Joe Sutler is a butcher, a very good one by his own admission, with 46 years experience. He's also part of a breed that has become an endangered species: the independent shopkeeper with a concern for quality matched by a concern for customer satisfaction.
Cleanliness and order rule at his small shop, Sutler's Heritage Meats, located near the intersection of lee Highway and Lorcom Lane in Arlington. Despite several possible distractions - specially foods, some produce and a deli case - visitor is drawn to the meat display. The roasts, the steak, even the hamburger choices are beautiful; beautiful and expensive.
"I make no bones about," daid Joe Sutler, gesturing with a Redskins' cup half-filled with coffee that was to grow steadily colder as he warmed to his subject. "My prices are higher and not everybody can afford my shop, or at least they think they can't.
"But I'm educatiing them."
A large, hand-lettered sign hanging on a wall behind the cash register contains a message that value for money encompasses more tha price. Sutler willingly amplified the point. He buys fine meats, butchers them to eliminate waste and sells them along with personalized service. In his view these are not extras, he would not do business any other way. But they are worth something extra.
"People have been ed down the primrose path of false economy," he said. "Meat's expensive anywhere you buy it, but they accept whatever they get (in supermarkets) because they think that's it. If you question the price per pound, I won't argue with you unless you want me to cut my meat exactly the way the chains do."
Sutler's popular "steamship round" ($2.39 a poung last week) is top round. "A lot of people will sell bottom round as steamship," he said. "But it's a pot roast, pure and simple." His rib roasts ($2.99 a pound) are "from the heart of the rib, Delmonico roasts, some people call them." Only center cut pork chops and loins ($2.59 or $2.49 a pound) are on view. His concept of "London broil" is a thick center cut of prime top round ($2.39 a poung). Flank steak is sold as flank steak. The other steaks are New York strips ($5.39 a poung), filets, Delmonicos and butterflied New York strip that is called a "sweetheart," presumably because it is vaguely heartshaped.
Bone-in sirloins and T'bones, the "conventional cuts," are done only on request because of the bone, built-in waste and awkward size. "They're harder to individualize," Sutler declared, explaining he likes to provide "total convience" to people who "don't want to warastle" with a piece of meat.
"When a customer comes through the door," he said, "the first though is 'I'm going to pay more.' Therefore it better be worth more. You owe her everything you can give her. So before they ask, I volunteer that they don't have to take the steak they're looking at. They can have the meat cut any size or style they want." He also slices meat customers have purchased and cooked, prepares party platters and is in the store some Sundays, cutting to order a whole side of beef a customer has bought, giving a "seminar" on butchery as he works.
Then there are the inevitable requests for guidance, for prepare cuts to buy, for cooking directions and cooking times. Joe Sutler said he doesn't resent the requests. "I love it," he said. "It's like family here with us (this wife, Wanda, joined him in the enterprise when it opened four years ago) and the customers. They trust me 100 per cent. That's what I wanted. I've reached the point where they will call in advance orders and leave it to me. They know I can back it up."
What they may not know is their butcher's work habits (he often comes to the store in the early morning hours long before opening to fulfill his promise that "every piece of meat here I either cut or supervise") and how he came to Arlington.
By his own description he arrived in Washington from Stauntion, Va., as a teen-ager in the early years of the Depression "scared to death. I didn't have the education," he said, "so I knew I think I excel in service here, but I know I excel in knowledge. In the beginning I wanted to learn everything there was to know about being a butcher and I mostly did."
Sutler agrees with critics that there have been changes in the business over the years. "There's no real spring lamb anymore," he said. Beef that used to take "two weeks or more" coming to Washington now is delivered overnight and is in meat counters "in a day to two. We cal it green beef or wet beef or watery," he said. "When you cook it the shrinkage factor is phenomenal." To him altered feeding procedures have made a difference. "You can make beef tender (with machines)," he said, "but you can't add flavor."
He sees a change in butcher skills, too. "It used to be four years to make journeyman," he said. "Now it takes a year or a year and half. It's not the same." Nevertheless meat counters. "Either they have to leave waste on the bone and seel low, or trim the meat close and charge higher prices. As it is they close money in their meat departments anyway."
Sutler worked for the Sanitary Grocery Co. long before it was absorbed into the Safeway chain, then for various independent stores, most notably the Chevy Chase Supermarket for the 10 years before going on his own in 1973.
At age 59, "dred and wore out," as be recounts it, he and his wife spent a month in Arizona. "I didn't know what I was goingo to do," he said, "but after that month I told my wife I'm not going to work for somebody else. Then you're trying to say you're going into business for yourself," she said."
Sutler's Hertiage Meats opened but soon ran into the severe national economic downturn and closed its doors for three months. That's history, Sutler says now, though his statement that he is now ready to expand and plans some low-key promotion indicates he needs more business. Advertising is out, however. "There's price ads and message ads," he said, "but there's no way I could put in print what really needs be said about this place."
Perhaps one of his suppliers said it. "Joe's nice. He's honest. He's real oldtime market man." ARDON JUDD'S BARBECUE MOP SAUCE
(Makes about 3 cups) 1 cup strong black coffee 2 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce 1 cup tomato catsup 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper 1 tablespoon salt 1 tablespoon sugar 1 tablespoon prepared mustard
Combine ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a bil and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time. Use to baste chicken, beef or lamb in smoker, charcoal broiler or oven. If cooking pork, add 1/4 cup vinegar to the sauce. To use as a dip sauce at the table for ribs, cook longer to thicken and, if desired, add more catsup (to sweeten it) or extra ground pepper the sharpen it). LONDON BROIL MARINADE
(for 1 steak) 2 cloves garlic, split and finely sliced 1/2 outside ribe celery, cut in rounds 1 small carrot, cut in round 1 teaspoon dried thyme 10 grinds black pepper 1 bay leaf, broken in half 1 cup dry red wine 1/4 cup tarragon vinegar 3/4 cup vegetable oil
Mix ingredients together well in a bowl. Place steak in a glass or stainless steel container that just holds it and pour marinade over it. Lift steak to distribute marinade, cover container with plastic wrap and refrigerate all day or for up to 24 hours, turning meat several times. Pat steak dry before cooking. Paste with strained marinade if desired. GREEN PEPPERCORN BUTTER
(1 /12 cups) 3 sticks butter (unsalted preferred) 1/4 cup green peppercorns, rinsed in a strainger 1 tablespoon Armagnac or other good quality brandy Juice of 1 lemon Salt to taste
A few grinds black peper
If working by hand, soften butter but do not melt it. Chop peppercorns finely, place in a mixing bowl with the butter and beat together using a wooden spoon. Add brandy, lemon juice and seasonings. Beat in, taste and adjust as desired. If using a food processor, reserve some peppercorns to add at the very end so they will retain form and texture. Transfer butter to a sheet of plastic wrap and form it into a log. Place, well covered, in the freezer. Since off rounds as needed to serve on cooked meat.
"Green peppercorns are the berrie that, when dried, become black pepper. Imported in cans, they are both fragrant and spicy. Cover unused peppercorns with water and store in the refrigerator.