RapidChat: Matthew Smith on grass-fed beef and the importance of listening to your customers

Matthew Smith and wife Cynthia Esch first opened Louise Earl Butcher with the vision of sourcing and selling the best naturally raised meats in West Michigan. Four years later, you can still find them working hard every day to teach the local hungry food shopper all about the slow food movement.

 
Rapid Growth: What were you and your wife doing before Louise Earl Butcher?

Matthew Smith: My wife Cynthia and I met in the restaurant business about 25 years ago. She moved into sales in the beer and wine category and is still in that business, and helps out in the shop on the weekends. In my 20s I was in restaurants, in my 30s I worked in mortgage banking ... but always felt the calling to come back to food and customer service. That’s how we came up with the idea of an old-school butcher shop.

RG: Why did you decide on the Wealthy Street Corridor for your shop?

MS: When I did some research on artisan butcher shops in other large markets I noticed that many of them were in neighborhoods that were very diverse demographically and often were in neighborhoods with great walking traffic. Wealthy Street is one of the only areas in Grand Rapids that provides that type of a unique commerce atmosphere. So we thought it would be a key to our success to be on Wealthy.

RG: How has business changed since your 2016 grand opening?

MS: There are probably 100-plus different ways. Things that have changed are often a result of simply listening to our customers. We had some customers early on who don’t eat pork and asked us to make beef bacon. We thought initially that it was a silly idea, but after many requests from the customer, we finally tried it. And what do you know, it was a hit. We can hardly keep it in stock now. Also, when we first opened we used to offer more lunch selections, but as more restaurants opened and the local consumers had more choices, we sold less lunches. So, we redirected the labor to our core business and made ourselves more efficient. Now we just sell a burger made from our grass-fed beef which aligns with what we’re all about.

RG: What other sorts of hurdles have you faced along this journey?

MS: Another 100-plus answer question. We figured it out as we went. Sometimes you have a vision of how you think business will work, but you have to be able to pivot quickly if it don’t — we learned that quickly. But we also stayed true to our vision of sourcing and selling the best naturally raised meats in West Michigan. We think that is the direction more and more people are headed and we’ve grown as a result every year thanks to that vision and response from the consumer.

RG: What progress have you seen within the natural, indie food movement in West Michigan?

MS: Almost every day we get people coming into the shop that are moving towards a more healthy lifestyle and want better options. So I think people are more and more understanding that what they consume does translate into their health. The other thing that I’ve seen continue to increase is the collaboration of like-minded people in the food community. We’ve done events with a number of farmers, chefs, restaurants, and anyone who is creative and willing to try fun and important food-driven events.

RG: In what areas do you still feel like there is room for improvement?

MS: We’re always striving to be better at what we do, we know we can do more with product innovation, we can continue to be advocates of better food and better health in our community.

RG: What have been the most rewarding obstacles to overcome?

MS: Just keeping a small business open the first couple of years is challenging in so many different ways. The fact that we just celebrated our fourth anniversary on January 5 was huge to us. The momentum and support we’ve received helps to confirm that we just might be doing something right. We never knew if selling 100% grass-fed and finished beef would really work, and now we know that people really do want a better choice than commercially produced, commodity meat.

RG: Is the intentionality to keep the supply low for quality control?

MS: It is a delicate balance to not have too much product because it is a very perishable product and we have to be careful of that, and that is probably a good example of an area where early on we made some mistakes and lost some product. You learn quickly how to move product to a secondary use pretty quickly or you’ll end up throwing money in the trash.

RG: How can we encourage individuals who purchase their meat from any chain grocer to buy locally instead?

MS: We personally set foot on our farms and can tell you everything about them, as well as the entire process in which the retail product was made. From the time that animal was born, raised, slaughtered, and produced to a final product. There is no grocery store that can tell or knows that “start to finish” process. The consumer wants both accountability and traceability when it comes to the food they consume, and that’s what we provide. Sourcing integrity is rare and hard to find, and we work hard every day to provide that to a knowledge-hungry food shopper.

Jenna K. Morton is the RapidChat editor for Rapid Growth Media.
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