The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He put it all on the line opening his butcher shop a year ago. Then the pandemic hit.

Wendell Allsbrook opened Georgetown Butcher on March 9 of last year.
Wendell Allsbrook opened Georgetown Butcher on March 9 of last year. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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He remembers the moment it came to him, about 10 years ago — his dream.

It was when he really understood the marketplace and what people were willing to spend on something he always considered ordinary.

“Growing up, my moms would spend $150 to fill the refrigerator and we would eat for weeks,” Wendell Allsbrook said. And his big hands held an imaginary plate to illustrate his next point. “I just sold a family $150 of meat for one night. That was my wake-up call.”

Working in an organic butcher shop in McLean, Va., Allsbrook began to understand the economics of success. He wouldn’t make it big earning $10 an hour as a drugstore cashier or burger flipper or even $14 at the luxe butcher shop where he cut and weighed imported meat that cost the equivalent of half a paycheck — per pound.

“I realized that I don’t want to just work for money,” he said. “I want to work for a better future.”

So he began writing it in his head, a business plan where a U Street kid who grew up running the streets of D.C., who never finished (or even attended) high school, would become the owner of a high-end luxury business in Georgetown, one of the most swish parts of the nation’s capital.

He is mostly self-taught when it comes to business and gourmet meat. There were mentors at the former Sutton Place and the Organic Butcher of McLean, where he learned by doing. But he also spent hours reading and watching everything he could about meat — blogs, videos, the Food Network.

Bent over a bowl of cold cereal after a long day on his feet, Allsbrook learned about places he’s never been, what’s special about lamb from New Zealand or Kurobuta pork from the Midwest, heritage turkey from Vermont, saucisson sec from France. He studied cookbooks and television shows so he could tell his customers what the best cut of meat is for a bourguignon or the best way to marinate a swordfish.

It was all going to come together at last.

“People thought I was brave, opening up here,” he said, putting a small business in a part of town most of his friends have never visited, selling products they’ve never heard of, at prices they couldn’t imagine.

“This is my dream,” Allsbrook told everyone a year ago, March 9, 2020, as he held the grand opening for his place, Georgetown Butcher. It was 10 years of saving, of overtime, of business plans, of winning investors, of going to farms and meeting purveyors. He had a solid, 15-month business plan.

Two days later, a global pandemic was declared and shut it all down.

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“Then all the marketing, all the work backfired on us,” Allsbrook said. “The world shut down, and I’m on a small street with no parking, no visibility. Nobody even knew I was here.”

The carefully crafted business plan was out the window. He had to improvise.

“We had to change everything,” he said. “We had to get the website, start delivery, move the cashier up to the door, to the entrance, so people just picked up what they ordered. That meant no impulse buys.”

His inventory was all expensive and had a short shelf-life: Japanese A5 Wagyu beef ($219 a pound), salmon from the Scottish Highlands ($22.99 a pound), grass-fed lamb from Australia ($28.99 a pound). A $25 chicken.

“We took huge losses in the beginning,” he said. “I started with 10 or 12 employees and had to lay half of them off.”

He worked from sunrise until well after dark every day.

As the delivery and online business stabilized his losses, D.C. businesses were dying all around him. Small shops, chain stores, restaurants that have been around for decades closed. The remaining places boarded up as Black Lives Matter protests marched through the streets and rioters smashed windows in the summer.

As one of the few Black-owned businesses on the west end of the city, Allsbrook was determined to stay open while demonstrators advocated for Black lives. And he did, tucked away from the main streets of Georgetown, buoyed by a loyal customer base that followed him from McLean.

It became the perfect business for a lockdown pandemic, as white-collar workers stuck at home finally had time to live out their favorite Saveur recipes.

And word began to spread about the man who can find anything — from Wagyu beef to duck sausage. He’s never been stumped.

“Pig blood,” he said. “That was the hardest request. And we sourced it.”

On Sunday, two days before the first anniversary of that exciting opening day and the horrifying week that followed, the shop was busy.

“Hey, how was that birthday party?” Allsbrook said to a man who walked in wearing a hat and a mask. (How did Allsbrook recognize him?)

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“It was great. Really good,” said Eric Mann, who bought sliders from Allsbrook for his wife’s birthdayweeks ago. “I’m in the market for a New York strip today.”

Allsbrook has an uncanny ability to remember his customers. And they love him.

“There’s a noticeable difference in his products,” Mann told me. “And he remembers what you ordered.”

The year-old business already has a wall of notes from admirers.

“I wanted to take a moment to share my appreciation for our conversation about accountability,” one customer wrote on an engraved notecard. “I really love the quality and standards that you keep. I also loved the bones!”

While Allsbrook is earning respect and praise from Washington’s upper crust, he’s hoping that he serves as an example and inspiration to the kids back in his neighborhood. And to his own family — his mother, who died in 2019, never got to see his success, but he hopes to be a model for his own children.

His sons, 16 and 18, want to go into the music industry. “Or clothing design or something,” he said.

He knows they don’t see butchery as glamorous. “I just walk around the city and feel like a normal person,” he said. “I’m not in music or design.”

But he’s still successful and showing them the work ethic, standards and resilience to make it. And he hopes he can begin a mentorship program for kids who grew up like him, educating them on what it takes to start a business, showing them it’s possible in a variety of fields and trades.

Thousands of small businesses across the nation died in the past year. Another 10,000 are predicted to close in 2021, according to a report from Coresight Research. The Georgetown Butcher was lucky — not only did he survive, he thrived.

“I signed a lease for another location. It’s opening within the next 90 days,” he said. “I’m working harder and harder. It’s bigger than just one place.”

Twitter: @petulad

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