In front of the meat case, all is calm. Shoppers stroll by slowly, periodically stopping to rustle through the rows and stacks of plastic-wrapped Styrofoam trays as they search for the perfect cut of beef. Others stand for minutes at the 38-square-foot refrigerated case of prepared foods as they ponder what to buy for dinner -- chicken yakitori, stuffed green peppers or marinated beef.

The calm belies the frantic flurry that is taking place this morning just a few feet away, behind the frost-covered glass that separates the meat case from "the back room." There, hands are flying as four meat cutters prepare about seven tons of meat for the weekend.

Their frenzied pace makes it clear that earlier reports about the meat cutter's demise have, in Mark Twain's words, been greatly exaggerated.

At one table, a meat cutter briskly sharpens his knife and then starts cutting a 30-pound slab of bottom round into rump roasts, eye round roasts and bottom round steaks. Next to him, another meat cutter is whipping through a whole beef rib eye, slicing rib eye steaks and shaping rib roasts.

Five feet away, Ken Dano, meat manager of Giant's store No. 188 in Centreville, is nimbly working his way through 120 pounds of boneless pork that an apprentice has just removed from plastic bags. Within minutes, Dano creates scores of boneless pork chops (thin, thick and medium thickness as well as butterflied), country-style boneless spareribs and scallopini.

Meanwhile, two meat wrappers zip in and out, pushing fully laden seven-tier carts to the next room where a noisy machine weighs, wraps and prices the just-cut meat. Gachunk, gachunk, gachunk goes the machine, just as Dano starts cutting a loin hind quarter of veal. Slash, snip and chop: scallopini, veal chops and osso buco.

"There was a point in time not too long ago when the {supermarket} industry was painting a frightening picture of the meat department," says Leslie Nulty, director of research for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. "The theory was that everything would come in ready-to-shelve packages. Everything would have been prepacked at the packing house and shipped out like poultry is now -- only to be weighed and priced in the store. Employers were saying that it was only a matter of time before the highly skilled, high-cost meat cutters would go the way of the dinosaur."

But as Giant No. 188 illustrates, that prediction has not come to pass. For one thing, technology has not found a way that meat can be cut into individual retail portions by the packing house, vacuum-packed, shipped thousands of miles, and still look appealing in the store. Although the meat has not gone bad, vacuum packaging keeps the meat a dark purplish color, not the deep red most consumers are accustomed to.

Even more significantly, supermarkets have discovered that consumers want more, not less, contact with their butcher. Particularly in affluent areas, stores have found that many consumers still want a special cut of meat for that noteworthy occasion and don't want to rely on the ready-cut meat in the self-service cases.

But even in not-so-well-to-do areas, consumers want the one-on-one contact. "Many young consumers don't know how to cook so any hints from the butcher -- not only on what to buy, but how to cook it -- are a great help," says Brian Josephs, an associate with supermarket consultants Willard Bishop Consulting Ltd. His firm predicts that 50 percent of the nation's stores will have full-service meat counters -- with a butcher behind the case -- by the mid-1990s. In 1985, only 35 percent of the nation's supermarkets had full-service meat counters.

It's more than just advice that shoppers are looking for, however. In this time-pressed era of two-income families, an increasing number of consumers want the butcher to be a chef as well. As a result, many supermarket butchers now find themselves not only cutting meat but also stuffing chicken breasts for chicken cordon bleu, marinating beef for Sichuan or Cajun dishes and mixing ground beef for meatballs and meatloaf. All shoppers have to do is pop the dish in the oven, microwave or wok when they get home.

The demand for personalized service has prompted a growing number of supermarkets to set up special gourmet sections adjacent to the self-service meat case. These sections not only cut meat to order but also prepare a host of ready-to-cook food. Safeway has two such sections in its metropolitan Washington stores, with another 55 offering "gourmet-on-the-go" prepared food, made by a specially trained meat cutter in the back room. Similarly, there are 37 gourmet shops in Giant stores, with an additional 41 stores offering "step-saver" meals in the meat case.

Only four years old, store 188 is one of Giant's prototypes that is large enough and new enough to contain a gourmet meat shop. Like the 36 others in the chain, the gourmet meat shop is operated by two easy-to-spot meat cutters, nattily dressed in red vests, black bow ties, dark brown Gatsby-style caps and red aprons. The meat cutters in the back room, by contrast, wear red baseball hats, white smocks and aprons, which get dirtier by the hour.

In between boning pork, cutting tenderloins and butterflying lamb on request at their work tables behind the gourmet counter, the gourmet meat cutters at store 188 find themselves mixing stuffing for pork chops, making fresh sausage (eight different flavors), rolling up stuffed flank steaks and cutting vegetables for stir-fry trays. They also chitchat with any customer who stops by the gourmet counter.

"What kind of knives do you use," asks one customer as he watches "gourmet specialist" John Keplinger cut some tenderloins. "Steel," replies Keplinger.

"I never expected to be back in front of the customer," says Keplinger, 47, who became head of store 188's gourmet meat shop two years ago. "I had expected the age of automation to put everyone in a central provisionary plant where portion-controlled plates would be cut, wrapped and sent to the stores." Instead, Keplinger found himself in a seven-month training course that, among other things, taught him how to make the dozens of ready-to-cook meals now found at many Giant stores.

The advent of these gourmet butcher counters, however, does not mean the demise of the self-service meat case. Quite the contrary, says Dano, who notes that his self-service section "keeps on growing." But the addition of the gourmet shop now gives the consumer an option, "just like they can now decide whether to buy a drink from a soda machine or go to a soda fountain and have someone to talk to while your drink is prepared," Dano notes. "The same customer shops both ways ... We're just bringing the meat cutter out from behind the walls -- taking the old way and modernizing it."

That's not to say that the job of a meat cutter today is like the old days. Far from that, says Dano, 48, who joined Giant as a meat cutter in 1966. "There have been significant changes since I first began."

First, are the obvious changes, Dano says. "When I first walked into a meat room, there was sawdust on the concrete floors. A meat porter would come in and clean at night, using a rake to gather up the dropped pieces of meat and bone." Today, the sawdust is long gone and the meat cutters have to clean up after themselves -- which means the red ceramic tile floors are vastly cleaner. In fact, considering all the meat and poultry that is sold in store 188 -- 18 to 19 tons a week -- the floors look downright immaculate, with only scattered spots of meat, fat or blood.

Another obvious change is the meat itself. "If it was beef, it used to come in on quarters, the hind quarters, the front quarters, etc., with each weighing about 130 pounds. Lamb and veal, meanwhile, would come in whole. All would be swinging on large meat hooks, with no covers. Everyone was touching it" as it was rolled through the store to the refrigerated meat box, Dano recalls.

Today, "beef comes in on pallets." The quarters are broken down at the packing house into three or four pieces, some are boneless; others, semi-boneless. And all are kept in vacuum-packed bags and shipped in cardboard boxes. "Take a top round steak," says Dano. "That once came in on a hind quarter. We had to section it off, break the hind quarter down, debone it and separate and section the meat to pull the top round from the bottom and tip ... . Today, if we want tops, we just order a box of tops. We don't have to deal with bottoms if we don't want them and we don't have a lot of excess bones or fat."

But the less obvious changes are perhaps the most dramatic ones, Dano says. In particular, Dano points to the way meat now is sold.

"You used to pull spareribs out of the box (they always came boxed), crack the bone and put it in a tray. Now, we hand pick the best of them -- the leanest ones -- and make center cut spareribs. We also make sliced spareribs. We never used to do that years ago. We would get in a whole front quarter of chuck {beef} and make basic cuts out of it -- chuck roasts or chuck steak, usually with the bone in. Now, we make mock tenders, top blades, chuck eyes, boneless short ribs, stew beef, boneless chuck roasts plus chuck steak. That's merchandising," says Dano as he walks down his meat case, taking a "tour of the case" -- one of several he conducts daily.

Dano rearranges packages to fill blank spots left by customers. "I like to see cases messed up; that means the customer is shopping it," he says, stopping in front of the trays of bottom round. "We used to just cut and sell these," he said. Now, the same cut of beef is processed even further, to be sold as cube steaks (for 46 cents more per pound), thin-cut bottom round steaks (for 87 cents more per pound) and for beef round cubes (for $1.36 more per pound).

"If you don't merchandise, you don't make any money," says Dano, who notes that means more than just making more varied cuts of beef. As the meat manager notes, "I keep a constant eye on the weather, as well as the season of the year and the time of the month. If it's the first of the month, it's payday and people have more to spend on meat."

If a cold spell is predicted, then the soup section -- featuring stew meat and bones -- is moved to a more prominent spot at the front of the meat section. Similarly, Dano orders more steaks to be cut if nice sunny weather is expected, particularly on the weekends. "We have a lot of grillers in this area," he says. And if the weatherman calls for snow, then "we just go ahead and cut all the meat we have because shoppers are going to come in and get everything."

With the meat department now responsible for making prepared foods as well, Dano also has more than just meat to worry about. One of his best sellers, for instance, is a seasoned stir-fry mixture of vegetables that can be eaten alone or with some of the ready-to-cook meat. On a recent Friday, the prepared food case -- already enlarged twice to 38 square feet of space and still too small -- was devoid of the vegetables. "That's one of my most profitable items," says Dano, who kept pressing the gourmet meat cutters to hurry up and make more.

Surveying the ready-to-cook barbecued spareribs, veal and spinach Florentine patties and Italian stuffed flank steak (filled with cheese and country ham), Dano shakes his head. "Who would have ever thought," he says, "we'd have stir-fry vegetables in the meat case?"