Joshua Applestone: The Applestone Meat Company

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Editor’s Note: We’ve known the Applestones since they opened their original Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats in Kingston, New York and have followed them with much interest as they’ve developed their skills.

We recently spoke with Joshua Applestone to catch up with what is happening with their newest business. You can read the very interesting things he had to say below.

HandPicked Nation: The Applestone Meat Company. Tell us about your new company.

Joshua Applestone: We’re a butcher shop (though not a traditional retail shop) located in Accord, New York, focusing on custom-cut, locally-raised meat and house-made charcuterie.

The overall goal of the business is to sell responsibly-raised, high-quality meat and charcuterie at scale without compromising the “artisanal” (forgive me for using that word) touch of a real butcher.

It’s hard to scale a high-end butcher operation by just adding retail locations, so we’ve built a processing facility that will allow me to personally handle or closely monitor the supply chain, cutting, sausage production, aging, and quality control at a larger volume than I could if we were just operating out of the back of a retail store.

We’re in a position to scale quickly regardless of what business comes our way, which at the moment includes retail and wholesale distribution and custom cutting for farmers.

HPN: How are you using the learning from your previous retail experience to make your new company better?

JA: Infrastructure was always a problem in my previous business, and by infrastructure I mean everything from physical space to equipment to supply chain to the logistics of staffing and training.

As demand for our products increased, it was frankly difficult to properly keep up. Our new space is deliberately designed to keep this from happening again, so much so that we expect to have other butcher shops–who might also might be feeling like they’re victims of their own success due to infrastructure issues–as customers.

In the end this is going to let the farmers we buy from get better margins on their meat because their distribution will be more predictable.

Our intention is to meet everyone’s needs without bringing on more than a small handful of farms.

You’ve made delivery a big part of your latest iteration of your business. Talk about that.

JA: It’s an extension of what we’ve been saying about scale and efficient infrastructure.

Traditional butcher shops that are providing true, locally-sourced, properly-raised animals are just getting expensive.

If you follow commodity prices (which a lot of farmers will base their pricing on) cattle pricing has more than doubled in the last six years, which gets reflected at the retail counter.

With the delivery (and pickup) as our only means of retail distribution, we’re taking our cues a little bit from some of the internet-only companies that can sell high-quality goods–glasses, razors, coffee beans, whatever–directly to consumers at lower prices because they’re cutting out the overhead associated with traditional retail operations.

We are doing this with hand-cut meat, though there are obviously some big differences in managing supply and inventory.

The best thing about it is that we can get incredibly good food to customers’ doors at lower-than-average prices. It’s not face-to-face sales but we’ve actually been surprised at how much contact we have with customers through digital media–it’s very direct and useful.

By the way, this doesn’t mean we’re ruling out a physical store. If the right space in the right place came along, we’d consider it. The point is we can plug in to any retail operation or distribution outlet without worrying about the infrastructure breaking.

HPN: Are you doing anything differently at Applestone Meat Co.? Are you still going to offer butchery classes, for example? What else?

JA: Yes, I love teaching and I’m personally very excited to start teaching courses geared to the home butcher. Everything from breaking down separate parts for prosciutto or just deboning shoulders for sausage. Or even knife work on beef for homemade hot dogs.

We’re also taking technology very seriously. Beyond our online shop and the way we communicate with customers, we want to consider the possibility that we’ll want to build our own software or equipment or production methods to help ourselves.

HPN: Take us through how you select a farm from which to buy your animals.

JA: When I started this new business, I got in touch with one of the original farmers I first worked with, went to the slaughterhouse to discuss slots for animals, shook hands with everyone and off we went.

Our intention is to meet everyone’s needs without bringing on more than a small handful of farms, but we’ll see. We’re not setting anything in stone–we’ll let the business and the customers take us where they want to take us.

HPN: How specific do you get with your farmers? Do they ever ‘custom raise’ animals for you?

JA: We have our standards.

We don’t compromise at all, ever. But we won’t go to a farmer and tell them to change the way they practice farming.

When we find farmers that work their land and raise their animals in a way we think is best, we stay loyal to them.

I don’t ask them to raise anything they aren’t currently raising, because there’s a great and varied pool of farmers in our area that I can work with.

We’re very lucky to be located in the Hudson Valley where the agricultural environment is so supportive.

HPN: You’ve said that “a butcher’s case is like a canvas”. What did you mean?

JA: I guess I must have said that before I started a meat business without a retail case! The case is one of the ways where a butcher can express his or her art and creativity.

It is also where you can tell the quality of the butcher shop that you are dealing with. A beautiful case should look fresh and tempting; there should be lots of options and an “educated” salesperson behind the counter to help guide you through the buying process.

If the meat looks unappetizing, the staff is uninformed or the cutting is sub par, it’s not a good butcher shop.

HPN: After all the hard work the farmer has done, a less-than-stellar slaughterhouse can really screw things up. Talk about the problem of lack of quality slaughterhouses. Is it still a problem these days?

JA: It’s like with any industry–some are good and some are not so good. The slaughterhouses I work with are run by the families that own them, and I can’t imagine working with anyone else.

I’ve done a lot of consulting and seen a lot of facilities all over the country, and I truly think that in the Hudson Valley we have more than our fair share of good ones. Even so, they can get booked up, especially in the fall because a lot of farmers would rather not have too many animals winter over.

HPN: Talk a little about specific cuts that you believe are under-utilized that home cooks should know about. Give us some examples of cuts butchers cook at home.

JA: I have some personal favorites, like the teres major steak, which is almost as tender as tenderloin but not nearly as costly. (On our Web site we describe it as great for kids or recovering vegetarians.)

But when it comes to cooking at home I’m either testing out a sausage experiment or a new bacon recipe or just making burgers for everyone.  Every once in a while we’ll have a blowout where a bunch of butchers get together and go nuts, but now is not the time to talk about that.

HPN: Your boss, Jessica Applestone, said this: “Our guiding principle has always been that we would never sell anything we wouldn’t eat ourselves,” Gives us your thoughts on that.

JA: It still holds true. The meat I sell is the same stuff I feed my family. We’re just trying to find ways to get it to more people.

HPN: Any last thoughts? What have I not been clever enough to ask you?

JA: One other big difference from what we’ve done in the past: We have applied for our USDA inspection, which will allow us to to distribute our product line in third-party retail stores.

I’ll still be able to see and touch everything that goes out the door because of the way we’ve built our infrastructure.

We will also be able to offer white label manufacturing for customers who want to sell their own lines of products.

It’s going to be a busy year.

HPN: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us and good luck on your new business. We look forward to making an order.

JA: It was my pleasure. Thanks for helping us tell our story.

Photo credit: Jennifer May