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edible storiesVirginia

On the Block

By July 21, 2023No Comments

Strolling down Crystal Spring Avenue during the lunch hour, linden trees line the sidewalk, the smart facades of businesses beckon, and people bustle into specialty food stores to pick up sandwiches and salads. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this charming block for a street in a busy city perhaps Richmond or even a  neighborhood in Brooklyn. However, this stretch of shops is found in Roanoke, Virginia, and its newest addition, Yard Bull Meats, a nosetotail butcher shop, couldn’t be more pleased with their location.

“This neighborhood has been great to us. The amount of excitement we’ve received, not just from our neighbors but from Roanoke and even Salem at large, has been very encouraging,” says Tyler Thomas, Executive Chef of The River and Rail Restaurant and coowner of Yard Bull Meats.

A Charlottesville native, Thomas moved to Roanoke in 2016. Having spent years honing the craft of butchery at Stock Provisions (formerly JM Stock), he looked to how he could open his own butcher shop while simultaneously leading the kitchen at The River and Rail Restaurant. “I grew up with gardens, on a farm, eating what the land provides, so that knowledge has always been a big part of me. When I moved here, I was blown away that there were more local farms than restaurants,” recalls Thomas.

Longtime Roanoke residents may remember when familyrun O’Brien Meats used to supply the Valley with fresh cuts of local meat, once having as many as seven locations. But as business seemed to decline, O’Brien’s slowly closed stores until their final shop on Main Street in Salem shuttered in 2019.

“I think the Roanoke culture had just slowly moved away from the idea of butcher shops. With O’Brien’s closing, I think people saw that as a sign, rather than the perspective I was coming at it from: there are all these resources, all these farmers looking to sell their product. The infrastructure was there,” says Thomas. Motivated by the potential he saw, Thomas attempted to sign a lease for several years, but kept being met with resistance by landlords unsure of the viability of such a business.

Almost simultaneously, Elliot Orwick moved to Roanoke. Having spent over a decade learning the butchery trade and leading various protein programs for establishments such as Sierra Nevada and Hickory Nut Gap in Asheville, Orwick was deterred from opening a shop in the brewery-fueled city due to exorbitant rents and already-established businesses. Instead, he widened his search. “I decided to poke around and find an up-and-coming Appalachian town where I could do this and settle in and hopefully become part of the community,” says Orwick.

Yard Bull, sandwiched between Crystal Spring Grocery and The River and Rail Restaurant, is an ideal location. When a former jewelry store became available, Thomas immediately started a conversation with Lauren and Whit Ellerman, the owners of the two adjacent businesses. “Already having a relationship, I approached them and said, I love working with you, I’m going to do this, so why don’t I just do it with you. And they were gracious enough to help us with the buildout,” recalls Thomas. A chance encounter with Orwick led to a meeting over coffee, and a partnership soon formed. “I feel really lucky, having moved here at the right time. Tyler and I met and the rest is history,” says Orwick.

Three years of regular coffee meetings, planning and amassing a steady following at various meat pop-ups around the city, Orwick’s and Thomas’s dream is finally a reality. Upon entering the butcher shop, you can tell that chefs designed the interior of the space; much like an expertly-plated dish at a high-end restaurant, the attention to detail in the shop is thorough and — perhaps surprising to some — gorgeous. From the large oak door of the walk-in cooler that lends the shop an old-world feel, to the matching hardwood oak floors of the retail space, to the subway-tiled walls and drains positioned in the floor for easy cleaning, everything has been carefully researched and selected. This includes the shop’s cooling system. Five large condensers circulate cool air throughout the entire space, ensuring the product stays in pristine condition. “The idea is, we’re working with such a great product, and the farmers work so hard, we want to ensure when it arrives at the shop it gets the life it deserves,” says Thomas. The extensive cooling system means the internal temperature of the shop should never rise above 60-65℉ — so you may want to plan ahead and dress accordingly (or purchase a YBM shirt while you shop for your next barbecue!).

Lining the cases of the shop are familiar cuts such as dry-aged ribeyes; tenderloins; skirt and flank steaks; a rotating selection of house-made deli meats; five types of sausage; fresh, sustainably-caught seafood (the shop plans to always have fresh Virginia oysters in stock); and accouterments. You’re also able to purchase those hard-to-find items: offal, chicken feet and lesser-known cuts such as Denver and bavette steaks (beef) and coppas and secretos (pork) — cuts referred to as “butcher cuts” for their rich flavor and superb texture.

“Our biggest job, perhaps our biggest challenge, is educating the customer. It’s really a fun process when a customer comes in and says, what should I buy? And then we say, well, do you like grilling or braising, do you like lean meat or fatty. From there we can narrow it down, and since we do the whole process, we can say, this beautiful piece just came in, and we can recommend you should get it today because next week it will be a different animal, a different story,” says Thomas.

A tenet for both Orwick and Thomas is education: forming a relationship with their customers and encouraging them to try unfamiliar items and recipes. “We both come from chef backgrounds. We love to eat, we love to cook, we’re hoping to teach people how to prepare cuts they might not be otherwise brave enough to go out on a limb and prepare. Why you would rather shop at Yard Bull than at Kroger: we’ll be able to walk you through the whole process,” says Orwick. “We’ve been talking a lot about branding for the business, what’s important, and what we keep coming back to is the idea, ‘know your butcher.’ The story, in a lot of ways, is the most important thing: knowing where your meat comes from and having a butcher that knows you and knows what you like, how thick to cut your bacon,” adds Thomas.

Forming relationships also extends beyond their customer base. In addition to supplying the neighboring businesses with meat and other packaged goods, Orwick and Thomas have partnered with Patrick Riley (formerly the head chef of Lexington favorite, Heliotrope) to bring the community Food Hut RKE, a sandwich shop located next to Golden Cactus Brewing. Yard Bull will supply Food Hut with all its proteins, and the butcher shop is also in talks with other local restaurants to utilize by-products of breaking down whole animals: lard, bones and tallow.

“A lot of entrepreneurs like to go it alone; some of us like to have partners. I’m very thankful to be working with partners like Elliott and Patrick. We see a great opportunity for community building,” says Thomas. “When you’re at Golden Cactus, you bump into like-minded people there and most of them are growers, makers … that has been huge for our community and definitely boosted our confidence in the community. There are some great people here in town now that weren’t here five years ago — bloom Restaurant, for example, led by Nate Sloan. At the same time, you see some places that have been here for a long time starting to turn and purchase more local products and forge relationships with farmers. Obviously the joke is often Roanoke is 10 years behind … but we’re catching up.”

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