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Greg Brockman, co-founder Prospect Butcher Company
Issue 57: On his path to owning a butcher shop, how inflation has affected his business, and what it means to run a worker-owned company.
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Prospect Butcher Company is a small, worker-owned butcher shop in Brooklyn selling a curated selection of humanely raised, locally-sourced meats. What started as an idea between friends morphed into a popup in the first pandemic summer and into a full-fledged shop in early winter 2021.
I sat down with co-founder Greg Brockman and we talked about his path to owning a butcher shop, how inflation has affected his business, and what it means to run a worker-owned company.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me a bit about your background?
Greg Brockman: After a few years in publishing and film, I realized I was only really interested in the food. I was like, "I should probably try to make this work." So I took a job at Foragers in Dumbo when they first opened — they were one of the first real hyper-local places. By the time I started there … it was not the best run place. They claimed to do whole animal butchering but that wasn't really true. They got in the whole animals, but nobody knew how to butcher, nobody knew what to do with them. All the guys would just hide the meat in freezers all over the store.
And then they would just buy stuff from D'Artagnan, and they'd buy ribeyes and skirt steaks and stuff and just put it out. I quickly was like, "There has to be a better way to do this. This can't be correct." So I bought myself a book with my second or third paycheck on how to butcher. And because there was so little oversight, I could fuck up a lot — and I fucked up a lot. And I just kept fucking up until I stopped fucking up and sooner rather than later, we actually had a whole animal local butcher program.
I was there for about 10 years and I was thinking about leaving in January of 2020, so I reached out to a purveyor-friend. There was a sales job or something open and he's like, "You don't want that job. But let me help you out." He knew these guys who were trying to open a shop in Prospect Heights but they’d never butchered before.
A couple months later I met my now business partner, but we had to do it over the phone because it was like the day we went on lockdown in March. I was still at Foragers and it was completely insane. We just had empty shelves, empty cases. Everybody was panicking.
So by May, things had finally calmed down and I called Corey and I was like, "Hey, man. I've got nothing but time now. You want to talk about this?" We set about something akin to a business plan. I mean, he had so much done already. Corey had recently gotten married at Faun and was friendly with the owner, so we asked their team if we could use their space to get started.
We did a semi-off the books weekend butcher shop there, and it was pretty wild how well it did. There were a couple weeks that we got really scared because we did terribly, but for the most part we were blown away at how well it did. Then from there we reached out to Rebecca and Romi, who were booked with us to start, got the space, got set up and then boom, we're open in January of 2021.
Brianna: Your shop is small, how do you balance the common items and more interesting items you bring in?
Greg Brockman: So with the meat, we try to not run out of the very common things, and I would say are mostly successful. Ground beef, we're never out of. Ribeyes, we're never going to be out of. But something like oxtail for instance, you only get one per cow. Bringing that in is so expensive that it doesn't make sense, so we just don't.
A hanger steak is another one. We're not trying to bring in hanger steaks. We're not extremists when it comes to sustainability, but it's obviously something on our minds. And something like a hanger steak, a good metric I like to use is death per plate. You know what I mean? With a hanger steak, 1000 pounds of cow is going to yield you like three pounds maximum of hanger steak. So just buying packs of hanger steaks is like, "Eh, that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense." Buying a ribeye, that's a whole different ball game. That's a way, way lower ratio.
Then if we're talking about stuff on the pantry shelves, that is more about the extra space we had. I think it's always good for a butcher shop to have more than just the meat. We have this dead wall and it’s literally a foot deep. We're like, "Let’s just throw the world's smallest shelves up there and stock them fucking high and tight and just see what we can do." When I worked at Forgers, I did a lot of ordering and so I knew how to find interesting stuff for our shop.
We try to make everything do double duty. Kosher salt is a perfect example. Obviously, that's what we use and that's what every kitchen in the whole city uses. And it's always struck me as funny that, for a while, your average home cook might not use it. But now people are in the know. We're bringing in it for ourselves, so we literally just take a few boxes and throw them up there as well.
Brianna Plaza: Can you talk to me about how you source your farmers?
Greg Brockman: We have four farmers that we buy from, two of the guys I’ve known for 10 years. Some I don’t remember how I found.
I think it was literally going online and googling Hawthorne Valley Agricultural Association. They just have lists of farmers. The problem with it is just some of these people only produce 20 pigs a year and I need 150. So it's finding the right balance between somebody who's got enough pigs on the ground, but is still doing it the right way and is set up to bring it to the slaughterhouse so that on the day that I need them to bring it.
But really, it was just calling people up, seeing if you can somehow get a sample. With some vendors, I literally was like, "How do we get a sample of your pork chop cuts?" "Well, I'll be in the city in three weeks so I'll just bring one down, drop it off." I'm like, "All right." So whatever this business deal is has to wait for three weeks. Granted again, that was almost 10 years ago now. Probably eight years ago. But that's literally how I did it. It's just word of mouth.
Brianna: How have you thought about your store as it relates to inflation? How have you seen your business change?
Greg Brockman: We haven't really changed. The thing is that when you're buying this caliber of meat, it needs to be more expensive. So part of that is that there are no subsidies. The farmers aren't getting Purdue subsidies. The farmer's need to get paid enough to live, to raise the animals without antibiotics and hormones. And then on top of it, specifically at our shop, we pay our people. Everyone here is on track to be part owner. We provide dental and vision, a small life insurance policy, a discounted health plan, and are working on health insurance. We provide a lot of benefits and that's got to come from somewhere. On the ownership side, it's literally my business partner and I giving up 25% of our stake in it.
The other side of it is that we should be eating less meat. And that's basically what it comes down to: it costs three times as much as it's going to cost at a grocery store, but it's going to be three times better and you should eat it less.
For pricing, there are items that are on par with what you would get at any regular supermarket. Our beef shin, for instance, is around $10, $11 a pound. You don't have to have a whole round of beef at dinner. We’re also working to accept EBT and having a discount for people who are using EBT in our stores.
Brianna: Can you tell me a little more about what it means to be worker-owned and why you wanted to approach your business that way?
Greg Brockman: We are very explicitly worker-owned and not a co-op for a variety of reasons. Prior to meeting Corey, my business partner, I tried to get a co-op off the ground, which is very difficult. It was like herding cats. Part of the struggle is I needed people who were butchers or food service people first and foremost, but they’re not necessarily interested in reading 100 fucking pages of bylaws or following rules to figure out what color we're going to paint the walls. It's not a thing that people were prepared for.
That was the impetus behind it, but my politics are also such that I wanted to give my employees a piece of the action. They’re going to get the squeeze, but they may as well get the juice too. They’re not reliant on me being a nice guy. If I want to take out a disbursement or make a profit, the employees have to - by law - get a part of that.
Don't get me wrong, no one's getting rich here, but at the very least if the business grows, their side of things grow. If there’s outside investment, they don't have any voting shares. The only voting shares exist for employees, myself, and my business partner. If we want to open up a second business or anything else, we have to call a meeting and vote on it.
I think without a model like this, you're missing out on good ideas. I mean, the number of stuff that staff is like, "Can we do this?" I'm like, "Go for it. Fucking rad." And it's great. Everyone here is so smart and so creative and dedicated. It's obviously the right thing to do. Corey and I are super psyched to be like, "This model is proven and it's plain as day."
If you look at a business like Fleishers*, it’s straight up like, "That totally could have been avoided if staff had a voice." What this kind of setup provides is that by law, staff is literally required to have a voice. It's not down to ownership or your biggest shareholder determining what is correct. Big decisions need to be discussed with everybody it's going to affect.
*Fleishers was a boutique butcher with locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn that sourced from the Hudson Valley that, to put to mildly, imploded in 2022 after nearly 19 years in business. You can read more here.