Leave it to Cleaver

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A proper butcher brings old-school customer service and quality cuts back to downtown. Written by Andrea Goto. Photos by Jason B. James. 

I’m comfortable having some distance between the farm and my fork.  I don’t want my hamburger to have a name and, as far as I’m concerned, bacon is sourced from a re-sealable package.  I can’t go off-label in the meat department: unable to find a flat iron steak, I came home with a skirt steak—yes, because it looked flat.

Willie “The Butcher” Hughes, the man at the helm of the freshly minted Smith Brothers Butcher Shop on East Liberty Street, laughs knowingly at my story.  In his nearly 40 years as a meat cutter, he’s solved many a carnivore’s conundrum.

“You can call spare ribs six different things—country-style rib, short rib, English style, flanken style—but it’s still a spare rib, just a different way of cutting or cooking it. I can figure it out.  The cow hasn’t changed,” he explains, smiling.

The way we process meat has changed, however—and not exactly for the best.  In 1924, shortly before refrigeration and well before “pink slime” became a household term, brothers Harry and Leon Smith sold beef from their father’s Claxton, Georgia, farm at the Old Savannah City Market in Ellis Square.  With refrigeration came the convenience of “boxed beef”—primal cuts shipped in to be processed and packaged in-store.  Today, most of this processing happens off-site, which leaves butchers in the corporate-run groceries with little more to do than wrap, label and stock.  The result?  A lower quality, quickly produced product, less variety and minimal customer service.

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Willie prefers the “old-school” workings that set the independently owned and operated Smith Brothers apart.  That’s how he can be of real use: giving his customers a high-quality product and personalized service.

After the Smith Brothers left City Market in the mid-1930s, they opened two groceries.  Willie was hired in 1979.  When the stores sold to Robert “Andy” Anderson and his son, Robert, in 1993, Willie stayed on.  Robert—the mastermind behind the recent downtown relocation—couldn’t imagine the new shop without its beloved butcher.

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A Cut Above

“Willie is the best meat cutter in town—period,” asserts Robert, himself a skilled butcher.  “Other guys just don’t take the time to talk to people, to know what they’re looking for.”

“The Butcher” learned to cut meat working at a local Winn-Dixie, but he credits the Bethesda Academy for his strong work ethic.  Willie’s parents put him and his three older siblings up for adoption when he was 2 years old.  They lived in foster homes for five years before he became a permanent resident at Bethesda, graduating high school in 1974.

“When we were young, we didn’t watch TV—we didn’t even have TV.  We went outside and played and did work,” Willie recalls fondly.  “I’ve always been working with my hands.”

Willie remains close with his brother and sisters, but when asked about his parents, he shrugs.  Perhaps as a result, Willie sees “family” where others see “work.”  During the 27 years he cut meat at the Smith Brothers’ former Landings location, Willie got to know his customers well.  Many still call him at home for help, and he’s been known to make house visits to cut and prep meat for special occasions.

“I always keep a knife, a sharpener and twine in my pickup,” Willie admits.  “Anything I can do for my customers, I will.”

Still, his regulars crave more.

“With all the cooking shows, people are starting to ask for things most people haven’t heard of in years—tongue, sweetbreads, kidneys—things that you can’t seem to get anymore,” explains Willie, who encourages his customers to bring in recipes so he can help to select their meats and, in some cases, save them money.  “You don’t have to buy filet mignon to do burgers,” Willie notes.  “You can, but you don’t have to spend that money.”

In our short time together, I’ve learned a lot from Willie.  I’ve learned that, in spite of how it sounds, aged meat is actually a good thing.  I learn that I should embrace the fat.  I learn that a flat iron skirt and skirt steak—though both flat—are vastly different cuts.  But most important, I’ve learned that I should be expecting a lot more from my food and service—and I know where to get it.

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Smith Brothers Butcher Shop, 535 E. Liberty St., 239-4512