Byline: Marcia Mattson, Times-Union staff writer
A Friday afternoon in Houston's Meat Shoppe sounded like this: The chatter of conversation punctuated with the buzz of a saw.
Owner Houston Stephens operated the tool, cutting pieces of meat to customers' specifications. He had just created a thick T-bone steak for Susan Nancarron.
"Every time I come here, that man goes back and cuts it special," said Nancarron, pointing to Stephens working in his butcher's apron in full view behind the meat counter.
Meat markets are few and far between these days. Mention the name to people under 40, and they're likely to think you're talking about a pickup bar.
But the remaining meat markets keep a healthy business by doing exactly what Nancarron noticed -- staffing the store with people who still know the finer points of processing meat and poultry.
"Part of the reason we're doing well is we're talking to the customer and giving them what they want," said Stephens, who opened the Oceanway store on North Main Street nearly 26 years ago and has another on New Kings Road on the Westside.
Stephens said he knows most of his customers by name, and also sees five to 10 new faces, such as new resident Nancarron, a week.
Meat markets claim their prices equal or beat prices at grocery and discount stores, which edged out many meat markets over the past three decades by offering the convenience of one-stop shopping.
Only 203 meat markets are left in Florida, including seven in Duval and one in each of the surrounding counties, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which issues permits for them.
Raymond Azar was one small businessman squeezed out after a big chain store opened in the same shopping mall.
"That killed my retail business," said Azar, who moved to Seventh and Hubbard streets and became a wholesale sausage manufacturer, selling to some local meat markets.
Grocers and discounters increasingly receive most of their meat pre-cut from processing plants, according to a report on meatcutters by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means more and more stores have few or no meatcutters on staff to handle customers' requests.
Meat market owners routinely slice hams or large cuts of meat people bought at other stores lacking saws or meatcutters. Houston's charges for cutting meat not purchased at that store, while some other meat markets do the work for free.
And processing plants are increasingly automated, which explains why some packaged chicken now comes with extra flaps of skin or ragged edges of exposed bone.
Meat markets get a portion of their meat pre-packaged, too. But Stephens said his store rejects about 15 percent of it for problems like "mis-cuts." And he, like other meatcutters, notes his store still cuts whole chickens by hand with a knife, which allows for neatly divided pieces.
It's a matter of aesthetics. And aesthetics are a huge part of the meat market attraction.
"Appearance is a big factor in food," said Gary Stake (yes, that's really his name), owner and meatcutter at Tillman's Meat and Produce on St. Augustine Road in Mandarin.
"I think it's going to be harder and harder to find cuts people perceive as fresh" with the trend toward computerized cutting, Stake said.
"I think that possibly will open up an area for the small market."
The aroma of smoking meat greets customers at the door at Tillman's, which has its own smoke room that prepares ready-to-eat chicken ($4 each); spare ribs ($10 per slab); or baby back ribs, eye of round roast or boneless pork roast, all priced at $4.99 per pound. The cooked meat draws weekday shoppers seeking a quick meal.
Stake is proud that his shop offers attractive cuts of meat as well as fixings that complete a meal. …