourth of July holiday were twice as high compared with the previous year, he said.

“Since we moved the meat department to prepackaged meat, we’ve actually seen an increase in meat sales,” he said. “I think there are a lot of people who are intimidated about going up to a butcher and asking questions about it.”