Calif. butcher shop on cutting edge of 21st century food trends

By Michelle Locke

SAN FRANCISCO – The pillar-box red lipstick is the first clue the white-coated butcher sawing up a grass-fed California lamb isn’t your typical meat-cutter.

But then, Avedano’s Holly Park Market is no ordinary chop shop.

Tucked into San Francisco’s funky Bernal Heights district, the store – which first opened in 1901 as Cicero’s Meats – has an old-time look with its restored period fixtures and black and white photos.

But behind those vintage trappings, Avedano’s is on the cutting edge of 21st century food trends, owned and operated by three women – one an ex-vegetarian – and selling sustainably raised, locally produced meat.

“People are surprised when they find three women owning the shop,” says Tia Harrison, who, along with Melanie Eisemann and Angela Wilson, took over Avedano’s a year ago. “We’ve gotten a lot of looks from people who are a little bit like, ‘Well… Who’s your boss? Who’s running the show back there?'”

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Step into Avedano’s and you’re likely to be hit by a wave of nostalgia as palpable as the crispy smell of roasting meat that permeates the shop, a tasty byproduct of their catering and sandwich sidelines.

The store was a family-owned market that served the neighborhood for decades, only recently becoming vacant. When the women took over the lease, from a descendant of the Cicero family, they found many of the original furnishings and equipment, which give the place its time-capsule feel.

Serried rows of brick-red steaks are lined up in the old glass cases, next to the paler pink gleam of pork and lamb. There’s poultry, too, from floppy-necked whole chickens (free-range and organic, of course) to tiny quail.

“We want people to come into our shop and we want them to find really great quality meats and fish, meat that has been broken down by hand the old fashioned way,” says Harrison.

For now, all three are still working day jobs, rotating their hours at Avedano’s. Harrison is executive chief of Sociale in Presidio Heights. Eisemann also works at Sociale and runs a landscaping business; Wilson runs a wholesale tea company called Divine Chai.

For Eisemann, who was working the cash register on a recent sunny day, ringing up meat as well as the vegetables and dry goods the store stocks, Avedano’s is a world she thought she’d renounced.

“I never dreamed I would own a butcher shop,” Eisemann says, adding with a laugh, “It’s still kind of surreal. I was a vegetarian for 15 years.”

She started eating meat again about six years ago, but not indiscriminately, looking for sustainably raised and humanely slaughtered meat.

“Knowing where my food comes from and in a city setting it feels like we’re being a little more connected,” she says.

Harrison is the one most likely to be wielding the handsaw and boning knife and hoisting sides of beef on to the overhead hooks and pulley system that takes meat from the shop to the meat locker.

As a chef, she’d been cutting steaks for 10 years. The trick was learning to go back to when the steaks were still part of the cow. “I got a lot of great training from some men that we hired on to help out.”

Butchering is “primal. It’s really primal,” she says. “One of my favorite stories is this butcher that we hired, we were sawing a veal in half … and I was holding the legs and he was sawing it in half – I felt like I was a cavewoman or something. It was pretty awesome.”

Meat at Avedano’s isn’t cheap. Some customers are shocked when they see how much more it costs to buy meat that’s been fed grass and allowed some room to roam vs. the product of large, factory-style operations.

But the idea here is to provide something that customers can’t get elsewhere.

“If they are trying something great at a restaurant, hopefully we can provide them with the ingredients to knock it off at their house,” says Wilson.

A few neighborhood old-timers have stopped by and seemed “surprised and amused a little bit” by the idea of an all-woman butcher shop team, but the store has mostly gotten “really great feedback,” says Harrison. “Pretty much everyone has come out and really supported us. We’re very lucky.”