Butcher Kari Underly: Never Lose Your Passionate Curiosity

Filed in GC Q+A, Hot Careers by on August 20, 2013 0 Comments
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Kari Underly is a butcher by trade and the third-generation meat cutter in her family. She learned the craft from her father at the family’s Underly’s Market in Lydick, Ind. She received a B.S. in Business Administration from Indiana Wesleyan University. In 2002 she started Range, Inc., a Chicago company that provides butchering education and training, R&D, merchandising and creative services to the meat and foodservice industries. She is the author of “The Art of Beef Cutting: A Meat Professional’s Guide to Butchering and Merchandising” (Wiley, 2011), which was a finalist for a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award and an International Association of Culinary Professionals Book Award. Currently she is seeking investors for creation of Range Meat Academy, a proposed combination butchering training center and meat market she hopes to open in Chicago.

Growing up around a family butcher shop, seeing carcasses being cut up around you, was there a time early on when you thought, “Oh yuck”?

Oh yeah.

Did you think,” I’m going to do anything but this”?

Well, it’s hard work. It’s cold [in the cutting room]. I saw my father struggle with his own butcher shop. He worked in a grocery store as well. I also saw the trade dying so my thinking was less, “I could have this great career” than “I’m going to be stuck at a supermarket butcher shop cutting table for the rest of my life.” I thought there had to be more out there than that. I don’t disrespect anyone doing that, though, because it’s tough.

But for me that feeling was motivation to get past where my parents and grandparents had gotten with the trade.

Did you dream of doing something else?

When I went to college I was considering nursing. But I was playing softball and loved it. I was told I’d miss too many nursing classes so nursing wasn’t my field! I was always interested in marketing and business and in doing something in that field. Really, I never thought I’d end up using the butchering skills I had.

It was a neat evolution. There really weren’t many women in the butchering trade then so people were attracted to see a woman doing it. Sometimes they’d watch to see if I made mistakes. When I didn’t, it changed minds.

Were you working at the family shop?

No. I honed my skills at a major independent grocery retailer in Northern Indiana. Working at the butchering table at retail in the 1990s, you were cutting a lot of meat. Today the trade’s changed a lot. There’s more case-ready meat. They bring in pieces of meat to slice and serve but the skills are going. I apprenticed for three years.

Did you have to prove yourself at the start?

Oh yeah. They had me start out in the smallest store in the company so I wouldn’t screw up anything big! They encouraged me to apply for jobs that were traditionally female like the deli department or human resources and customer service.

But I knew those jobs weren’t paying the money that I knew the guys on the bench were making. I needed to put myself through college. The difference between $10 an hour and $14 is significant and I knew what the gap was. It was a matter of economics.

Did the other butchers accept you fairly quickly?

A lot of people didn’t know what to make of me. It wasn’t like I had something to prove but I did feel that I had to work twice as hard as everyone else just to let them know I was for real.

I had all the jokes played on me that you can imagine men doing in a raunchy meat room. There was one time when my male counterparts simply refused to talk to me. I hate to admit it, but I let my emotions get the best of me then. I know that’s the stereotypical knock on women. But I was so upset that I ended up cutting myself that day. It was something silly.

I’ve had a knife thrown at me. You have a disagreement with the boss and you take it out in the cooler when you have a disagreement. Next thing I know there’s this knife flying past me. It stuck in a pile of boxes and I thought, “Well, OK, this is not for me.” I probably rolled my eyes at him or something and he couldn’t take it.

Did you have any kind of role model to look to at such times?

No. But I knew my grandmothers both had butchery experience. My mother’s mother worked with my grandfather butchering. My father’s mother lived through the Depression on a farm, so you killed your chickens and slaughtered your farm animals. I had them to look to, but not really anyone my age.

It’s been a pleasant surprise after writing my book to hear from women who really need a role model. I didn’t realize I could be that. But now women want to apprentice. Range does “Women in Meat Business” workshops around the country and, it may sound silly, but I’m always amazed when women come.

Why are women rediscovering a career that wasn’t really an option before?

I think the desire to buy local meat and to get away from traditional meat processing that we do in the center of the country is one reason. You’re also seeing more women in farming and agriculture. They’re realizing that if they can keep their animals all the way until they sell it themselves to the consumer, they’re going to make a lot more money. But they need to be educated more about butchering.

The whole shift in how we purchase meat is exposing the lack of meat cutters. We’ve drained our industry for years of skilled labor. That’s just a fact. Now, if a chef in Chicago wants to buy meat directly from a farmer, there’s a skills gap

And, finally, for those young Millennials it’s cool again to be a butcher. Anything their grandparents did is new for them. We’re all going back to working with our hands.

You mention chefs and a decade or two ago chefs became media stars. We have “celebrity chefs” now. Was there any point where you decided it sounded like more fun to cook and be on the Food Network as a chef?

I’m a pretty good cook. I’m not professionally trained. The Food Network part was appealing but not switching to being a chef. It was interesting because the chefs became stars and I would see one on TV cutting meat and cringe because their skills were so poor. They didn’t identify parts correctly or they’d misspeak and it was hard to hear. I’d built my life around this and here was a male chef who pretended to be an expert because he’d cut up a pig once or twice.

I’ve worked for years in the industry and worked to develop new meat cuts, so I have a lot of pride. And I’d think, “Really? This guy gets to be the ‘star’?”

You started Range in 2002. What difficulties did you face in getting that off the ground?

I already was doing some consulting work so it pretty easily morphed into a more formal arrangement. I started small out of a home office and then purchased space at Fulton Market in Chicago. We’re still small: we have three employees.

The biggest challenge is that I consult sometimes with meat scientists [on new cuts]. Everyone at the table will introduce themselves and it will be “I’m a Ph.D. from so-and-so” and “I’m a Ph.D. in this.” And I’d say, “I’m a recovering retailer with a business degree.” I would feel a bit intimidated by the degrees.

But once I got past that and realized that, hey, I’m at this table, too, I was fine. It was a matter of finding my voice, which I’ve learned over the years. I wish I had learned it earlier.

Did the James Beard Foundation recognition of your book help give you some extra credibility and confidence?

Definitely. It was a big honor. I’m not positive but I think I’m the only James Beard nominated woman butcher. I didn’t see it coming.

Now you’re planning something even more ambitious with your Academy. Women entrepreneurs often find raising capital and finding investors to be a challenge. What has your experience been so far?

Well, I’m at ground zero. An associate and I had been working on the business plan and we decided that it was time to get this idea out there and shop it around. I realized that the Good Food Financing Fair for entrepreneurs was about to take place here in Chicago. It pushed me out the door maybe a little before we were ready but I couldn’t pass it up. I was one of six companies invited to present their ideas at the fair.

I’ve spoken with a lot of folks about the Academy and I guess I have to say I’m surprised that I’m not a little farther along in financial development.

What do you think is keeping investors from jumping in?

It’s just a very big idea that will require a lot of capital for building and equipment. I’ve been at this my whole life, I’ve been all over the country and I think [the concept] scares people.

People want me to play small. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback like, “Kari, you need to think smaller. Start with a butcher shop and do classes on the weekends.” But that’s the problem not the solution.

For now, I’m going to continue to think big and have the passion and vision it needs. It’s going to happen.

Give me a thumbnail description of your vision. At its best, what would your Academy be?

There’s no certification or standardization whatsoever in the butchering trade. Anyone can call himself a butcher. What I want to do is provide certification. You’ll do a yearlong program and be certified as a master butcher. You’ll understand whole-animal profit and how to cook.

You’ve probably heard of salumi and charcuterie and the art of curing meat. It’s important to whole-animal butchery: You have to use every part of the animal if your shop is going to be profitable. So you’ll learn how to make prosciutto and mortadella and bologna and sausages. It will be a butcher shop with hands-on learning of skills. And what’s also important is that we marry these skills with a business plan so that when students walk out, they understand what they can achieve.

The students will produce product for the retail meat shop. My hope is that the school side out-produces what the retail shop can sell. Ideally then I’d like to create satellite butcher shops in so-called “food desert” communities and give young people jobs.

Real estate on Chicago’s South and West Side is pretty reasonable. So to be able to have young people come and learn at the school, gain a skill and get a job at a decent wage could help the city in so many ways.

Think of all the processing dollars that leaves Chicago; that goes to Iowa and Nebraska where food production takes place. If we brought back those dollars and gave folks a trade and a job…well, I know it’s a big vision but I believe in it.

You’re very proud of your craft. Is one of the Academy’s goals to elevate perception of the profession?

Yes. I want to make it a respectable profession again and bring back local jobs. I hear again and again that there’s a lack of trained help in butchery. I know the profession needs to elevate the wage scale to revive it. But it can be done.

Some people ask me what the value of the Academy certification would be. Even if we’d just be starting out, if someone applies for a job and says they invested their own time and money in a program to gain skills, I’d hire them on the spot.

Do you think the element of taking the Academy into economically depressed neighborhoods keeps investors away?

No. I think the initial “ask” that puts them off is the square footage. We’re projecting that the school should take about 20,000 square feet, and that scares people.

You also need foot traffic. So to need that size of a space and foot traffic in the city is scary. I’ve kicked around the idea with one possible backer of taking the processing and slaughter functions out of the city and having two locations. We’d do our core work at that first location and then come into the city to do the retail side. It might minimize the rent requirement.

What feedback do you get from colleagues in the foodservice industry?

I don’t believe they’re just blowing wind up my skirt but, honestly, no one says, “Kari, are you nuts?” Everyone is encouraging. One large food distributer recently told me the idea is spot on.

Is it going to happen?

I’d say I’m hopefully optimistic. Many people think the $2 million to $4 million we want to raise is a big amount. But in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t. I’m confident in my skills, but when it comes to tracking down capital, that’s where I need my help. I’ve gotten some counsel but it’s a complicated world.

I’ve been looking for the right people, the right incubator. When people say, “Dial it down,” I hear that. I’m not so arrogant that I don’t hear it and get it. I realize the business model that’s on those hundred pages of paper is probably not going to be the business that rolls out. But it’s a start. It shows people we’re for real.

In retrospect, what have you learned that you’d share with young businesswomen?

It’s an oldie but a goodie, a quote from Albert Einstein: “I have no particular talents. I’m just passionately curious.” I think when people lose that curiosity, that’s when they fail. Stay curious. If you don’t get the answer you want, keep looking and keep going out there.

I wish that 10 to 15 years ago I would have had the empowerment I feel now as a 45-year-old woman. The young people seem to get it a little sooner. And that’s good.

What’s next?

We’re going to be working to keep a business going while continuing to try to make the project a reality. We have our hands full.

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