The small town butcher shop, where your meat is cut to order and the butcher knows your name, may seem like a relic of an earlier time. But, as Jay Walters of Out West Meat can attest, the tradition is alive and well in Rifle.
On a recent afternoon, Walters was standing behind the display case in his shop on West Second Street, across from the Brenden Multiplex Theater. The case was full of bratwurst, bacon, smoked salmon and various beef cuts, much of it prepared by master butcher Mark Montgomery, who has worked for Walters since he opened the shop in 2009.
Though it started as a processing facility for local hunters, Out West quickly expanded into a retail space,. Today, a growing number of Rifle residents rely on Walters for their weekly supply of fresh meat.
"We have a great local clientele," Walters said. "Many people come through twice a week. Local firemen, on a health kick, often come in for salmon or tuna steaks. And the theater has helped tremendously. We get at least two or three customers a day now who say they just heard about us, and that's drive-by traffic."
As a small operation, Out West can't undercut the larger distributors or grocery stores on price, so Walters focuses on freshness and quality instead.
"If you order it by noon, you can have it fresh the next day," Walters said. "And we don't use any chemicals or preservatives in our meat."
That means a faster turnover, but a fresher product, too.
And in an era when few grocery store butchers have the skill to prepare custom cuts for their customers, Montgomery, with 37 years of experience in the industry, is the exception.
"If you go to the salon, they're not going to pre-cut your hair, are they!?" he laughed. "We cut to order in the same way. People call before they get off work, and we have their meat ready for them by the end of the day."
The decline of the small town butcher shop in recent decades has a range of causes, from consolidation in the meat packing industry to the rise of the grocery store meat section.
Montgomery, who worked for the behemoth Iowa Beef Packers, Safeway Market and others before coming to Out West Meat, has seen many of these changes firsthand.
"The old world butcher shops would offer fresh product every day," he said. "Now, the industry is so automated and mechanized that each worker often makes only one cut, so you've taken the knowledge away from the butcher!
While Montgomery spent years as a journeyman and apprentice learning his trade, he notes that few are required to endure that process today. Out West's competitive advantage, then, resides in the rarity of his skills.
"At a grocery store, you're not going to see chateaubriand, and you won't see tulips or baseballs," Montgomery said, referring to some of the higher end cuts and preparations he offers at the shop.
"I had a customer who asked me for chateaubriand, and told me that what I gave him was better than anything he has ever had in London or Paris," he said.
On top of running the retail operation, Out West owner Walters also supplies high-end Aspen restaurants, like the Little Nell and Matsuhisa, with meat, seafood and produce.
In addition to items like lobster, halibut and grouper, he sometimes sources exotic foods, from alligator and ostrich to wild boar.
And during hunting season, the company operates a booming business processing wild game for hunters. Though the business currently employs seven people, Walters plans to bring on 3-4 more when hunting begins in late summer. At the season's peak, he said, the shop could be open 16 hours a day.
Walters has big plans for expansion, although he wasn't ready to publicize them all. But he soon hopes to partner with some local ranchers to process their cattle, and to expand his shop's offerings to include a selection of gourmet cheeses.
In the meantime, he and Montgomery will continue staffing the butcher shop, dispensing cooking advice to any customer in need of guidance.
"You'll hear it again and again in this business: Don't overcook it," Montgomery said. "And salt to taste after the meat is cooked. If you do it before, you'll dry it out."
Asked to chime in, Walter's advice was simple.
"Cook it over low heat, and spend plenty of time turning it," he said.
Sounds like the kind of advice you might have heard at an old time butcher shop, still available in Rifle today.