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Prime Cut

‘People love to eat’ is The Meat House’s universal appeal


Here’s the problem with running a restaurant: You’re always there. Always. Open early, stay late. Go home and go to bed, sleep for a couple of hours, get up early and start all over again. 

“It’s not exactly conducive to the family lifestyle,” said Justin Rosberg. He spent a decade working for Weathervane Seafood restaurants in New Hampshire. So as Rosberg began considering what kind of business he was going to start, he decided to look outside the restaurant industry, but not far from food: a butcher shop. 

The Meat House opened in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 2003. It provided opportunities for customer engagement that was easier to manage than a restaurant, and with a staff of 10 to 20 instead of 100 to 200. “It’s still retail,” Rosberg said. “You’re getting home at 9 o’clock at night. And there are days you get there early.” But the fit is more friendly to a family.

Rosberg’s goal with The Meat House was to bring “fine dining hospitality” to the retail business, with a focus on service and quality and a local product mix. But he also brought something else: a brand so strong many customers came in thinking it was a franchise. A few asked if they could buy one. 

That wasn’t the company’s goal from the get-go. Rosberg saw an opportunity to build a brand in an industry that generally lacked them, but his initial plan was to open eight units by its fifth year. Rosberg met that goal, and actually had 11 by 2008, but the questions about franchising kept coming and ultimately led him to franchise the business—something few, if any, butcher shops have done. 

So Rosberg took the time to perfect the concept. “We learned more of what it takes to be a successful franchisor,” he said. “You need to understand the brand at the highest level before you can replicate it.”

The company’s first few franchisees were customers of the concept. One of them was Craig Wilkins. The Raleigh, North Carolina, resident discovered The Meat House on a visit to see one of his daughters, who lived in Portland, Maine, a block from one of the company’s locations. “We liked what we’d seen,” he said. “We liked the concept of a neighborhood butcher, something that’s kind of missing. We thought it was a unique offering.”

The Meat House

Wilkins had spent 37 years as a computer programmer, but had been thinking of a way to build a family business. When his daughter heard on the radio that The Meat House was starting to sell franchises, Wilkins decided to buy. He has two units now, which he operates with his son, and plans to open another one early in 2013 and ultimately six to eight locations around the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina. He’d like to get his entire family involved.

“It’s a little challenging. It’s a new industry, but we like it a lot,” Wilkins said, noting that hiring the right people helped ease his way into that industry. “Our customers absolutely love what we do and how we do it.”

The main challenge, Wilkins said, comes in choosing local products. The Meat House gives operators some leeway in sourcing products locally to give their stores a more local feel while attracting the growing number of “localvores.” “Our consumers are more focused on that local movement—to know the person who is serving your food,” Rosberg said. 

The Meat House can tap into local distributors, but franchisees have to do some of the legwork, too. In North Carolina, Wilkins said, local breweries and wineries are important, and the franchisee sources local desserts. It also gets local pork—North Carolina is a big pork producer—and chicken, plus local barbecue rubs and sauces. They even source sauces to satisfy the state’s dual barbecue style taste they prefer: vinegar-based (eastern North Carolina) or ketchup (western). “We’ve got choices on both sides of the fence,” Wilkins said. 

Some local products ultimately make it national. The company’s first stores sold Mitchell’s Fresh Salsa, made in Concord, New Hampshire. The salsa is now available at each of the company’s locations. “When it’s a great product, we take it with us,” Rosberg said. “We love to do those things.”

The Meat House doesn’t just target those looking for high quality. It attracts customers looking for convenience. Many of its customers buy one meal at a time, rather than several. So the company’s 4,000-square-foot shops are located in areas where it’s easy to get in and out. “What is the one thing you can’t replace? Time,” Rosberg said. “You’re getting out of the store in 15 minutes or less. You’re being served and greeted by people who care about you and your community. You get what’s for dinner that night. You get that Christmas roast or the Thanksgiving turkey.”

The company also prepares a lot of meals in a 10-by-10 kitchen, including roast beef or turkey, smoked salmon, roast beef tenderloin, prime rib, barbecue, macaroni and cheese, lasagna and sides. It also makes sausage on site, and the company is working on educational courses to give people lessons on barbecue, butchering and sausage-making.

Those classes are being tested now, but Rosberg believes they’ll fit with the company’s food-loving franchisee base. “Most of our franchisees have that passion for food,” he said. “It’s why they’re attracted to the concept. It’s not a restaurant. It’s not a cleaning service. It’s not a gym. It’s a lifestyle. People love to eat.” 

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