The last Butcher’s Locker
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Mostly gone, still remembered, often relocated to the nearest three-acre grocery store —except this one.
Who remembers the boys on bikes delivering groceries? Who remembers the butcher with the scale on the top of his display case? Who remembers Uncle Ben calling around to see if any of the relatives wanted a side of beef from the cow he was about to kill?
Look in the Yellow Pages under Butcher. It refers you to Meats, Retail. Look there and you find one, maybe two, entries.
“Butcher” seems to be an unpopular word. Corner butchers are gone with the wind, and Uncle Ben won’t call you any more because he’s gone, and the old farm was turned into a subdivision in the 1970s.
Hendersonville’s M & M Freezer Locker, however, is still here. It has been a corner butcher’s shop for the past 70 years and is one of the few places where you can either choose something out of their fresh meat case up front or order it by phone, or at the front counter. And if a cattle ranching friend ever calls to give you that ¼ side of beef, you can have M & M carve it, wrap it, freeze it and store it for you.
M & M is owned by L.K. Harvey, a Vietnam veteran who came home from the war and was lucky enough to find his life’s work in his hometown.
LK, as everyone calls him, was an artilleryman who reached the rank of Sergeant E-6 but decided he’d had enough of the military. “I appreciated what those boys were doing, and I busted my butt to get those stripes,” Harvey says. “But I knew the military (Army) wasn’t really for me. I just wanted to be the best soldier I could be while I was there. I think I did that. I got out in 1970 and went back to my old job at the A&P food store. When that fell through, Mr. Stuart McCall and John Meadows (M & M) offered me a job here. I did a bit of everything, but I learned the business.”
Harvey recalls working whatever hours were required. He still does.
The daily routine of the meat market requires someone to be there at 5:30 a.m. That’s Harvey.
Someone has to close up, too. Again, that’s Harvey.
“It’s a tight business,” Harvey says. “There isn’t a lot of margin in it. The big stores have a lot of staff in their meat departments and maybe, I don’t know, but maybe they don’t have to put in the hours we do. But you just can’t compare our volume with theirs. To be competitive we have to hold our margins tight. That means I have to put in the extra hours.”
We talked for two hours during our interview. Harvey didn’t have an unkind word for any of his competitors. As is the case with virtually all successful business owners, he talked mostly about his quality and customer service.
And he talked about the long hours. Harvey isn’t a spring chicken any more. He was born in 1948 and has been married to Brenda for 45 years. To put that in perspective, that’s longer than any government or constitution has lasted in Argentina since the Spaniards ran the place. All the while, for 43 of those years, Harvey was working on 7th Ave. It has been rewarding but hard. His business associate of 40 years, Richard Warren, retired a year ago. His place has not been filled. LK’s son, Jeff, helps out on weekends but has his own full-time career as an engineer. Jeff is married with two children. He can’t afford to go into the meat business full-time but he clearly enjoys working with his hands and with his Dad.
“I’m blessed to have Jeff in here whenever he has time,” Harvey says. “But I sure miss Richard. In those 40 years we worked together you could count the number of days he missed on one hand.”
Through the years, Harvey frankly says the business has changed a lot. “We get a lot more Hispanic trade now than we used to. A customer is a customer, of course, but you have to provide different meats for different tastes. That’s where we really notice it. Different meats, different cuts, more fish. More cash sales, too.”
The business began to change when Bob Ingle got going good in Asheville. Harvey saw Ingle’s just clobber out-of-town chains.
“They had their prices right. They had very responsive local ownership and A&P didn’t,” he says. “The A&P had unionized labor. I was a union employee there and I didn’t know anything. I was getting $5 or $6 an hour and all I thought was that it was good money. At Christmas in 1971, A&P started laying people off, and it seemed to me that the union workers were the first to go. It was just economics. That was when I got the job here. I think it was lucky for me. I mean, I needed the job when I got out, but I wouldn’t have found M&M if the A&P hadn’t run into trouble.”
M & M is one of the few, maybe the only, meat locker in the area. “People can rent a freezer locker from us,” Harvey explains. “People didn’t used to have home freezers. That didn’t come along until the 1950s. When they got that side of beef, they’d bring it down and store it here. We still do a lot of that business.”
M & M has expanded through the years to include at least two additional buildings behind the 7th Ave. storefront.
Walking through the old facility, it brings you to a different floor level at nearly every turn. There is a loading area at the back, but many deliveries, particularly those in the early morning hours, are made through the front door. The complex layout also makes M & M’s workflow nearly impossible to chart. There is a fresh meat case up front but many customers seem to prefer to ask for special cuts. Harvey and his employees are eager to help.
Help, of course, is what distinguishes M & M from other markets where you have to ring a bell and wait for the butcher to finish wrapping 30 identical packages of ground meat. But it takes trained people to work in any meat market. Enthusiastic amateurs often lose their enthusiasm after two weeks.
“We’ve had people come in off the street here who wanted work. I’ve got plenty of it. But when a guy misses four days out of 10, you have to let him go. That’s not good for either of us. I need help, and they need jobs. But, (trying not to be unkind here) there’s a reason they call it ‘work’ and that might be the reason some of those folks are standing on the street.”
M & M is one of the few places where buyers can choose “Beefalo” in addition to traditional meats. Harvey says he doesn’t carry bison but might add it after reading the article about its health benefits in the Sept.-Oct. edition of Capital at Play. “There’s always something new. I didn’t know we had a good local supplier (Carolina Bison) in Leicester. I’ll see what I can do.”
Another problem for small, custom butcher shops like M & M is the trend away from local slaughterhouses and their centralization out of the area.
“We used to bring in all our meats on hooks from local slaughterhouses,” Harvey says. “Now we don’t see too much of that. Many local processors have closed up. A farmer finds he can take a truckload over to Tennessee and back for about the same as he would pay locally. That’s OK for the guy with a truckload but what about the little guy? He sells his cattle at auction and somebody takes it away.”
All is not lost, however. Despite the tough economy Harvey reports his business is getting better.
“Prices are up but so are costs. We’ve found a good niche at the high end of the quality line. Chuck Hill (Chuck in the Afternoon, on AM-1450 WHKP in Hendersonville) says you might as well just cook a shoe if you don’t have one of our steaks. Everything we sell is hand cut by myself or one of our other very experienced butchers, and everything is USDA Choice. We sell wholesale and retail, and we are NCDA inspected daily. We always have their top ratings.
M & M is an old fashioned business with no website and no e-mail. If you want a cut of meat, give them a call at 828-692-3558, then drive on down to Hendersonville and pick it up. LK will cut it for you himself. And, by the way, yes, it’s a land line.