Seth Barker didn’t want to go into the family business. The stocky Army veteran with a tinge of red in his beard could see what running a butcher shop required
Seth Barker didn’t want to go into the family business. The stocky Army veteran with a tinge of red in his beard could see what running a butcher shop required of his grandfather Herman.
“I just felt like work kind of consumed him,” Seth explains, “and that’s not what I wanted.”
As a kid, he’d visit Herman at his Ogburn Station Meat Market, an outpost far enough north in Winston-Salem that it feels more like neighboring Walkertown or Rural Hall. Even on slow days, there’s a flurry of activity on both sides of the L-shaped counter, as a dedicated team muscles a side of ribs onto a scale or deftly maneuvers a long, curved knife to evenly slice steaks while customers peer into the glowing display cases or point to the exact smoked pork chop they’d like to take home. With so little downtime at the shop, visits to see Grandpa often meant that Seth would be called on to pitch in by doing small tasks like breaking down boxes.
“We knew where to find him when we wanted to see him,” Seth says. “Lord, I had to take my prom date by there so he could see me dressed up in my tuxedo.”
Time changed little for Herman. Since opening Ogburn Station with two business partners in 1975, the elder Barker has worked tirelessly. Despite reaching retirement age, he has no intentions of leaving the counter. Recently, another, younger grandson brought his prom date by the meat market, too.
Time did alter Seth’s perspective, though. After more than a decade in the military, he planned to pursue a career in the lucrative logistics sector. But in 2015, he sought a temporary job at the meat market to hold him over — and he’s still there.
“Here I am, years later, and I love it,” he says. “I feel like it does consume me, but in a good way. I’m very passionate about it, and I see where my grandfather gets it from. Watching my grandfather and how fluent he is and how effortless this is for him, that’s what I want to be.”
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There aren’t too many places across the state like Ogburn Station, where long-standing traditions are being preserved by dedicated butchers more focused on the skill of their craft and the quality of their customer service than on the volume of their sales. Yet the Barkers are hardly alone, especially as a new generation takes up the trade. Despite their differences, these butchers are often finding that in order to keep traditions alive, they need to innovate.
Asheville-based butcher and author Meredith Leigh is at the forefront of that duality, as she both reimagines and preserves the trade.
“I was farming and raising animals and realizing that I was paying over half of my gross profit to processing facilities,” she says. “I learned how to butcher as a business necessity. Once that started, it just opened all these different doors for me.”
Her skills evolved into cofounding what is now Foothills Butcher Bar, with locations in Asheville and Black Mountain. Leigh left the business after a divorce, and for the past eight years, she’s been writing, talking, and educating people about meat.
“It has been interesting to me to journey through my profession without a brick-and-mortar because it actually feels very freeing,” she says. “I think it is a little bit easier to say I’m not representing anybody; I’m just representing the trade.”
Instead, Leigh teaches butchery workshops in person and online. She’s written two books, The Ethical Meat Handbook and Pure Charcuterie, and regularly travels to speak or consult with various groups around the state. In some ways, her aim is similar to that of other butchers: honor the craft, honor the animal, revive the tradition. In other respects, she’s an outsider, as one of the few women in the industry and as a butcher with a perspective that’s occasionally at odds with her peers.
“When I started, there was this opinion in the industry among young artisan butchers that these were trade secrets,” Leigh says. “This is old stuff, and it’s not owned by anybody. It should really be shared so that it survives and also moves us forward in the way we think about food and farming.”
At times, you can find Leigh sitting on a high stool at the back of a bookstore, her focused, light blue eyes connecting with an audience as she gestures with her hands. She can alternately be found behind a metal countertop, leaning over half of a hog and using a saw to slice between its ribs. Her approach is a blend of activism and conveying technical skills, but both work toward the same ends.
“This is a needed skill that has the ability to create community and capacity,” Leigh says. “That is just huge for what people are hungry for and what we need.”
Her work has helped people in their own kitchens, but it’s also made it possible for groups to set up networks for projects like a cooperative meat share program and even a meat processing facility. By putting the butcher’s knife in more hands, Leigh hopes to stabilize, expand, and democratize the trade’s future.
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Inside the walls of a butcher shop, teaching more people how to cut meat comes at a cost. At first, Herman Barker was hesitant to teach his grandson Seth how to cut meat — it’s time-consuming and can mean potential lost product if, say, Seth didn’t trim close enough to the bone. After spending years working as a butcher at a local A&P grocery until it closed, Herman built Ogburn Station up from nothing, and he’s fiercely protective of his store. That meant that Seth had to prove himself, leaning over his grandfather’s shoulder, watching YouTube videos, and surreptitiously practicing his knifework. Ultimately, Herman relented.
“I kind of finally got ahold of how to do it and started cutting side by side with the guys one day,” Seth says. “I think once he realized that he could trust me a little bit, he felt a little more comfortable sharing some secrets.”
Tolo Martinez went through a similar process. When he started at Cliff ’s Corner Meat Market in Carrboro at age 17, he couldn’t speak English and knew nothing about cutting meat. He’d been working at a nearby car wash, but the promise of higher pay convinced him to try cleaning fish for the first time. Back then, in 1995, owner Cliff Collins needed help communicating with Spanish-speaking customers, but it would take five or six years before he allowed Martinez to handle expensive cuts like rib eyes and tenderloins. Like Seth, Martinez proved himself over time, eventually outpacing his mentor.
“After a couple years, I asked Cliff, ‘Can we cut chickens and see how fast I am?’” the soft-spoken Martinez recounts. “Cliff said, ‘Yeah!’ and I said, ‘OK, ready?’ And I started cutting, and I was cutting faster. I’d cut two, and maybe he’d cut one. I said, ‘Cliff, what happened?’ And he said, ‘You know what, Tolo, my knife is not too good,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, OK, take this knife.’ ”
Over the 25 years Martinez spent at the pocketsize shop not far from UNC’s campus, he developed a friendship with Collins, and mutual respect.
“I know Cliff more than my father because we’re working together all the time,” Martinez says. “I know when he’s mad. I know when he’s happy. I know when he wants something.”
Martinez dreamed of opening his own meat market, but a little over a year ago, he left Cliff ’s to pursue other work, including laying floors and processing deer. Collins called him almost every day, he says, asking where things were in the walk-in cooler or if Martinez could pick up a shift. Eventually, Collins asked Martinez if he’d like to buy the store, and the two agreed on a payment plan. But Collins still comes in to help out, often meeting suppliers before sunrise or covering on the weekend, providing indispensable help, Martinez says.
Though Collins is still around, Martinez is making some changes. His predecessor’s name will stay over the door, but Martinez gave the business a face-lift, buying new equipment, deep-cleaning the space, and putting in new floors. Longtime customers welcomed the change, he says.
“Sometimes I’d tell Cliff, ‘Hey Cliff, we need to put in new floors,’ and he’d say to me, ‘The customers don’t buy the floor; they buy the meat,’ ” Martinez recalls, laughing. “So we see some things differently.”
Seth Barker’s aunt Kim Drye also gave Ogburn Station a makeover. It used to feel almost like “a dark dungeon,” Seth says, but Drye had new lighting put in. Seth created social media pages and asked a friend to design a website and logo — before that, the store didn’t have much branding.
Despite being a relative newcomer to the industry, Seth says that he’s taught his grandfather a few things, including a newer technique for thinly shaving beef and how to make items from other cultures, like Mexican barbacoa. On a recent Saturday, a middle-aged woman waiting in line outside the shop discussed her planned order, which included oxtails. Meeting a range of customer demands, and ones that change over time, is part of the job. Seth recalls one customer who asked for a bone-in filet mignon; when Seth obliged, his grandfather retorted, “Well daggone, I’ve never seen that.”
• • •
Demand is driving changes at butcher shops around the state. For Martinez, that’s meant a shift away from seafood — from hundreds of pounds a week down to maybe 20 now, he estimates — and a much heavier focus on sourcing locally for everything from lamb to rabbit.
“I feel like the new generation is more like, ‘Where did this meat come from? What did the cow eat?’” he says. That’s why he’s visiting local farms and paying close attention to whether his meat is hormone-free.
In Lexington, what customers want looks different. Despite its location in an epicenter of North Carolina barbecue, The Butcher’s Block doesn’t sell much pork. With popular and affordable restaurants like Speedy’s BBQ, Inc., and the Bar-B-Q Center close by, Eric Everhart’s customers are more interested in his high-quality beef. He was one of the first vendors in North Carolina to carry tomahawk steaks — with their long, arcing bones jutting out from the thick slabs of certified Angus beef stretching nearly the full depth of the display case.
His range of offerings, which also includes items like fresh, wild-caught deep-sea dry scallops and thick, beautifully marbled beef chuck short ribs, draws in more out-of-town customers than locals, he says. Lately, there’s been an uptick in people wanting to smoke their meat — hence the whole Boston butt that’s about the size of a small suitcase on display — but the premium bratwursts and thick-cut bacon options move more quickly.
Everhart, who bears a vague resemblance to a young Robert De Niro, is a Lexington native who spent almost three decades working at retail groceries, including The Fresh Market. Since opening his own old-fashioned store in 2017, he’s expanded to a second location in downtown Winston-Salem beneath hundreds of glitzy apartments in the newly renovated Bailey Power Plant complex. Everhart envisions 10 stores across the state, with blueprints already drawn up for a third location in downtown Salisbury.
He’s also looking beyond the traditional products that patrons might expect from their butcher. He recently offered fresh bison raised in the North Carolina mountains, the Lexington store is one of the only sources of fresh seafood in town, and he advertises that in addition to the basics, he can source anything from alligator to elk to python.
“A lot of people in this town aren’t used to what we do,” Everhart says. Still, that doesn’t mean that he’s eschewing all the old ways. Under his care, the 1,000-square-foot Lexington storefront — formerly a dress shop and a small church, among other uses — won an award for best repurposed building. The ceramic floor, wooden crate displays, and farm-style tin back wall give the butcher’s flagship location a quaint, down-home feel.
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These butchers have found that it isn’t a rigid adherence to the past that keeps a tradition alive, but a loving, tenderly executed adaptation and revival. A mix of dependability and flexibility, from Leigh’s online classes to Everhart’s range of products.
That’s how they’re building trust, community, and a future for their craft. This is a hard, physical line of work, and the relationships they’ve built are a big part of what keeps them in it.
That connection is apparent with some customers in particular, who will wait 30 minutes for Seth or Herman Barker to be the one to cut their orders. “People want that personal experience with you, not that get-in, get-out,” Seth says. “They want that conversation — ‘How’s your kids, your wife, your dog?’ They want that personal touch. Maybe they could go to Walmart and get [their meat] for a couple dollars cheaper, but they’re coming to you, who they know and trust.”
Direct relationships with patrons is part of what sustains butchers, making their businesses durable enough to withstand a pandemic or a changing economic landscape. But there’s also another kind of trusting relationship that keeps them afloat: family.
Before he took a leap of faith, Everhart was pushed by his eldest son to open his own business, and now several of his children work for him. “I want them all to have roles and keep this company going once I’m long gone,” he says. “I’m just trying to build a legacy for my children.”
Martinez echoes the sentiment. As he talks, his wife positions herself behind the cash register, their daughter by her side doing homework in a notebook. His bilingual son helps sometimes, too, jumping in to smooth over language barriers with vendors. Family is the reason Martinez works so hard, he says. “When I worked for Cliff, I worked like I was the owner,” he says. “When you’re working like the owner, you’re a good butcher. Don’t work like an employee.”
Being with family is Seth Barker’s favorite part of the job. “People always say it’s hard to work with family, but I’ve found it pretty easy,” he says.
Like her nephew Seth, Kim Drye also spurned the idea of staying with the family business after putting in a few years of work in her teens. “When I left at 17, I said I was never coming back,” Drye says. After years spent working in Food Lion’s meat department and then at Lowe’s Home Improvement, she returned to Ogburn Station when Herman’s business partners retired. It felt right. And now, she hopes her son will take up the mantle.
“He’s 20 and working at Lowe’s,” Drye says, “but I want him to take a business class at Forsyth Tech first and then come work with us.”
• • •
It won’t just be up to Drye’s son whether these traditions live on across North Carolina — it will also depend on the next generation of consumers.
“Young people today are the children of people who are desperately afraid of meat and fat,” Meredith Leigh explains. “People don’t understand meat at all because it’s been vilified in the modern American health industry, and fat has also been vilified.”
Martinez sees that firsthand. “Sometimes the new generation thinks no fat is better,” he says, “but when you see a rib eye with no fat, it doesn’t taste good. Sometimes the customers don’t believe that.”
Martinez hopes that more people — of any age — will take the time to talk to a butcher in their community to learn about what they’re consuming, how to prepare it, or how it ended up on their plate. Butchers are a fount of knowledge, often untapped. And while the idea of a neighborhood butcher shop may be trendy again, Leigh says that the market is far from saturated. Rising interest in meat, its origins, and its preparation can only be a good thing, she adds.
“The more the general public is educated,” she says, “the better it is for everyone.”
Learn more about Meredith Leigh’s butchery programs at mereleighfood.com.