NAPLES — When most customers think about butcher shops, succulent suppers come to mind. As you stand in front of the meat case, you can almost hear the sizzling of a steak on your grill and smell the aroma of the hot baked potato you'll serve alongside it.
It would be easy to assume that the neighborhood butcher is thinking about what you'll buy. But according to Naples butchers, they're thinking about people, and they can't wait to talk to you.
"There is nothing like the one-on-one with customers, and many of ours we know by name," said Jimmy Pepper, Jr. who owns Jimmy P's Butcher Shop in Naples with his father. "My father has been a butcher for 45 years like his father before him, and that's what having a small family-owned business is all about."
You can get in and out of Jimmy P's Butcher Shop quickly if they're not slammed, but most customers don't want to. That's because traditional butcher shops, like other specialty stores, are making a comeback. For home cooks, they are a treasure trove of information and inspiration.
"Shopping at specialty stores like ours used to be the norm," Jimmy Pepper, Sr., recalled.
Home cooks rely on specialty stores for more than products. At these independently owned food shops, customers learn shortcuts and techniques from the proprietors and employees. And for those customers who care more about the ingredients than convenience, they'll make special trips all over town to complete a meal.
At places like Jimmy P's, expect anything from recipe suggestions to a formal education on what makes a butcher shop special and why they are so few and far between.
"It's about freshness, and when you shop at a specialty store like ours, you're not getting something out of a case – you're talking to me," said Pepper, Sr., who has been known to sit down with people and talk at length about beef sourcing. "I know my suppliers and I can look at a product for example, and tell you exactly what field that cow came from."
Pepper said one perk of being so picky about their products is the wooing they receive from suppliers. But no amount of begging will sway the Peppers, who hold blind taste testings for every product they carry to determine which products to feature in their store.
Butcher shops have evolved but some, like Jimmy P's, still subscribe to the old-school approach of assembling a menu. Jimmy P's serves lunch, including hot and cold deli sandwiches. The difference between its deli sandwiches and say, a grocery store, is that Jimmy P's cuts, seasons and cooks all of the deli meats that they serve in their café in-house.
"Old-fashioned butcher shops make their own deli meats, and that's one reason people keep coming in for our sandwiches," said Pepper, Sr. "We do our own roast beef, turkey, ham, pastrami and corned beef."
Jimmy P's grilled Reuben has earned quite a fan following – the Peppers have served dozens in a single lunch rush. Jimmy P's also makes its own bacon and cooks barbeque, beef short ribs and duck leg. The Peppers concede that their price point at Jimmy P's is higher than most other establishments with a butcher department, but that doesn't seem to affect their customer base. A number of their customers even have orders shipped to them in the off-season.
While Jimmy P's is the only true stand-alone butcher shop in Naples, other retailers also do their own butchering and take tremendous pride in the craft. At Wynn's for example, nothing makes butchers Steve Shriver and Mark Brown happier than when someone calls with a laborious custom order.
"We're outgoing people, so we love the contact and to talk about our craft and the products we have to offer," said Shriver. "We're fortunate to have one butcher here who has been doing this for 50 years."
Brown and Shriver say they also enjoy suggesting housemade accoutrements that pair with the meats they sell, and that part of being productive butchers is so much more than just carving meat.
"We have gourmet food specialists here and one of them makes incredible marinades that customers can pair with various proteins," said Brown, who is a chef as well as a full-time butcher. Brown says he enjoys sharing cooking tips with customers and getting to know them.
"We have a lady who comes in a couple times a year who orders a large custom lamb order including ground lamb and lamb chops," Brown said. "We make it for her each time and we know her by name."
Both Jimmy P's and Wynn's create their own housemade sausage, which is a daunting task."Older meat cutters, those old timers, are a dying breed, but they can do more with a piece of meat than you can imagine," Shriver said.
In East Naples, Oakes Farms has become known over the years for its produce and seafood, but it also has a meat department that specializes in customer contact, and butcher Frank Murphy keeps customers in smiles. The veteran began working in a butcher shop when he was seven years old, more than six decades ago. He came to Naples to retire, and joined Oakes Farms simply to shape the new meat department created back in 1998. He's been there ever since.
"We have a lot of regulars and it's always a pleasure for customers to come in and ask a question — like how we suggest they cook a pork chop, and I love to share my suggestions with them," Murphy said.
Murphy is planning a vacation to Ireland. When his customers found out, many of them brought in maps and reading material on Ireland to help Murphy plan his trip. It's that connection, forged over years leaning over a counter of meat, that Murphy says has kept him in the business for so long.
"I can relate to many types of people and I enjoy interacting and having fun with them," he says. "I'll get a lady in here from Tennessee and I'll say, 'I see you're from Boston, eh?' and the customers love it."