What it takes to open a whole animal butcher shop

A Conversation with Bryan Mayer

Bryan Mayer is the head butcher and co-owner of Kensington Quarters–a restaurant, whole animal butcher shop and classroom–that recently opened in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA.

Kensington Quarters just opened in November. Congratulations! Tell us about your sourcing and collaboration with local farms.

Thanks! Sourcing and logistics are probably the two most important parts of this business. You go through all this vetting to find the best sources for the best products. You talk to farmers and get kill slots at slaughterhouses, but for some reason getting the animals from the slaughterhouse to your shop or restaurant is often overlooked. It can be a huge expense if not carefully planned. I was extremely fortunate to have met Jessica Moore and Kevin Tucker of Philly Cow Share. Kevin has deep ties in the Lancaster farming community and introduced me to fantastic farmers. Now we’re in a unique position to have a few farmers raising animals specifically for us. It is incredibly valuable to have a direct connection not only with our farmers, but with our slaughterhouse. It’s something I strongly believe in because it gives us the most control over what we sell out of the case or through the kitchen. To me, forming these partnerships was the logical thing to do. And, out of these partnerships, friendships have been formed.

You convinced Heather Marold Thomason to move across the country to help run the shop. When did you realize you two made a pretty awesome team?

I knew I wanted to build a team that revolved around individual strengths. At first I thought I needed all butchers. But then I met Chris O’Brien and Cecilie May and I realized I was wrong. Neither were butchers, but they both had great farming experience. You can train anyone to cut meat with enough time, but the love of raising livestock is something else entirely. My team was still one person short, but I figured I could get some friends from New York to come and give me a hand when the shop opened. That is, until I attended Eat Retreat in the Finger Lakes.

At first, Eat Retreat was intimidating. I’m just a dude that cuts meat, suddenly surrounded by all these culinary bad asses. But, the intimidation quickly turned to excitement because everyone was extremely welcoming. The spirit of collaboration permeates everything at Eat Retreat. Heather and I were paired up to teach whole hog butchery, and instantly I knew I’d had found the missing piece. There was a great flow to the workshop and an appreciation for each other’s knowledge. No egos. Just a love for the craft and a desire to share it with others. The fact Heather had butchery, livestock and retail experience on top of having run her own business made it quite clear to me that she needed to be a part of KQ. When I asked Heather to move back east and work with us at KQ, I like to think it wasn’t so much a convincing as a realization that KQ is the beginning of something really awesome and fun. A place to create, and learn, and of course, teach.

What ideas do you have for the KQ’s upstairs teaching space?

Part of my motivation for building the butcher shop was to satisfy my desire to keep teaching! It’s what I was doing while I lived in the Hudson Valley, what I did when I moved to Philly and what we will keep doing here. The idea is to bring the community into our space, show them what we do and and what our other culinary friends do. We’ll focus on every aspect of butchery, from raising livestock to slaughter to cutting for cases or restaurants. Our butchery class schedule will be up next month with classes beginning in January. We will also have a true apprentice program. I was extremely fortunate to have old masters take me under their wings and show me this craft, and I want to do the same.

You’re originally from New York, but you’re putting down roots in Philadelphia. Tell us more about your Philly community.

I am from New York, but I feel more and more like a Philadelphian every day. This city is incredible and I feel very fortunate to be where I am. We live close to amazing cultural institutions and the city is incredibly bike-friendly. There seems to be a ton of investment in infrastructure and development with a desire to do this all at human scale.

The food community here is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. When I met Michael Pasquarello, my business partner, he was so open and candid about his plans. I was completely taken aback. I guess I was used to a certain level of secrecy for whatever reason. I felt myself quickly following suit and it has resulted in working with hugely talented folks. There’s a strong spirit of collaboration, admiration and respect. It makes you want to keep doing what you’re doing.

Let’s say we’re cooking a non-traditional holiday menu. What meaty centerpiece would you recommend?

I think if you’re going for sheer opulence you can’t go wrong with a standing rib roast. That thing just looks majestic sitting on the table. But, who’s got money for that? Not me. So, I’d go for something like a whole top round. Leave the “cap” on it so you don’t lose any of that fat. I’d rub it with whole grain mustard and some brined peppercorns. Set it in a roasting pan with a bed of vegetables below, maybe potatoes, so they catch all those drippings. Yeah, I’d be thankful for that.