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Mastering The Art Of “Meat Math”

Heather Marold Thomason is butcher and founder of Primal Supply Meats in Philadelphia. Specializing in whole-animal sourcing and butchery, and supplying fresh meat to restaurants and butcher shops, Primal Supply had to radically alter its focus in the pandemic and ended up discovering an entirely new way of working.

I do not come from a professional culinary background, but I am a lifelong home cook. I was working as a professional graphic designer in New York, but all of my spare time, energy, and attention was going towards cooking, eating, hosting dinner parties and being a part of my local food community of farmers markets, CSAs—that kind of stuff.

I befriended a couple of farmers at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers Market in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Eventually they invited me to come to the farms, and I started learning a little bit more about their business. My husband and I helped this one farmer with his website and newsletters. I started to learn about what he was actually dealing with raising pigs—some of the struggles of dealing with processors and supply chain stuff. It just sparked an interest.

I started to get a look inside the logistics of what happened between the pig that I saw on the farm when I was there, and this meat frozen in coolers that I was buying at a farmer’s market. It turned out that everything that happened between those two points was really broken, and it was not built in any way to serve the small producer with any love, care, attention, or flexibility to support their business.

Then Fleishers opened their Park Slope butcher shop. I popped in once or twice to check it out. I saw the very obvious thing when sometimes a business fills a need, and it’s just off to the races. That butcher shop solved a problem of access and education. I had an “aha” moment—”You know what? Maybe this is it. Maybe I’ve got to learn about cutting meat so I can start to get in there and figure out the solutions in this supply-chain problem.” That’s what led me to jump off a career cliff. I quit my own design firm and started trying to pursue butchery training.

I tried for a year to find a butcher. It wasn’t like I was a cook trying to move from restaurant to butcher shop. I was a 30-year-old graphic designer walking in like, “Hey, I want to do this.” Me now, looking at me then—I get why people were like, “Oh, sorry. We’re busy and you don’t know anything.”

But I found a farmer who agreed to take me on as an apprentice. I had this idea that if I couldn’t learn how to cut meat, why don’t I learn more about farming so that when I do eventually learn how to cut meat, I’ll know what my farmer partners are dealing with? So I spent a year apprenticing on a livestock farm at North Mountain Pastures in Pennsylvania. I started to work directly with a slaughterhouse through them, doing farmers markets and selling meat to people.

The owner of the butcher shop where I ended up in California is actually from Allentown, Pennsylvania. We were connected through somebody else, and I finally got him on the phone, and he was like, “So what are you doing in Pennsylvania?” I had never called him before, but I was like, “Hey, I’m farming, but I’m trying to learn how to butcher.” Most people would be saying, “I’m a chef that wants to cut meat,” so I caught his attention.

The apprenticeship turned into a job that turned into a management job. So I went all the way to California to learn how to cut meat. I came back to the East Coast to Philadelphia, to manage a butcher shop in a restaurant called Kensington Quarters.

The restaurant operated with the idea that someone else would do our meat sourcing for us. I realized that was just too many hands in a small supply chain. Each time something moved, we all lost money. I proposed to the owners that I should take over direct sourcing and manage slaughterhouses and trucking and buying directly from farmers. I wanted to buy pigs from North Mountain Pastures, and my old boss there walked me into the slaughterhouse and said, “Hey, this is Heather. You take her seriously. She’s going to start to do processing with you.”

Heather Marold Thomason and friend. Photo: James Collier.

Learning to be a fully trained whole-animal butcher is a two-year learning curve. It probably wasn’t until after the first year at Kensington Quarters that I was confident enough in butchery and inventory management to look at the big picture.

So I’m running a little butcher counter inside of a restaurant, but I was managing all the sourcing and logistics to get the whole animals in for both the counter and the restaurant kitchen. It was a single business serving a single neighborhood. Customers were finding their way to the counter, and chefs were looking in the walk-in and saying to me, “How are you doing that? Can I buy some of that meat?” And I was like, “Well, that’s not the way it works here.” Everybody looks at the beautiful cut meat in the case, and meanwhile I was doing this silent other job behind the scenes to build and run this sourcing and logistics network.

When it comes to buying meat at the farmers market, or even if you’re a restaurant buying it wholesale, it’s kind of hard. You’re buying a whole animal, which doesn’t work in a restaurant, or you’re buying frozen meat, which chefs don’t want. I was like, “I never thought I’d have to learn how to deal with refrigerated trucks, but I did. There’s no reason why there can’t be four or five beeves on this truck instead of one or two.” I felt like I could take a step away from the counter and focus on that supply chain, and probably serve the greater market in Philadelphia rather than the single market of the restaurant and butcher shop. I took a few months to set it up, and then in 2016 I said to Kensington Quarters, “I’d love for you to be my first customer.”

And so Kensington Quarters was my first account. I launched with my Subaru, and I bought one beef a week. Within a few months, other restaurants started to pay attention. They saw the quality—consistently available, high-quality, fresh pasture-raised meat. I got one chef buying my rib loins, I got one chef buying a bunch of ground beef, and somebody else buying a braisable cut. I’m Tetris-ing them together so that they’re collectively participating in a whole-animal model, without the risk and responsibility of working directly with the farmer or having to uphold meat commitments with the ebb and flow of their businesses. I was putting all that on me, in the middle.

I launched a butcher’s subscription club and grew my wholesale program to the point where we closed our first full year with something like $1 million in sales. And then I had to buy a truck and look at a warehouse.

Step one with a farmer is for me to say, “How about you focus on what you do best? You stay on your farm, you keep raising those animals, and not have to pack all your shit up and go to a farmers market to try to sell it yourself. Let me be the butcher who sells the meat.”

I do a lot of meat math. When you’re dealing with whole animals, the stuff that’s high value is high because there’s not enough of it, and the stuff that’s low value is low because there’s too much of it. As a whole-animal butcher, you need to have some plan for how you’re going to educate your customers when they walk in and ask for a hanger steak, and there was only one hanger steak and it’s already gone, and you’re going to introduce them to bavette steak. Then when you get busy enough that you’re out of bavettes too, what’s next? On average, one beef might produce 200 pounds of ground beef, but no matter how busy your butcher shop is, your customers are not—one pound at a time—going to use 200 pound of ground beef a week.

That’s something you get trained into as a butcher—how to be creative and resourceful. Do your customers like stew, or do they like stir fry, or fajita meat? This kind of clever merchandising of stuff is harder to do. It’s a little bit of teaching your customers to use the things that aren’t that easy to use, and a little bit of it is market strategy—making sure that you have some outlets for all these things. Do you have a kitchen? Can your bones become broth that you can sell to your customers? If you don’t have a kitchen, what restaurant will buy your raw bones?

It takes more than two years to raise a grass-fed beef on pasture, so I’m projecting years out with my farmer what I think the size of the beef could be. And I’m projecting at least six months out what our current purchasing volume is going to be. But at the end of the day, a beef walks in the door, and I need to sell it in a week. It’s this highly perishable product that I need to move so fast with, and I have to be so flexible and sensitive to market demand, to make sure that we use everything. I decided a year ago roughly how many beeves we are going to have slaughtering this month, and hopefully that aligns to the market demand. If it doesn’t, what am I doing?

When a chef tells a farmer, “I think I’m going to buy whole hogs for my restaurant, so I’ll take a hog every week.” That farmer starts raising them, and it takes eight months. There’s a few-week window when that animal is the size that it should be to make the customer happy. If it gets slaughtered too early, it’s too lean. If it stays around too long, it’s really fat and they’re mad because they’re trimming off all the fat. A farmer has to book pigs in a slaughterhouse six months to a year in advance based on a calendar date of when he thinks they should be finished. That slaughterhouse that only sees him twice a year doesn’t give a fuck whether he shows up or not. They’re like, “We’re busy. Book your slots. If you don’t book them now, you won’t get them.” He’s taking the pigs to the slaughterhouse on a calendar date—not when he’s looking at them in the field and deciding they’re ready.

What I do at Primal Supply—and what I started to do at Kensington Quarters—is hold slots at the slaughterhouse 52 weeks a year. My farmers who work with me and sell meat to me, they deliver animals in the slots when they’re ready. They don’t worry about booking particular slots months in advance. When one farmer says to me, “You know, Heather, I don’t know what’s going on. I moved the animals to this pasture, and I’m noticing they’re starting to slow down. I don’t know if I’m going to have them ready on this date.” So I call another farmer in my network, and he’s like, “Oh man, I’ve got a couple more hogs than I was expecting to have.” And I put those hogs in those slots, and let the other farmer deliver two weeks later. I can save a lot of individuals from that risk of timing, and which allows them to finish their animals correctly. But I have to plan for it.

And then COVID was the wildest thing. The revelation between March and April of last year was like, “Holy shit, burn all the plans. Now it’s a waste of time to look more than two weeks ahead.” After June, we settled in and tried as best as we could to learn and get back to at least a month’s worth of advance planning.

I started Primal Supply with a wholesale subscription, but I did eventually add a brick-and-mortar butcher shop. About two years in I was getting past three beefs a week, and I needed a little bit more flexibility. If a chef didn’t order something, I couldn’t just be sitting on it when I was ordering more and more. I needed a beautiful meat case that would be like, “Hey, here’s all the ribeyes that none of the restaurants ordered this week.” It was me puzzling about how we use the carcasses.

I was slowly building up the retail arm of the business, and it was starting to eclipse the wholesale side. We were still at 45 percent of revenue coming from wholesale to restaurants and a few other professional food service accounts. And then that just shut down. We didn’t get another order, and invoices sat open for two months.

But people were ordered to shelter in place. They stopped going to restaurants. They started cooking at home. It turns out that the industrial food supply chain wasn’t too big to fail—it was too big to flex. People were like, “I don’t understand why they’re plowing vegetables into the fields, and they’re pouring milk down the drain, but grocery store shelves are empty.” It’s because that stuff had a very big industrial supply chain that was feeding into restaurants, and it’s not so simple to change course into grocery stores because it’s not packed for individual consumer use.

The bottom fell out of our wholesale business, and simultaneously our retail demand more than doubled. I’m not too big to flex. I was able to take this meat coming in the door and start cutting and portioning things differently. I would not have been able to capture the sudden increase in demand for my retail customers if I didn’t have all this product allocated for restaurants that was not being used.

And then, because we had already been researching and prototyping what it would be like to sell meat online, we were able to do this insane pivot where—within a week—we launched a web store and let people start pre-ordering for contactless delivery or home delivery. I lost my wholesale program, I closed my two butcher shops to walk-in retail, and we started directing everybody to order from us online. And it worked. We were able to keep everybody employed.

The pandemic-era line outside Primal Supply Meats. in Philadelphia. Photo: Courtesy Primal Supply Meats.

In a pandemic, if I had to call a farmer and say, “Sorry, I’m not going to buy those animals on the ground,” what happens to them? I don’t know, and I don’t think that’s not my responsibility. We were able to keep sourcing, we were able to keep the staff employed. And with the loss of wholesale and the growth of retail, we started to gain profit margin points—because in wholesale we take a hit on the margin for what we move in volume. So I call it the “pandemic boom.”

We had three months of that before people stopped being scared to go out. Restaurants sort of reopened, or they started doing takeout. It wasn’t scary to go to the grocery store anymore. It all kind of settled. For a while we actually saw sales fall back down. Retail was up, but it wasn’t up enough to cover the wholesale losses. We had a high, then we had a scary low, and then we finally settled back into what Primal is now.

Some of our restaurant accounts came back—they’re now 5 to 10 percent of revenue, not 45 percent like before. We opened the shops back up, moving furniture around and making them safe spaces to work in. So retail has come back, in-store is somewhat limited, and wholesale is back, but limited. The online business is rocking.

I’m redoing all the meat math. I bought the same number of beeves this January that I bought last January, but the way in which it’s been distributed around the parts of our business and into our market is so different. We suffered through a pandemic and a political revolution, and behind the scenes we added a home-delivery program and online pre-ordering. We actually opened a third location—it’s not the butcher shop it was supposed to be, but it’s a tiny little grab-and-go thing.

When else in life or business do you get a free pass where you can be like, “We’re not going to do that anymore, and we’re not going to care what customers or other people think about it, because it’s a pandemic.” If something wasn’t working for us this year, then holy shit, why would we do it? I had carte blanche to tear it down and build it back up again. We’ve got to take care of everybody. I’m thinking about what it means to really be a sustainable business. Not just the focus on regenerative agriculture and sustainability—I mean the idea that the work we’re doing today should make sure that we’re here tomorrow. Running the wholesale arm technically means we have money on the books, but it’s all out on the street. That’s not very sustainable. Having my customers walk in and pay us money before they leave the building with our meat—that’s very sustainable.

Some people will go back to old habits when the world changes again, and you can freely go out to eat whenever you want. But the longer this pandemic lasts, the more lasting some of these new habits and changes will be. We made a giant leap forward in terms of customer education and market readiness for what we do. People have rediscovered what it means to buy ingredients to cook at home, sharing meals with people, and thinking about where food comes from. Maybe they’re willing to spend a little bit more for higher-quality or traceable products.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year with my farmers, building relationships with some new slaughterhouses and processors to expand our capacity, and talking really honestly to the people in my sourcing and supply chain network about our stresses and strengths and weaknesses. I want everybody who works with me to feel like they’re good at their jobs again. We’re back on track in terms of being structured and forward-thinking—back in that long-game mode. It doesn’t feel like I’m wasting my time planning for six months ahead, since I don’t feel like I might have to burn those plans between now and then.