A Pig in the City

meat picture

This week I had the privilege of attending a Cornell Cooperative Extension sponsored tour of butcher shops and grocery stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York.  The purpose of this trip was to investigate where these purveyors are sourcing their meats, what types and cuts they were selling, how they are handling the less profitable cuts, and to get a sense of the types of products they are having trouble sourcing.  It is our goal to improve supply chains and to promote New York State products whenever possible and New York City, with 8.5 million inhabitants seemed like a great place to investigate.  Below is a summary of our finding with recommendations.

Basically there are several distinct purveyors in the city that serve separate clientele and offer different products. In the first and most ubiquitous category is the basic grocery supply chain.  These are the common grocery stores, bodegas, and boutique storefronts that serve the general populous of the city.  The meat in these establishments comes from the typical large scale growers and shippers, is not sourced locally, and is raised and sold on a commodity basis where the primary concern is the price differential.  These establishments are utilized by over 90 percent of the typical buyers in the city as the prices are low, the cuts are familiar, and the types and consistency of the products are familiar.

The main advantage to this system is that the supply chain is well established and difficult to disrupt.  This chain allows these products to be sold at very low prices making it easy for individuals to obtain cheap, familiar protein for themselves or their family.  The downside to this market is that these meat products are not from local sources and may in fact come from other countries.  Also, because the animals and husbandry practices have become so efficient, there is the perception that these animals are less natural and more prone to disease and abuse than their other slower growing counterparts.  This is a valid argument in the fact that this model of growing animals produces secondary costs that are not necessarily paid for by the consumer at the time of purchase.  Environmental factors, antibiotic resistance, and worker and animal abuses are all valid concerns when considering where the majority of the meat comes from in the United States.  That being said, this is the most common and affordable modality of meat production in this country and will continue to be as long as the consumer is content to purchase items produced in this manner.

The second category of grocer in the city is the non-local specialty variety such as Whole
Foods Market.  There are also a handful of smaller grocers that offer similar wares.  These establishments rely on alternative supply chains to meet the demand for specific consumer preferences such as organic, non GMO, and animal welfare approved among other production signifiers.  For the most part, these stores do not source locally as their demand is too high.  The prices at these establishments tend to be higher than the typical grocer but this is mainly due to consumer driven product choice.

The advantage to this system is that it offers consumers an alternative to conventional meat products.  Granted, these products are often produced in systems that may or may not directly espouse to natural or organic standards, but the market is there and these establishments have developed a way to provide them.  The downside to this type of market is that many of the products are not local.  Because of the huge volumes of products moved through the store the task of sourcing consistent product becomes too time-consuming from retail a perspective making shipping these products from one large centralized producer both more lucrative and efficient.

The next category of meat purveyor in the city offers hyper local, high quality meat products.  These shops tend to be smaller, have a long history of business in the city through both retail and wholesale accounts with various restaurants, and offer local products.  These stores have relationships with the producers, often know the farmers on a first name basis and have grown to appreciate the consistency and quality of the products that they are able to source.  Because of their long relationships with producers and customers they are able to command prices far above average for their products.  These stores provide the best cuts of meat to be had in New York City backed by a historical ceremony that is palpable.  These stores also have the ability to move alternative cuts of meat because of the personal relationship that they have with the customers.

The main drawback to this setup is that their customers tend to only want the best cuts from the animal.  This leaves the store with surplus of non-premium items such as ground beef.  Most of these stores end up finding wholesale channels to move these products at a typical retail price.  The biggest advantage that these shops have is directly related to their long standing history of quality which leads to them commanding premium prices.

There is one more category of purveyor and that is the local no grain finished meats shops.  Much like the shops mentioned above, these sellers have relationships with their farmers, understand the cycles and difficulties of finishing animals for resale, and are able to command premium prices.  There were only two of these shops on the tour as their product attracts a smaller segment of the consumer base than the hyper local meat shops.  The fact that they do not finish on grain is an important selling point and allows them to procure and retail their meats from the New York City area.

Overall this was a very enlightening trip.  I was personally surprised by the volume of meat that is moving through these specialty stores.  Most of the shops are not currently seeking new suppliers as they are sourcing from established and trusted farms and ranches.  Despite the beef and lamb that was being sold, none of the establishments carried any goat meat.  This is most likely due to the fact that these shops were located in relatively upscale neighborhoods where cuts of goat are not as popular as in other areas of the city with higher ethnic populations.  There was also a lack of pastured or local poultry in the stores.  This is due to the fact that small-scale chicken enterprises have difficultly competing with larger growers that utilize economies of scale to their advantage to keep prices low.

Future research and relationships should continue to focus on how we can promote meat from upstate farmers and ranchers.  It would also be interesting to interview and survey ethnic sellers in the city as they are most likely selling imported goat, lamb, cuey, and other exotic meats.  This market may be a more viable opportunity for upstate growers to pursue as there is little completion and high demand for these products.

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