Somehow Australia’s fascination with celebrity chefs and television cooking programs has overlooked a key ingredient in the nation’s meal time experience – the butcher.
About two thirds of the sales turnover in butcher shops today is now attributed to freshly prepared meals for busy shoppers, or a range of other meat product lines which go well beyond rump steak, chicken thighs or lamb cutlets.
From pre-cooked curries, stroganoff and lasagne through to ready-to-cook satay skewers, beef Wellington or cordon bleu chicken, the menu offering in many of Australia’s 2000-plus butcher shops makes easy work of preparing dinner for thousands of families every day.
And butchers don’t just sell meat, smallgoods and ready-made meal solutions.
They will also advise how best to cook, store, or use the meat you buy, says Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) chief executive officer, Patrick Hutchinson.
“These guys, and girls, represent a lot more in the food industry than they tend to get credit for,” he said.
“They’re also still providing a real face in fresh food retailing at a time when corporates have almost overwhelmed our grocery, bakery and fruit and veggie shopping scene.”
I know of shops trading right beside Woolworths whose turnover grew by up to 200 per cent in the past 18 months.
More than ever, the friendly family-owned butchery provided a stark contrast to big, brassy supermarkets with plastic-wrapped meat cuts sourced from bulk distribution centres.
“And there’s rarely a butcher to be seen in a supermarket these days,” Mr Hutchinson said.
For those butcher shops with the right mix of service, skills, new products and a good shopping centre location, he said business was brisk.
“I know of shops trading right beside Woolworths whose turnover grew up to 200 per cent in the past 18 months.”
He said butchers were also “invaluable ambassadors for farmers”, particularly in metropolitan areas where few city dwellers have contact with agriculture, or much empathy with what’s involved in producing a choice steak or fillet of pork.
“Butchers provide a city window to farming,” he said.
“Every day they’re talking about what farmers produce and how the farming industry is respected internationally.”
“They relish their connections with producers and processors and they promote locally-grown product and regional brands, not imports.
“They’re also likely to pay the best prices for quality meat, setting the bar for producers to get a good return for their efforts.”
Butchers handle just under a quarter of all fresh meat sales in Australia.
However, despite all the personality, artisan preparation skills and extra value they add to food retailing, butchers are fighting a serious rear-guard action to keep supermarkets from eating up their market.
The combined Coles and Woolworths retail juggernaut now claims about 51pc of all fresh meat sales in Australia, while Aldi increased its market share almost 1pc in the past year to reach 9.6pc, according to latest Roy Morgan research.
They’re resilient, but butchers are feeling the pressure.
While many butcher shops are doing well, it is not easy.
As small family-run businesses, butchers have felt the full force of soaring energy costs, stiff rental prices for prime retail space and surging values for livestock in regional saleyards.
Well-funded vegan activist campaigns had also increased their aggressive publicity seeking tactics against some butcher shops and restaurants, which threatened to undermine public confidence in meat retailing.
“They’re resilient, but butchers are feeling the pressure,” said Mr Hutchinson, who believed more must be done to bolster the independent meat retailer’s self confidence and recognition in the community.
AMIC already has plans afoot to start developing a “love your local butcher” style marketing campaign, which could dovetail into the success of Meat and Livestock Australia’s popular lamb and beef marketing efforts.
Mr Hutchinson has taken some cues from the British meat retail sector which he said did a great job of cultivating the image of butchers and their popularity as food marketers.
“British butchers are well loved and they’re well supported.
“We’ve certainly looked at how the industry is promoted in the UK.”
He also wants to highlight how significant butchers are as employers and trainers of young staff.
“There are the equivalent of 5000 full time jobs directly attributed to our butcher shops – they’re a significant contributor to the workforce.”
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