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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Dave Walker has meat cutting in his blood

April 13, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor (aflynn@lakeplacidnews.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - It's not as easy to find a small, independent butcher shop as it used to be. Chain grocery stores rule the market.

Yet there are two butcher shops in Lake Placid trying to reverse that trend. Kreature butcher shop at the corner of Station Street and Sentinel Road - featured in the May 6, 2016 issue of the Lake Placid News - is one of them. The other is Walker's Neighborhood Butcher Shop on Saranac Avenue, operated by Dave Walker of Saranac Lake.

Walker has deep roots in the meat-cutting business, spending more than 20 years working in meat departments at Grand Union and Price Chopper. The butcher shop he opened last year reflects that experience.

Article Photos

Dave Walker grinds pork at Walker’s Neighborhood Butcher Shop in Lake Placid.
(Provided photo — Andy Flynn)

"I've been doing it my whole life since back with my grandfather as a kid when he was with Swift & Company," Walker said. "I was always by his side, and I like it."

Enter Walker's small shop, and you're surrounded by sound. That's refrigeration. On the left, right and front are meat refrigerators. And there's a freezer in the back, to the left of a large, glass meat case in the middle.

Behind the meat case is a window where shoppers can see Walker working in the meat room. And above the window is a set of steer horns that used to hang at Doty's Country Road Beef in Saranac Lake. After 28 years, owner Derek Doty closed his family business in the summer of 2001, a few months after Price Chopper opened in Lake Placid, mostly because of the competition.

Below the horns is a set of knives that once belonged to Walker's grandfather, Art Charland, who worked at Swift & Company with Doty's father, Tom, in Saranac Lake in the 1960s.

Charland was an old-school butcher. He supervised the meat-packing operation at Swift & Company for 35 years, until the 1970s. The building is still there on Mills Avenue, near the railroad tracks.

"He lived right up on Ampersand Avenue just up the road from there," Walker said. "So when the trucks would come in after hours, they used to pull up, hit the horn and my grandmother would flash the kitchen light, which meant we were on the way down. Then my grandfather would go down, meet them and unload the trucks."

Swift & Company was a large meat company based in Chicago. It had satellite packing houses across the country. Carcasses were shipped by refrigerated rail cars at first, then by trucks. Once in Saranac Lake, the carcasses were butchered and packaged for local supermarkets.

"Back then, they all cut meat," Walker said. "It was hanging beef. It was transported up to there and then processed and shipped out, boxed up. That was quite the operation back in the day."

Today, the meat business is much different. For the most part, Walker said the butchering is done elsewhere. It's shipped to the supermarket in bulk, all ready for the meat cutters.

"It's gone down to much more boxed beef now. There's not so much the hanging beef anymore. I do a little hanging beef here, but there's just not the market for all the cuts and as much meat."

Back in the meat-cutting room, it's still noisy from the refrigeration. But it's also noticeably colder. Walker said that's why he dresses in layers.

"I'd be on my way to work and I might stop at Mobil or somewhere to grab a cup of coffee in the morning, and I'll have my turtle neck on, long-sleeve shirt and it's 80 degrees out and people are looking at me like, 'Look at this wacko.' But by the time I get to work and I walk into that cooler at 35 degrees, I'm glad I got my hoodie on and my meat coat."

Before the shop opens, Walker stocks the meat coolers. In the busy summer month, that includes cutting steaks and grinding pork - loin for the freezer, and pork butt for the sausage.

"You have to have a grinder or a mixer or a grinder/mixer combo, a band saw for anything bone-in. We've got the rail. You've got to have some meat hooks. You need a good steel. You need a needle for threading your crown roasts, your butcher twine, bone dusters, block scrapers."

There's also a cuber to make the cube steaks. But it all starts with the knives.

"If you're doing hanging beef," Walker said, "you've got to have a good breaking knife, which is like a boning knife; it's just a little more flexible for going around the joints and staying in the seams. And then you've got to have a good boning knife and you've got to have a good steak knife, a scimitar. Some people like the bigger ones. Some people like the smaller ones. ... I've learned and listened to a lot of the old timers who have all got carpal tunnel and everything from pushing the big knives, and they all say go with the smaller knife, so I've switched."

Walker calls his business a butcher shop. But he talks a lot about meat cutting. So, is he a butcher or a meat cutter?

"When you're breaking down the hanging meat, you're a butcher or you're in the butchering process. If you're opening the boxed beef and cutting it up, you're basically a meat cutter."

Walker still lives in Saranac Lake, but his shop is in Lake Placid. He's been a butcher and meat cutter for about 25 years, working at the Grand Union in the 1990s and then Price Chopper. Last year, he left the corporate world, and his shop is on Saranac Avenue. A half mile down the road is Hannaford. A half mile up the road is Price Chopper.

"If I was in Saranac Lake, I might be busier than I am now," Walker said in March. "But I wouldn't get the tourists and the summer business and the people that aren't going to drive over to Saranac Lake to a butcher shop when they got to go by Hannaford and Price Chopper and Aldi's and Tops just to get where I am."

Walker said the biggest thrill he gets is when a satisfied customer walks through the door.

"When someone comes up to me that's 60 or 70 years old and tells me that that was the best ribeye they ever had in their life, and you know they've had a lot of ribeyes, that just makes me feel good."

 
 

 

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