Butchers have never occupied a glamorous link in the food-production chain. It is a decidedly gritty component of the food-making process. These skilled practitioners wield sharp tools to separate flesh from bone and deliver an animal’s primal sustenance to our tables and freezers.
Their day-to-day job involves doing the work the rest of us are wholly unqualified and unwilling to do.
Yet, where would we be without them?
In Sonoma County’s spectrum of food producers, there are a number of small independent meat producers and butchers providing custom cut and wrap services, custom sausage, bacon and smoked meats that you won’t find at the big chain grocery stores. They provide an integral link in the ever-popular farm to table chain. Here are glimpses of two local butchers.
Don Alberigi has been in the butcher trade long enough to know that there’s more to this business than just selling meat. It’s about relationships with long-time customers and the diligence and thoughtfulness needed to establish and maintain a good reputation that spans nearly five decades.
Alberigi has been running Willowside Meats, located about two miles west of Fulton Road in Santa Rosa, with his wife Darlene since 1986. It is a non-descript building, set back from the road with a gravel parking lot. A small retail counter is at the front of the store, with a cutting area and meat coolers in the rear. “It’s just an old-fashioned butcher shop,” said Alberigi. “It’s clean. It’s nothing fancy.”
The majority of Willowside’s business involves custom butchery of wild game, fair animals or livestock that customers raise themselves. “We do a lot of custom stuff,” said Alberigi. “People raise their own animals now … because they don’t like what they’re buying in the grocery stores … they’re all shot up full of hormones.”
Animals are brought in from the Sonoma County Fair and Healdsburg Future Farmers Country Fair, where they are raised as projects and sold at the fair auction. In addition to custom meats, the butcher shop sells aged meats, bacon, ham, smoked meats and 25 types of sausage. Since Willowside is a state-inspected facility, the meats can only be sold on the premises.
Another big part of the trade at Willowside is the preparation of game animals. On a Saturday morning, a long-time customer brought in a deer he had harvested on a ranch in Cloverdale. A long conversation ensued about other recent deer that had come in, what type of fat was needed for the sausage that was going to be made, the customer’s brother (who went to school with one of the butchers). A short time later, another familiar customer brought in an elk from a recent trip to Nevada. The same sort of comfortable banter continued; it was evident they entrusted their game with the crew at Willowside.
At 69, Alberigi is not sure how much longer he’ll be running the business, but with most of his life spent in the meat processing industry, he’s carved out a unique niche for himself. “I’m not like a grocery store, I have my own clientele,” he said. He beckons a visitor to a row of metal file drawers, filled with 3×5-inch note cards containing 28 years worth of loyal customers’ information. In addition, there are file drawers that include material on pork, beef, lamb, wild game and fairs.
“You’ve got to build a reputation,” said Alberigi. “It takes a long time to build a reputation, but it doesn’t take very long to screw it up. When I got into this business, one thing I did was to pay attention to what the butchers did and I asked a lot of questions.”
Before striking out on his own, Alberigi learned the butcher trade during 20 years at the Panizzera Meat Company in Occidental, the town where he grew up. As a youngster he worked for his aunt, Mary Panizzera, who owned the Union Hotel. He washed dishes, cleared tables, “everything but tending bar,” he said. In 1966, Joe Panizzera asked him to work for him at the Panizzera Meat Company, just up the street from the Union Hotel.
In those days in Occidental, you were either related to, or knew everyone, in the small town. “It was a great town to grow up in,” said Alberigi, whose father was also a butcher.
Alberigi enjoys the social aspect of his work. “You get to meet a lot of people and make a lot of friends,” he said. “If you make people happy, it makes you happy. It’s satisfying. You’ve got to spend a lot of time with customers, compared with a retail store. That’s what it’s all about.”
Sonoma County Meat Co.
If Rian Rinn and Jenine Alexander had started their business 50 years ago, they’d probably be in a downtown storefront, operating their neighborhood butcher shop with sawdust covering the floor and regular customers stopping by on the way home from work to pick up a chop or pound of bacon.
Instead, they’re tucked away on a quiet stretch of Sebastopol Avenue, near the intersection of Highway 12 and US 101 in Santa Rosa. They converted an old tire shop into a fully licensed USDA and State meat processing facility—the first of its kind to open in Sonoma County in decades.
Festooned with red-and-white striped awnings, the building features a small retail space with a display case filled with local products, their own sausage, bacon, jerky and just about anything else a carnivore might desire.
On a Saturday, the small retail shop is full. A woman is waiting as a clerk fetches some lamb shanks. A woman with a child is waiting to pick up a custom sausage order.
“Things are going really well. People have been really supportive in the meat community in Sonoma County,” said Rinn, showing a visitor around the facility, which late on a Saturday afternoon is buzzing with activity. “This is nothing,” he added. “You should see it on a Friday.”
The two Healdsburg natives, who are in their thirties, opened the shop in March of 2014, after spending years trying to find a suitable location (and nearly giving up). They spent a long time deciding what their facility would look like and how they would carry out the various processes of curing, smoking, sausage making, and cut and wrap services. “Jenine and I did a lot of research before we opened this place,” Rinn said. “We travelled all over the world, looked at different plants, processes, prices and asked ourselves, what do we want to carry?”
What they carry is a little bit of everything. “We have something for everyone,” said Rinn.
Customers can bring their animals for custom cut and wrap services. This may include an animal raised as a 4-H project, a deer or wild hog brought in by a hunter or from a rancher in Mendocino County that raises natural meats.
They buy locally raised beef, pork, chicken and rabbit that they resell to customers. The USDA license allows them to buy animals and resell meat on site and to retail customers such as restaurants or specialty meat sellers.
“We are working with farmers that are sustainably raising animals, without antibiotics and hormones,” said Alexander. “They are raising animals with respect for the land and animals … with the idea that this is something that will be able to continue for many generations.”
Rinn and Alexander have started a Meat CSA (community supported agriculture) program where customers can sign up for a monthly meat box of 5, 10 or 15 pounds and purchase local meats at a club rate. “This is one of my favorite parts of the business,” said Alexander, “because it is the most budget-friendly way for people who want to eat high-quality meat.” All of the meats are pasture-raised in Sonoma County, with the exception of some of the rabbits, which come from Napa. Their meat producers include Sonoma Natural Beef, lambs from Williams Ranches, and rabbits from Little M Farms. They also offer classes that include sausage making, bacon curing, knife skills and private butchery demonstrations and dinners.
Theirs was a circuitous route to the meat business. Rinn raised animals in 4-H as a boy and sold them at the Healdsburg Future Farmers Country Fair. He attended culinary school and worked at some notable restaurants, including the highly acclaimed Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco. Yet Rinn said he always wanted to do what the butchers were doing. The kitchen end of the food business “wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” he said, talking quickly as he trimmed fat from a piece of chuck. “I would see the butchers doing what they did, and I wanted to know how they did it. I would come in early to learn to cut meat and then go to work in the restaurant. I realized this was for me.”
He worked as the head butcher at Willowside Meats in Santa Rosa, and he did custom slaughter and taught classes on the side.
Prior to working with Rinn, Alexander worked at the meat counter at Big John’s Market in Healdsburg. She handles “the front of the house” at the Sonoma County Meat Co. “We feel really lucky to be able to do this,” she said. The butcher business has recently experienced an upturn. “But day in and day out, it’s not that glamorous,” she added. The payoff is that “I help provide people with sustenance, and the food we produce was raised by people we know; and the products we are making, we are making right here.”
Rinn and Alexander display obvious pride in what they are doing. “I work with every single cut-and-wrap customer,” he said. “We’re not going to let anything go out of here that we don’t feel proud about. Our product quality here is better than anywhere else.”
“Rian is really skilled in his craft,” said Alexander. “I love that, as a team, we are able to provide something that is useful for Sonoma County. And hopefully we’re able to support farmers. If they are doing well, we are doing well. It’s a symbiotic relationship.” SD