The meat of the matter

Photographs by Sinead Deane

Ryan Fibiger stands behind the counter of Saugatuck Craft Butchery, chatting away as he forms the most generous of burgers, by hand, one at a time. He eases each one onto the scale before wrapping the lot in paper for a patiently waiting customer.

It’s all completed without a shred of Styrofoam or a stretch of plastic wrap in sight.

This easygoing transaction on a random summer afternoon is typical of how things go at this Westport shop, which opened this past November as an “old-fashioned butcher shop with modern-day ideals.”

Saugatuck Craft Butchery, a bright and airy destination along the Saugatuck River, is as far from the typical supermarket experience as you can get.

Discerning customers will find custom cuts of meat sourced from small local farms where animals are pasture-raised and 100-percent grass-fed. Nothing sold here will ever contain antibiotics, hormones or pesticides. It’s all part of a concept that emphasizes whole-animal butchery, education and the creation of community.

In addition to the meat, the shop offers prepared foods, does wholesale for restaurants, catering for private customers and even classes.

It’s all quite a ways from where Michigan-raised Fibiger was a few years ago – in the heart of Manhattan’s financial industry.

Fibiger and his wife, Katherine, moved to her native county four years ago from the city. Settling into Bridgeport’s Black Rock neighborhood, Fibiger was commuting to Manhattan.

“It was a lot,” he says. “I was kind of part of the rat race for a long time.”

Considering a career change, Fibiger found the food industry drawing his interest.

“My wife, who is smarter than I am, said, ‘There’s no way we’re opening a restaurant,’” he says with a laugh.

Having been “reading and exploring just to educate myself,” Fibiger says he decided to look into opening a butcher shop but to “do it in a way that makes sense.”

And that meant studying at Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats in Kingston.

When friends were taking vacation to the islands, Fibiger says, “I was going upstate to learn to be a butcher.”

But it proved the right move.

“I really wanted to work with my hands again,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like it is, but there’s a lot of creativity in this business.”

Fibiger’s friend Paul Nessel also began training and the two began to talk about opening a shop. Today, they are partners, with Nessel serving as head butcher. They are joined by chef Mark Heppermann who handles the prepared foods.

“We were just looking for kind of a neighborhood that felt right,” says Fibiger, who now lives in Norwalk. “I like to think of Fairfield County as pretty progressive when it comes to food, but it was a big gamble.”

Westport, he says, with an influx of restaurants and gourmet destinations such as Tarry Lodge, is really developing.

“We’d like it to be kind of a food mecca,” he says. “When I first moved to Fairfield, I was honestly appalled by the food industry,” he says. In the past few years, Fibiger says he has seen change in both options and attitudes.

“We rarely have to talk about price,” Fibiger says. Customers understand what they are paying for here. “I would say the value is significantly higher.”

As Fibiger says, a big part of the job is educating customers about the finer points of what the shop does.

“Most people can name probably three steaks. We cut, at any point in time, 20 different kinds of steaks.”

He says people are starting to understand, for example, that there will only be so many rib-eye steaks each week.

“When those are gone, it’s sold out.”

The shop sells a steady amount with the weekly sales accounting for the waste-free use of “two full steer, three to four pigs, four to five lambs and dozens and dozens and dozens of chickens and ducks.”

And when that is gone, it’s time to head back to one of the sustainable farms that Saugatuck does business with, most within 100 miles.

“We pick it all up ourselves,” Fibiger says. That means driving to farms ranging from Meiller Josef in Pine Plains to Millstone Farm in Wilton, from Ox Hollow Farm in Roxbury to River & Glen in Warminster, Pa.

“We’re always looking for more,” he says. “You can never have enough sources.”

Or advice.

An unofficial rule is that anyone who approaches the counter to serve a customer has to have “three recipes for every item,” he says. “It’s a really big reason why people shop here instead of the supermarkets, because you can ask questions.”

Though Fibiger says he is partial to kalbi, Korean-style beef short ribs, his personal favorite in the shop is pork cheeks.

“Anything pig-related is my favorite,” he says. “Beef is fine. Beef is beef. Beef is the American meat. That’s been the other challenge, getting people who come in for a steak, getting them to leave with a pork chop.”

The shop is the place to find the unique, from lamb loin chops to ground beef and bacon to Irish bangers to pork brisket. Prepared foods such as cowboy chili join local artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, organic vegetables, eggs and products such as poultry rub.

“I had a lot of trepidation about opening this kind of business outside the city,” Fibiger says, though he knew the concept was viable. “It’s worked in New York, in Chicago. It’s worked in San Francisco, and it’s worked in Los Angeles.”

And so far, the early success, Fibiger says, is proving that “people get it… I think the best part is the positive way we’ve been embraced by the community.”

And part of that community is Amanda Cooley of Black Rock, a customer “since the day it opened.”

She’s here on a recent afternoon for some supplies, including ground lamb to make meatballs for her 11-month-old son again.

“It’s not your typical meat shop,” she says. “I love the concept of nose-to-tail and responsible raising and processing and butchering.”

And she has been continually impressed by the way Fibiger and Nessel approached their new venture.

“They really committed to learning a craft, which is admirable,” she adds.

Embracing the principles behind the shop is important, but it’s also about what Saugatuck Craft Butchery enables Cooley to put on her table that keeps her – and many others – coming back.

As she says, “You can taste the difference.”

For more information on Saugatuck Craft Butchery, at 575 Riverside Ave. in Westport, call (203) 226-6328 or visit craftbutchery.com.

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