Welcome to a special Five Days of Meat edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the butcher industry for over a decade. Though, technically, Ted Dombrowski has only been in business for nine years, his family history suggests a lifetime's worth of experience.
Ted's Butcherblock is the only destination on the peninsula to purchase high-quality, cut to order meats. Patrons have come to know Ted's not only as a neighborhood butcher, but as a go-to place for pâtés, sausages, specialty items, and superior sandwiches. Owner Ted Dombrowski started the shop back in 2005 and has since seen a rise in customers' awareness and desire for superior sources of pork/beef/poultry products.
For The Five Days of Meat, Eater spoke with Dombrowski about his role in Charleston's bacon consumption, the early beer dinners with now Edmund's Oast co-owner Scott Shor, and the future of meat eating in Charleston.
Did you grow up thinking you were going to go into this?
No, no, not at all. My grandparents came over from Poland, and that was so long before me. My father and his brother, Ted, worked in that business. Ted stayed in it, whereas my father went into the restaurant business. I grew up more in the restaurant business. I really learned it through working in the restaurant business. I do like that it was always in the family. I would hear stories, crazy stories about having a butcher shop during the Depression. It must have been hard. There were meat rations. It was in an old part of New Jersey, and I remember hearing my aunt tell us all the stories. Like if there was pregnant woman in the building, she was getting meat, even if she didn't have her ration ticket. It was crazy times.
What made you want to open Ted's Butcherblock?
I originally thought I would open a restaurant. I had gone through a lot of due diligence of looking. Where Park Café is, I looked at that back when it was an ice cream and coffee shop. I had this idea of what would work up there, but I always loved markets. Going to Europe, with the big open markets and seeing items hang down. Having the Polish store where I get all my products—like 15 kielbasas hanging down was always great.
Once I explained to my wife what the hours would be, she said there was no way I could do it. She was pregnant at the time too. My parents had a restaurant and worked together. They said if they didn't work together, they would have never seen each other. Julie, my wife, is smarter than me and isn't in F&B. That was my original plan.
This current space was originally a franchise of the New York Butcher Shop. The location was Earthling Day Spa, before that. New York Butcher Shop was in here, and they sold all their franchises. Two couples bought the franchise, and it was a terrible idea, because they didn't know anything about the business. One couple got out of it, the other ended up suing New York Butcher Shop, and then they tried to change the name, but they didn't change any product. I ran into a guy, the only one left—his wife left him, it was a really bad/sad situation—he said, "If I could just find a partner to buy in, I would turn it around and sell it." But I thought, "You don't have anything." He wasn't doing any business, and he didn't know the business.
He was on a year and a half of a ten year lease. All the equipment was leased. I thought, "The day you shut your doors is the day you'll be alright." I was being honest. I didn't like it, but it was true. He wanted $100,000 or something crazy. Six months later, a friend of his called me up to ask if I was willing to talk about it. "All he has to do is drop off the key," I said, "I'm not giving him anything." I got in and got him out of his leases and changed everything. That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to incorporate some of the restaurant with the idea of the city markets you'd see in New York. I couldn't have done that 15 years ago in Charleston.
Why couldn't you do it then?
The people weren't here yet. There wasn't that appreciation. I was here in 1995. When I got here, every place had shrimp and grits, and that's what Charleston was. The explosion had not happened yet. You still had Johnson & Wales here, so you had a lot of culinary creative people around. It was awesome. People wouldn't appreciate a butcher—someone actually cutting their meat. As you got more people moving in here, people who grew up in places where they had butchers, Pittsburgh and New York, those people were looking for the cuts they got back home. That's why we cut everything to order. You don't walk in and find a tray of steaks.
How was the first year?
I opened up in October 2005. The day before I'm opening up, we're in here painting and stocking, and I get a call. It's from the MegaDock at the City Marina, where all the giant yachts go. The guys on the yacht said, "We just pulled in, and we need provisions." And they had to come that day, even though we weren't technically open. They came in and bought $5000 worth of stuff. I thought I had hit the jackpot. I thought, "This is going to be the easiest job I've ever had."
We opened in October and went through the holidays, which are always the biggest time and went into 2006, and everything was great. But, when the recession hit, I don't even know how we made it through. I had to lay people off and cut back. I look back and look at the numbers—we lost about 30 to 40% in sales—and we had to go to our vendors and ask for extension of terms. We were able to make it through. Once we recovered from that, it was great. The lights are still on. It's constant change.
Why were the beer dinners a big part of opening Ted's?
I give Scott Shor credit for the beer. Obviously, that's his passion. He was working for me (he was working at the sandwich station), and he would tell me, "The laws are about to change." So we ran with it. It's funny, Brandon Plyler was talking about the beer dinners and how we were one of the first ones to do it and how people thought it was just a stupid idea. Who's going to come out for a beer dinner? What my idea was, was to take the beers—which I didn't know a lot about at the time, Scott was educating people—and to have themes. We had a lot of neat, creative ideas, and we did them really, really cheap. The first beer dinners were $20. We didn't make a dime, but we gained in popularity. It got people into the door. And that's what it still is today—get people in the door to try our food and try our steaks.
Why is it important to you to have the high quality products that you carry?
My idea is, if you're not going to taste the difference, then why are you going to pay more? I looked at other shops, and if you're carrying Certified Angus Brand, and Harris Teeter is carrying Certified Angus Brand, then what are you getting? It doesn't matter if I think it's a good product or a bad product—you're not getting anything different. You can come in and say, "Wow, your strip loin is more than Harris Teeter down the street." And will say, "You're right, but if you get a strip loin at Harris Teeter, there's no way you're not going to notice the difference." That's what I tell everybody. I wanted to service that niche.
I was a vegetarian for seven years, and only because I didn't like the process. I didn't like the idea of commercial farming, so I stopped eating meat. Now, there's so much more information out there, and people are more comfortable knowing where their food comes from.
I look back at those times in recession, and we never dropped our quality. The chicken I sell in that case is the same chicken I put on the chicken, pancetta, avocado sandwich. I couldn't live with myself if I put commodity chicken on the sandwiches. I feel like that's where our brand was. I really believe that we maintain that. Even when people had to cut back, I told them to get smaller portions, get a less expensive bottle of wine. People still supported us and came in, and I think it's because of the quality.
What's the most popular item?
Bacon is still king. We carry 13 different kinds of bacon. We still have a bacon of the month club. I know every chef will tell you that bacon is done, and that's all well and good, but people still like bacon. We sell a lot of bacon. Steak wise? New York strips and ribeyes are the most popular.
What do you think people should be eating more of?
We always try to have cuts that are lesser know. People look at the price of tenderloin and think it's outrageous. And it is, but it is for a reason—there's nothing more tender. A teres major is the second most tender cut, but most people haven't heard of it, so we try to offer that. Hangar steak is a good choice for summer, because it's less dense.
What's the oddest request you've had?
Someone called up a couple days ago and asked if we wanted to buy a live goat. I said that I'd use him as a mascot. I get calls for cow brains every once in awhile. The oddest? People are always looking for obscure meats, like kangaroo, or whatever the wildest thing they can eat.
Do you have any predictions for meat trends coming up?
I think what you'll see, is that the concern for fats will go away. My whole philosophy has been eating natural, real foods. I carry that down to the meats that you eat. You want your cow and your pigs to be eating real product also. I would blatantly say that people should eat way more meat.
I think there will be a trend of traceability. Not everything has to be local. I choose quality over locality. I always counter with, support local where you can, but I don't think the cows in South Carolina are as good as the cows I'm getting in Oregon. I always ask, "Would you would eat the local shrimp in Nebraska?" Of course not. Some things you're not going to want local. The idea is, if you're going to spend money on something, get the quality product.
Any big plans for the future of Ted's?
I've always thought I wanted to do something outrageous for our big anniversary.
More outrageous than the bacon eating contest?
The bacon eating contest was really disgusting. I envisioned that going a totally different way. For the nine year anniversary, we were thinking of incorporating more Polish things, so maybe a pierogi eating contest—which would be cleaner.
Once we get through the holidays, which are always our craziest time, we close for a week and we think about what we want to do more of. Every year, I've made changes, whether it be more seats or changing the menu. This past year, we concentrated on maintaining a solid charcuterie program. All the pâtés and mousses and rillettes are done in house. There's been a great response to that. People know us for our sandwiches, but I always like to think that we are a butcher shop that does sandwiches. So, the next year will be concentrating on promoting the butcher side. We've been doing more sausages. I want to do more smoked sausages and start dry-aging the beef that we carry. I'd like to stand out on the butcher side. Product and service wise, I think that's where we stand out.
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