Rekindling a Trade at The Ranelagh Butchers

Run by couple Michael Madden and Sarah Kelly, The Ranelagh Butchers opened in 2012.  Since then the business has gone from strength to strength, originally employing two staff and growing to nine.

Both from a butchering background, where the couple initially met, Michael is head butcher and Sarah focuses on product development in the business.  With this in mind, we thought it would be extremely useful to get their insight on the meat industry in Ireland and how tradition has changed, as well as an understanding how their business model has succeeded.

The industry has changed significantly in Ireland since the 1980s when all shops cured their own meat, made their own sausages and boned out their own beef.  Sarah believes that there are a few reasons that shops stopped doing this and, as a result, the skill has all been but lost in many small local independent butchers.

Some of the reasons include the changing in legislation from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) and “While food safety is of course paramount, it became untenable for small shops to be able to comply - suddenly you had to have a completely separate area for sausage production, separate fridges,” Sarah explained.  This is resulted in more paperwork before computerised systems were in place that were affordable for smaller butchers.

Another major factor was the BSE outbreak that saw a ban on boning cattle, and ‘vacpac’ ageing beef in plastic became an alternative.  Many smaller butchers simply began to buy in because they could not keep up with this change - as Sarah stated “Over time the skill that was passed on from the older butcher to the apprentice young butchers was lost”.

Supermarkets and convenience foods also have had an impact, as lifestyles changed to favour ready meals and “Butchers felt they had to compete with the supermarkets; the drive for lower prices and more convenience meant the need for less skilled craftsmen and less traditional butchering”.  With the following recession, Sarah says that the ‘fiver Friday’ gimmick was a terrible idea that ruined the industry, “As it just drove prices down so far that any skill and quality left went out the window”.

Michael also thinks that there was a very sudden shift that the industry was very slow to catch up on.  “Cuts of meat that require longer preparation times became less popular and I think the shift was very sudden and we were a bit slow to catch up with it, it shifted to people not wanting to see the butcher cutting meat on the block, as they thought it was unsavory looking,” says Michael.

He is hopeful though, saying “Thankfully it’s coming full circle and they want the good quality cuts again,” as he believes customers have started returning to the industry.

Although moving into supplying restaurants was never a deliberate one, many of the business’s customers are chefs, originally calling in to “To see the dry aged fridge, and it just went from there”.  It helped that Michael had a background in carcass butchering and wholesale as well.  “I think I've learnt a lot from working with chefs and vice versa when it comes to different cuts and cooking techniques,” he said.

Being a supplier has clear benefits for a butcher’s, “As an add on to the retail it carries us over the quiet times - it has also helped us grow the business, definitely”. It also benefits the stock range; the stores carries a lot of different cuts that can't always be found in your local butcher shop. This gives them more in-depth product knowledge and room to experiment: “We often work with chefs and dry age beef for 40/50 days for them and pass on cooking tips and techniques over the counter,” says Michael.  This in turn helps the retail side of the business: “Customers now know so much more about food and cooking, it benefits us to be on both ends of it, with customers cooking at home to restaurants setting those food trends”.

Meeting the chef has been a vital part of becoming a supplier for restaurants.  “You can find out what exactly they are looking for and always keep the line of dialogue open,” says Michael.  Giving a personal service is essential and helping chefs move their product is part of it.  When asked for what he would advise butchers to do moving into this area, he recommended “Don't think you can pass off off cuts or stale stock, don't take complaints personally and to work out your credit terms at the start”. A lot of butchers still may be reluctant to supply restaurants because of the recession - securing payments was difficult, and many bulk competitors like Musgraves offer prices that were hard to compete with.

Staffing, as throughout many food and hospitality businesses, is also a massive factor for The Ranelagh Butchers.  Apprenticeships appear be dying out in the meat industry, so training people from scratch has been difficult.  The second challenge is rising costs, DCC rates have increased by 50%, rent by 30% as well as insurance going up.  However, businesses are reluctant to put the prices up despite competition from big names and brands who can undercut prices without hesitation.

One of the biggest features of The Ranelagh Butchers is the dry ageing practiced onsite.  “We love what we do and want to be the best we can be at it, so there was no way we could do that without bringing dry ageing into it.”  Sharing this with the customer is very rewarding for both Sarah and Michael “And it’s equally wonderful when the customer gets it, which is usually when they taste it”.

Plans for the future include expansion, but owing to the cost of rent this may take a while. “We really love our location and wouldn't want to leave the area, but finding another premises at an affordable rent may be a challenge in the coming years; but I believe we will get there,” said Sarah.

Sarah stated that she would like to do everything in house with a chef, from salamis to dry cured products and terrines, while doubling the size of their dry aging operation.  However, if anything, the possible need for this not only shows promise for the business, but also the industry itself as tradition, knowledge and quality are making a comeback for butchers.

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