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Master Butcher Ron Savenor Solves the Mystery of Meat

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Welcome to a special The Five Days of Meat edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the food industry for the better part of their lives.
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Ron Savenor in the Cambridge shop. [Photos: Rachel Leah Blumenthal, except for the historical photos of Jack Savenor and Julia Child, which were provided.]

Since opening in Cambridge in 1939, Savenor's has built a golden reputation as one of the most beloved butcher shops around, and not just any butcher shop — the butcher shop of Julia Child. It has also become a favorite spot for those seeking exotic meats; on a recent day at the Cambridge shop, customers could find everything from kangaroo dumplings to python.

For the past quarter-century, Ron Savenor has owned the company, which now includes two retail shops (Cambridge and Beacon Hill) and a wholesale division. He's the third generation; his grandparents, Abraham and Dora Savenor, opened the shop, and his father Jack took it over from them until his retirement in 1989. Ron reflects on growing up in the business, memories of Julia Child, upcoming changes in Cambridge, and lots more.

What's your earliest memory of the shop?
I remember coming in on Saturdays with my dad when I was a kid, and Julia Child would walk in. I would always wonder, "What's the big deal about her?" Of course I wasn't really a foodie back then. But I was always impressed by how people really loved the store and my dad and the whole Julia Child connection. It's one reason that I wanted to go into the business.

One thing I found interesting about your bio on the shop's website is that everyone assumed you'd go into the business...except for you. How did you end up here after all?
While I was growing up working in the business, I didn't really see myself doing it, but as I got older, what appealed to me was how people felt about my dad and how much they loved the product. When I went to college, I really discovered how good the food I had been eating every day was. All of a sudden I'm in the middle of Maine, and I have to shop at some chain store, and I thought, "Oh my God, this is terrible." I used to come home on weekends, and I'd go back with boxes of meats, and all my college friends were really excited when we were cooking meat from the store. So I really saw how people felt about my dad and how much people just admired the place, and I thought, "What a great way to go through life." Everyone who comes in to see you is really glad to see you. You're selling them the best food money can buy, and they love you for it. What's better than that?

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Inside the Cambridge store.

How did you come to open a store in Beacon Hill after the original Cambridge store burned down?
The store had been here for about 55 years, and my dad had already retired. He sold his home in Lexington and was moving down to Florida, and the day he left — literally that night — the store burned down. It was uncanny. It was a ballast in a light that overheated that caused the fire. That was around 1991.

We had a customer whose name was Louis Kane; he was the founder of Au Bon Pain and was really someone I truly loved and adored. He said, "Ronnie, you gotta come to Beacon Hill. I will make all my market study stuff available for you." We found this location on Charles Street; interestingly enough that whole last block-and-a-half was dead then. Dregsville. Loserville. But he had me out there counting people in front of DeLuca's and counting people coming off the T, and all the demographics were really good. He really helped me out; he was my business mentor.

I remember when I told my dad that I was going to move to Beacon Hill and he said, "What, are you crazy?" I said "Dad, I'm telling you, I've done all this research with Louis." Then he said, "You're in good hands with Louis." So, we opened up the Charles Street store, and it was really like that Field of Dreams movie — build it and they will come.

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[The deli counter in Cambridge.]

But we were going to miss the first Thanksgiving. I'd done business with a farm for years, and everyone was calling for turkeys, so I actually rented this huge refrigerated truck. We put it out front here [where the Cambridge store had been], and we sold almost 400 turkeys that year. I didn't want to leave my farmer out there hanging, because every year I order my turkeys in August. People were really great about it...except I think one person called the health department complaining that we were selling turkeys off the back of a truck.

So we opened on Charles Street, and we just became part of the fabric of the neighborhood. The Beacon Hill customers are really nice people, and the thing I like is that it's one of the last neighborhoods where you can still shop locally and know the owner. Out of all the money you spend a month to exist, how much of it do you spend with someone who gives you superior product and superior service, and you may even know and like the owner? That's unheard of, isn't it? So I try to do that as well in my own life, because I appreciate that customers appreciate what I do.

We've always catered to the neighborhoods we're in and to the foodies. I used to be in Boston 60, 70, 80 hours a week, and that's 20 years of my life there, so I always tell people Beacon Hill is more my neighborhood than the town I live in. I get invited to baby showers, weddings, bachelor parties, Christmas parties, you name it. And when I go to the store to cover a vacation or apprentice a butcher or something, people say, "It's great to see you in Boston; what's it like?" It's like going to your high school reunion, but everyone likes you. It is awesome. It's fun being a part of that neighborhood, and I think that's one thing about Savenor's, whether it's in Cambridge or Boston. We're part of the neighborhood, and that's really what we cater to. I have people constantly saying, "How about opening here? How about opening there?" But I don't need to be the biggest. I just need to be the best, and I think that's what motivates me day in and day out — to be the best at what I do and to show off the one thing I'm good at in life, which is cutting meat. Plus, I like people. You have to like people.

Do you notice many difference between the clientele in Cambridge and Beacon Hill these days?
Oh, absolutely. The Beacon Hill store is much more an "everything" store to people, where they can really shop fresh every day. They love that. And that was really the whole concept of the store; we're a very European market. Here in Cambridge, there are more stores really close, lots of Whole Foods, so we're a butcher shop. No one does meat better than us, without sounding arrogant. And wait until you see the remodel we're doing here; we're really excited.

We start construction in a couple weeks to evolve into being a dedicated butcher shop, because that's what people come to Savenor's for. That's our thing. We're going to have a smaller produce section, but it's all going to be local produce. You're going to walk in and see all these beautiful meat cases, a beautiful dry-aging'll be really nice. And I didn't want to lose that feel of being able to wait on the customer, because people love that and I love doing that, so we have butcher blocks there too, and I have a big butcher block in the back for whole animal butchery and doing demos. I take great pride in being one of the last master butchers, and I like what I do.

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The current produce section in Cambridge.

What does it mean to be a master butcher?
Basically you can do everything from slaughter to breaking it down to primal cuts and sub-primals, knowing how to do every cut and knowing how to merchandise them. All the different techniques on how to cut them.

I offer classes, too. What's so exciting is when you're doing that, you're sharing this passion, and that's the fun part. Like us sitting here; let's face it. We all have this childish fun passion for food and meat, and I think that's what I do — I solve the mystery of meat for a lot of people, which is great fun.

After the fire and after opening in Beacon Hill, how did you end up building a new store here on the old Cambridge site? Did your original customers come right back?
Oh my God, that was a nightmare. It was horrible. We were supposed to open for September, but one thing led to another, and we didn't end up opening until five days before Christmas. So during what should be our busiest time, people didn't even know we were here. The day before Christmas should be a really big day, but we did around $5000 in sales. And then, no one knew we were here for New Year's a week later. We opened just in time for our slowest time of the year. It was horrible, because I had all the staff. If I were smart, I would have not opened at all until the next September.

As a result of that, I went so far into debt, I can't even tell you. I maxed out my own credit cards to the tune of almost $200,000, but I really believed in the company, and I really believed in the reputation, and we turned that around. I remember making that last credit card payment — I was so psyched. And then when we turned a small profit of $40,000, the first thing I did was turn around and give $31,000 of it to my staff in bonuses. That was probably my greatest moment. I couldn't sleep the night before; I was so excited. It was my way of saying thanks.

How has the business changed over the years?
Years ago, we used to have rails in the back. Hanging beef came in — either a hind quarter, which had the leg and the loin on it, or the fore quarter, which had the shoulder and the rib section on it — hanging on rails on a refrigerated truck, and then you had to break it down. 30 years ago, that all changed to boxed beef because processors realized they were losing hundreds of dollars on every shipment of hanging beef. Beef has a natural water content, so it naturally dries out. If they're shipping a thousand pounds, maybe it comes out at 980 in the time it takes to get here. So they decided to beat the system and do all the processing themselves, sending it boxed.

The advantage of the boxed beef was that it made doing your cutting tests so much easier, because now instead of taking a whole hind quarter or a fore quarter and trying to figure out the math for all the pieces and doing algebra, now you got, say, a box of prime sirloin, USDA prime strips, and they cost you a dollar. You cut them and look at the beginning weight, cost, and your ending weight, and you could see what it costs as opposed to doing this whole elaborate sheet we used to have on how to break beef.

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A butcher chart and spices at the Cambridge store.

But you still do some whole animal butchery nowadays?
We do a lot of business with local farmers, so we have the ability to bring whole animals in. We still bring in whole lambs and whole pigs, and we do some whole beef as well, but it's really difficult to actually make any money on the whole beef. We use everything on it, but we sell a lot more of the middle meats — sirloins, ribeyes, tenderloins. Chuck we use a lot of. But there are certain cuts, like the bottom rounds, that aren't big items for us, like the knuckle and the peeled face. Being clever, you have to know how to utilize those cuts to make it work with whole animal butchery.

How did Savenor's get into exotic meats?
See behind that building across the street? That's called Holden Green. In the 1960s, 70s, probably the 80s as well, that was where all the married Harvard foreign exchange students lived. They would walk out that gate there and walk to Savenor's because they were into that European style of food. They would want game, meats that they were accustomed to eating in their own countries. So people would ask for it, and my dad thought, "If the customer asks for it, instead of saying 'no,' say 'why not?'" He seeked out some game and developed this rapport with a lot of small, independent game places.

And back in the 60s, that's when Julia Child started coming in?
When Julia started coming in in the early 60s, she was just a foodie — she was the original foodie. I often tell people about the movie Julie & Julia. It's really good, and it's a comedy, and I cried the whole time. Seeing that movie, which is prior to her coming to the States, watching her coming to that point — I already knew it anyway, but it was like the slap-in-the-face version of it. I realized the impact this woman had on my family and my life. Choosing the profession I chose to be in was in part, largely, because of her.

When I went into the business in the 80s, working with my dad was difficult, but I was developing this passion, and I was learning so many different skills from so many different skilled butchers. I always tell people I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth because that's what we used for the coffee in the meat department. But anyway, she said to me, "You know, I always thought of your dad as my butcher, but now I think of you as my butcher," and that was awesome for me.

Jane, her first producer, shopped all the time in Boston and told me some great stories about how we were the first business to be mentioned on public television that wasn't a sponsor because Julia felt so strongly. My dad was on the show repeatedly as her meat guru, and she ironically enough always wanted to be a butcher. She loved meat. We'd get these prime loins in, and I'd say, Julie — I always called her Julie...I still remember her phone number; it's funny. I'd show her this beautiful piece of marbled meat, and she'd say, "Oh, that's lovely. Oh, that's gorgeous." One of the things I always learned from her was moderation; that was her big thing. Everything in moderation. You don't need to eat a sixteen-ounce piece of steak. Eat a six-ounce piece. She really was a large reason I do what I do, and the connection with her is there, even today. My wife was at a doctor's appointment, and the doctor said, "Oh, any relation to that Savenor's where Julia loved to shop?" It was kind of cool.

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Jack Savenor on television with Julia Child.

But the thing I want to say about Julia Child is that most people don't realize what she did for the industry of being a chef. She really, really empowered women to become chefs, and she did a lot of that through the American Institute of Wine and Food, which was really her baby. Since she's gone, you hear very little about it, right? Which saddens me personally. But she was really, really adamant on women chefs and promoting them and promoting being a chef as such an honorable and wonderful job and career for people. She loved Barbara Lynch, she was very friendly with Lydia Shire, and she's the reason that we started our wholesale business. She would go out places and didn't like the meat, so she would say, "You know, the meat's not really very good. You really should go call Jack at Savenor's." And that was the very beginning of it.

Our first account was what used to be Peasant Stock across the street — a lot of famous chefs came out of there. And then Harvest when it was owned by Jane and Ben Thompson, and then everything just kind of mushroomed from there. But what she did for women being in that profession was awesome, and she really deserves credit for that.

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Julia Child at the original Cambridge shop with Jack Savenor.

And these days, your children work in the store like you did?
I'll tell you what's really cool. I've been apprenticing my son to butcher, and my daughter's a real outgoing person, so she was up cashiering two days before last Christmas. Within three hours, I had customers who met my kids as the fourth generation. They knew my grandmother, my dad, me, and then they met my kids. That was awesome. And you know how kids are about their parents — "Oh, Dad, you're such a dink. You think you're so cool." These people would come over, and they'd say, "We love your dad! Do you know what a wonderful guy this guy is?" And I'm thinking, "Let me record that so I can keep playing that for them." It was awesome.

In my own life, when I was growing up and seeing how people felt about my dad, how they loved him, that was kind of eye-opening for me. It was several defining moments. That same thing happening to my kids was one of those defining moments for them on how they see me, right? I remember them going home and saying to my wife, "Mom, you're not going to believe how much people really like dad! I'm like, "She married me...of course she's going to believe it!" So that was really cool.

This year's actually our 75th year. I've owned the company 26 years, and I'm really proud of that. I hope it continues. People say, "Well, are your kids going to go into it?" And I say, "I have no idea." If they do, they do, and if they don't, I would sell it to my staff, because they're the ones who love it. But I'm not going anywhere anyway. I figure I've got another 20 years, at least, before I'm ready to retire. What would I do, anyway? Irritate my wife.
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