By Eve Fox, Edible Hudson Valley
(Photographs by Jennifer May)
Joshua Applestone has been on the front lines of a revolution and lived to tell about it. When the former vegan and his wife, Jessica, opened Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats in uptown Kingston in 2004, the concept of a shop that sold locally, humanely raised animals, broken down by expertly trained butchers, was revolutionary. In fact, it was so revolutionary that most people simply did not get it. “Everyone was like, ‘I thought all cows were grass-fed…’” says Applestone. “We’d tell people what we were doing and their response would be, ‘That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.’” But that attitude wasn’t the only challenge they faced—the learning curve for these two first-time entrepreneurs was steep, the work physically demanding and dangerous and the profit margins narrow.
Not surprisingly, educating people about the benefits (health, environmental and culinary) of well-raised meat was key in making Fleisher’s successful. And succeed they did, thanks to a huge amount of hard work, sheer stubbornness, the strength of their convictions, the force of their personalities, the high quality of their products and their commitment to teaching would-be-butchers the largely lost art of whole animal butchery. Arguably their combined talents and past work experience helped; Jessica has a background in public speaking and media relations while Josh speaks in profanity-laced sound bites and sports butchery-related tattoos.
“We fought a battle that no one thought we were gonna win and we won,” says Applestone, who is still floored by the extent to which their idea caught on. But it’s clear that the way the world thinks about meat has shifted dramatically in the past 12 years. Now you can find grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free meat in most supermarkets, and butcher shops are opening again after decades on the decline.
“Every big meat producer now does an antibiotic-free line. Shake Shack uses hormone- and antibiotic-free meat in their burgers. Even Hardee’s offers a grass-fed, free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free burger,” says Applestone with a kind of gratified awe.
The Applestones are widely acknowledged as pioneers of the sustainable meat movement, having literally written the book about the topic (The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat: How to Buy, Cut and Cook Great Beef, Lamb, Pork, Poultry and More, Clarkson Potter 2011) and trained many of its leaders of butchery, including Tom Mylan, co-owner of the Meat Hook in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Tim Forrester, the co-owner of Harlem Shambles in Harlem, and Amelia Posada and Erika Nakamura, the owners of Lindy & Grundy in Los Angeles.
But fighting a war takes a toll, even if you’re the victor. “The everyday stress that entrepreneurs are up against is tremendous,” says Applestone. A few years after expanding Fleisher’s to a second location in Brooklyn, the Applestones decided to step away from the company.
Jessica wanted to pursue other interests—she’s an excellent writer (and often a contributor to this magazine), among other things— and Joshua had an idea he thought just might be the next step in the evolution of the sustainable meat revolution.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE MEAT REVOLUTION
“My problem with artisan butcher shops—even the one that I created—is that they get to be a bit elitist, they get to be a bit expensive—it intimidates a lot of people,” says Applestone. Enter the Applestone Meat Company. The new business aims to increase access to sustainably raised, local meats by lowering prices and helping local farmers reach a wider customer base.
There are some similarities to Fleisher’s—the animals come from the same farms—all within 100 miles of their facility—and end their lives at the same slaughterhouse—Meiller’s in Pine Plains, but that’s where the similarities end. Unlike Fleisher’s, the Applestone Meat Co. is not a traditional butcher shop—there’s no butcher behind the counter. In fact, there’s no counter. Customers place their orders via the website or over the phone and pick them up at one of several locations or have them delivered for a small fee, which is based on the distance from their headquarters in Accord.
And since convenience rules supreme, Applestone installed a pair of brightly lit, refrigerated vending machines to let customers buy sausages, hot dogs and burger patties at any time of day or night. “We wanted to be able to sell retail but without huge overhead costs so these machines were an obvious fit,” says Applestone, “It’s a new way of having a 24/7 access to something fresh to eat.”
The first set of vending machines (dubbed “Meat-O-Mats”) are located in a small room next door to the company’s office on Route 209 in Accord. The space has a rather stark, almost futuristic feel, thanks to corrugated steel walls, a blue vinyl floor and the two glowingly lit black and white Meat-O-Mats. With the exception of the two vintage video arcade games (a passion of Applestone’s) that grace one wall, offering customers a choice of Power Drift, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man and Burger Time, everything is new and clean. Applestone plans to install more of these vending machines in the new space they will open in Stone Ridge this summer that will serve as Applestone Meat Company’s primary public-facing location.
And, if things go according to plan, Applestone hopes to install the Meat-O-Mats in many more third-party locations in the future, beginning in the Hudson Valley and moving outward from there. “I’d love to put these in gas stations and stock them with burgers, hot dogs, jerky and more—everything you need to tailgate or picnic and way better for you than a Slim Jim or a pack of Oscar Mayer’s,” says Applestone.
INSIDE THE BELLY OF THE BEAST
A roughly carved wooden bear stands guard outside the door, and a small, pink neon pig sign hanging in the window of the small office reads “OPEN.” Inside I find Applestone, the CEO, head butcher, plant manager, production manager and self-described “grand high poobah” of Applestone Meats. Applestone is a small but burly man with dark-rimmed glasses, long brown hair worn in a ponytail, and an artistically shaped reddish goatee grizzled with gray. After we’ve been talking for a few minutes, he notices that he’s still wearing a pair of heavily insulated blue snow pants—standard issue for work in the walk-in freezers in the plant—and strips down to a pair of worn jeans and a black sweatshirt.
Also at the table, literally and figuratively, is Samantha Gloffke, Applestone’s general manager and one of its four owners. Gloffke is a dark-haired woman in her late twenties who exudes an air of quiet competence and calm—the metaphorical eye in the storm of Applestone’s rapid-fire verbal thought process. Gloffke followed an unexpected path to her current role as manager, starting out as the babysitter for the Applestones’ infant son eight years earlier and sticking with the family in one capacity or another ever since.
“I met them on Craigslist,” says Gloffke. “Apparently we all have the perfect blend of personalities to stick together.” Applestone adds, “Jessica and I call Sam ‘the gift’—I basically begged her to join the team.”
As Applestone and Gloffke trade arcane-sounding notes on various food safety procedures, I study the whiteboard on which someone has diagrammed the company’s three-pronged offerings—wholesale meats for distribution to grocery stores, delis and restaurants; retail meats for sale via their refrigerated vending machines or via online and phone orders for in-store pick up or home delivery; and custom co-packing services for farmers, ranchers, hunters and restaurateurs looking to produce high-quality sustainably raised hot dogs, jerky, sausages, deli meats and more. The diagram is sprinkled with words like “local,” “nose-to-tail,” “trusted,” “affordable,” “accessible,” “conscientious” and “great tasting.” You can practically smell the start-up stage intensity in the air, and I am reminded that it’s only been a little over a year since the Applestone Meat Co. opened for business.
The small office is colorful and cluttered with books, computers, a coffeemaker and the usual mess that being busy brings. But open the door to the 4,200-square-foot processing and cold storage facility behind the office and you’re in a hushed, sterile, cold world of white, steel and concrete. This is where Applestone and his employees break the whole animal “primals” down into steaks, stew meat, chops, sausages, patties, cold cuts and more. The facility is USDA-certified for lamb, beef and pork, and they will likely eventually expand to include fish and possibly poultry. “We’ve learned a lot – you have to do some crazy shit to open a USDA-certified facility,” says Applestone with a wry smile. Despite the rigorous hoop-jumping required to achieve it, USDA certification is a crucial aspect of Applestone Meats’ business model, allowing the company to distribute its products to third-party retailers as well as offer co-packing services to farmers, restaurateurs and companies that want to create their own burgers, brats, bacon and more.
Lessons Learned/Working Smarter, Not Harder/Older & Wiser Applestone is on a mission to keep overhead low, quality high and his customers happy without sacrificing his sanity. “It’s so much easier the second time around. My education is much more complete and my financial situation is very different. I don’t plan to stress nearly as much as I used to.”
Currently, the company has just four full-time employees, including Applestone and Gloffke, a part-time bookkeeper and a couple of part-time summer employees. “A butcher shop [payroll] could run two to three thousand dollars a week with just counter help alone, not counting insurance—but mine is zero,” explains Applestone, who adds, “You have to work smarter, not harder.”
Applestone Meat Co.’s prices are on the lower end for this type of locally and humanely raised meats—for example, their ground beef and bacon mix is $6.99 per pound, compared with $10.99 per pound at both Barb’s Butchery in Beacon and Fleisher’s Craft Butchery in Kingston. “The products are cheaper because we have a much smaller staff and great machinery,” explains Applestone.
MAKING A FACELESS SALE WORK
One of Applestone’s biggest challenges is convincing people to make their purchase without a face-to-face interaction with their butcher and still walk away satisfied. “When you’re known for in-person sales, it’s pretty hard to break the habit,” notes Applestone, who has logged a solid decade chatting with and educating customers over the meat counter.
Meat can be intimidating, particularly when you’re considering a new cut or are unsure how much you’ll need to feed a certain number of people. Applestone has several solutions to this potential problem, the first of which is that he and his staff are very accessible. People can call to ask questions before placing their order, pop their head in from the Meat-O-Mats next door, or shoot them an e-mail. And they do.
“People ask questions all the time and we answer them all the time,” says Applestone. This architecture is seemingly deliberate, as it allows Applestone to provide a level of service and educational outreach to the customer, but on his own terms and without the daily demands of a traditional retail operation.
But Applestone and his small staff can handle only so many personal interactions, a limiting factor that will become more apparent as the company expands. “Our goal is to build a brand that people trust and a system that works without the face,” says Applestone. To that end, the company is investing in electronic kiosks (they look like ATMs) that will sit next to the vending machines and answer questions, provide recipes, cooking instructions, and more. The information will be provided both there on the screen and customers can also send it to themselves via e-mail and text. “The kiosk will do the talking for us mostly,” says Applestone. They’re also planning to have someone behind the counter who can answer questions while doing other tasks when they open their new space in Stone Ridge this summer.
WHAT’S YET TO COME/STAY TUNED
Applestone Meat Co. is just getting cooking. This summer, they will open their flagship location in Stone Ridge—an old bus station right in the center of town that they’ve gut renovated. In addition to a large cold-storage facility and separate offices, the space will include a kiosk for the vending machines (plus more video games, of course) and an educational area to provide people who come in for processing services—mostly farmers and restaurateurs looking to create their own products—with visual guides on how to break down an animal into the most valuable parts. Applestone is excited to get back to teaching the finer points of his craft to a new class of would-be butchers and plans to offer classes again as soon as time permits. People who are interested in learning more can sign up for e-mail updates via their website.
They also envision Applestone Meat Co.’s Stone Ridge location serving as a hub for the local community, choosing the spot for its central location, excellent walkability and large parking lot. “We’re putting in a sidewalk and patio. We also have an Airstream there that will serve as our food cart and we’re going to be doing free drive-in movie nights this summer,” notes Gloffke. “With slamming grilled burgers and dogs,” adds Applestone.
When asked what he thinks the future of American butchery holds, Applestone turns philosophical, “I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to move to a non-factory farmed system. I say it’s inevitable because otherwise it’s all gonna be over, we’re all gonna die.
Applestone Meat Company
4737 Route 209, Accord