Interview with Lauren The Butcher

27 mins read

I was at a small butchering-knowledge workshop of Lauren’s maybe a little under 2 years ago. Towards the end of the class, after we had cut into, identified, and cooked up several of the meat cuts, Lauren noted the amount of water on the butcher block after the pig had been broken down. She explained that you can tell how stressful of a life the animal lived by the amount of liquid that leaks out during the breakdown. A super wet table meant the pig was scared and stressed right before its slaughter and a super dry table meant the animal had been stressed its entire life. Science having to do with muscle glycogen depletion (long-term stress) and lactic acid from the breakdown of glycogen (short-term stress) affects not only this physical proof of life quality but also how the meat will look and taste. The pig on Lauren’s block had been thoughtfully chosen from a farm that puts the care and health of its animals first. The dampness of the table after the class visually showed us that the pig had a calm life, without fear, and was guided gently into death.  

Lauren Garaventa

My name’s Lauren Garaventa and I am the head butcher at the Ruby Brink. The Ruby Brink is a butcher shop, bar, and restaurant on Vashon Island (Southwest of Seattle in Washington State). Pre-pandemic, we were open all of the time, even late at night, and we were a place for people to hang out, drink and eat and have a good time. And also people could buy well-raised meats and foods from the shop (which they still can).

Karl: Hi Lauren can we talk about this photo?

Lauren: I was 2 years old in that picture. It was Halloween. I was Miss Piggy and my brother was Kermit the frog because he was a tiny baby and he could just wear a hooded sweatshirt with ping pong balls on the top.  I had the Miss Piggy costume because I loved the muppets. And pigs. 

K: Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? 

L: There were 3 things that I wanted to be when I grew up. 1 was a marine biologist, 2 was the president, and 3 was the king of the world. I was pretty dead set on number 2 or 3 

5 year old Lauren in her directors chair

K: Can you describe your relationship to meat and how you got into butchering?

L: I got into butchering because I always had a problem (ethically and morally) with eating another animal to stay alive. I learned later in life that eating meat is part of being human and it’s something our bodies require to function effectively. Because of that, I realized I needed to make sense of eating meat in my brain, so I didn’t have to feel like a hypocrite. If I couldn’t kill it and didn’t know where it came from, then I didn’t have any business eating it.

side note: Lauren was a vegetarian for 10 years and came to realize that it wasn’t working for her. This is not a statement against vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. The Ruby Brink makes sure to always have vegan and vegetarian options.

I started learning about how meat was raised and slaughtered. I got really interested in that. I also really love food and cooking and I always wanted to work in a restaurant or do something around food. But I didn’t want to be a chef or a line cook because I’m not really passionate about that. Butchering gave me a different outlet that’s still food-based. I still get to nourish people & do the food things I love, but meat is something that I’m naturally in tune to and I  really like working with it.

K: Did you ask your local butchers to teach you/ how did you get yourself on the path to becoming a butcher? 

L: I asked a lot of butchers and got a lot of “no’s.” It took me about a year to get an apprenticeship with somebody.

I thought about going the traditional meat cutter route, like trying to join a union or working at a grocery store, but ethically it just didn’t line up with what I was trying to do. So, really my outlet was trying to look for a small butcher shop that would help me learn what I wanted to learn.

K: How do you choose the farms that you support

L: I’ve been working with farms for a long time so I have certain things that I’m looking for. Let’s take pork for instance. How pork is raised is so important since they’re really emotional animals. They’re not only a prey animal. They have a different circulatory and adrenal system than ruminants, so they are a predator as well as prey. They’re an omnivore just like us. Because their systems are different from a ruminant prey animal, they require a really diverse diet and a healthy happy life to even be good to eat. So for me, finding pig farms that treat their pigs super, SUPER  well is really important. I don’t want them to live too close together.  I want them to live outside. I want them to have a diverse diet.  I want them to be running around and I would prefer for them to be heritage breeds, so they’re a hardier breed that doesn’t need antibiotics or anything like that to make it through life. I find farms that meet those standards and logistically figure out how to get them. 

Pachamama farm in North Bend (Oregon) breeds super awesome forest raised pigs all Heritage breed. They’re all taken to 13 months which is almost unheard of. Usually in the U.S pork production pigs are slaughtered at 7 and 9 months to ensure leaner  meat, but I’m looking for fatty pork. I like to push it a little bit older and these farms will do it for me. 

Scabland Farm raises large blacks and they’re trying to preserve this heritage breed specifically. It’s a really cool lard pig and so we support them in that as well. 

With any other animal, lamb, chicken, beef, we need to have a personal relationship with the people that raise these animals. So as long as I can have that I’m pretty much willing to work with anyone that treats their animals right.

Lauren processing beef at Kurtwood Farm (2014)

K: Can you explain the “whole animal” butchery approach

L: Most butcher shops and pretty much all restaurants are ordering parts of animals to fit in their menu. Let’s say one restaurant might order 10 prime ribs every week. Every week they’re using 5 cows worth of prime rib. Every week for the whole year. They’re affecting tons of animals that way. Way more animals than they’re using all of, but they’re creating this demand for having tons and tons of animals harvested on a regular basis to meet these demands of certain cuts. What whole animal butchery does is commits to buying the whole animal. Yes, I still get 2 prime ribs a week, but I’m committing to buying that whole animal and using all of it, the shoulders, the legs, everything to get those steaks because cows aren’t made only of steaks. They’re made of lots of meat. It’s really important for me to know how many animals’ lives my business affects. I can count them. I know that every month I use 2 whole cows. I know that every year my business affects 24 cows. That’s it. Not any more. That’s our impact on the beef industry. It’s very small compared to most restaurants. As I said before, if a restaurant is using parts of 5 cows a week, but not using all of it, where does all of it go? It gets divided up, spread out and people never think about it again.  I think that if every restaurant, grocery store, and butcher shop used whole animals and lived within the confines of  eating steak as a special thing and eating meat as more of an ingredient while being conscious of using the entire animal, eating meat would be a more sustainable thing to do

“I’m committing to buying that whole animal and using all of it… It’s really important for me to know how many animals’ lives my business affects. I can count them.”

K: Do you have any sort of Mission statement for yourself and your restaurant? 

L: Mission statements are hard for me because they need to be succinct and clear and I have so many things that are important, nothing that I believe can be easily explained in two sentences. 

I think in terms of the restaurant, farmer-direct is really important to us. Knowing the farmers that grow the food, building a relationship with them, and then supporting what they do is important. The farmers are important and the animals they raise are important and we put that above everything else because that puts our customer’s health also above everything else and the health of our community above everything else. 

 And I’m not just talking about small farms, I’m talking about literally any farm that is willing to do things the right way. We support them so that way we can continue this sort of mission of healthy food that’s raised well where everyone is getting paid and where there’s minimal exploitation. 

“One thing I would like to educate customers about is how everything isn’t available all the time. The whole animal approach means not having unlimited whatever you want all the time”

There are a lot of butchers that think we need to educate the public and get them to buy different things and I think it’s up to us to get creative about how we sell it. So we sell braised beef here. Already braised for people. I’m not just trying to convince people that they should buy chuck roast that they don’t know what to do with. I know what to do with it, so we’ll braise it and sell it in the way that’s easiest for them to use it. Instead of needing to educate the customer, I’m educating myself on what customers will buy. One thing I would like to educate customers about is how everything isn’t available all the time. The whole animal approach means not having unlimited whatever you want all the time, so there is a level of education in having people walk in here with no expectations rather than already knowing what they want. The perfect customer is going to decide what they’re going to make when they see the beautiful thing in the meat case and not already know what they need for a recipe and come in, set on that one item. so it’s just important to educate people on flexibility but that’s it. I don’t need to educate people about what to do with all these weird steaks. I just need to process this animal in a way that people want to buy it.

meat case at the Ruby Brink 3/5/21

K: Can you talk about the Pandemic transition of turning the family dining area into a small grocery store and turning the 21+ areas into employee-only areas? 

L: We have a lot of employees, so having our team have enough (personal) space during the pandemic was a concern. We really wanted employees to be able to stay away from each other when they’re at work and have a lot of space… the safety of our team became paramount over everything. Keeping customers away from our team was really important and then (for the grocery store part) just having another way to make money because our entire way of making money was the bar. Most of our seating is bar seating. We’re not allowed to use that at all right now, so even if we were open at 50% we wouldn’t be able to use our bar. Which is what we are. The grocery store became alive because we needed another way to make money besides take-out food and butcher shop sales. Also, we had always intended to have a little grocery store in our butcher shop but the restaurant aspect took over everything. The pandemic has kind of taken us back to that original idea of having a little grocery store in our butcher shop. There are no co-ops on Vashon, so we wanted something that you could go into knowing that every product has been chosen carefully & you don’t need to worry about where these eggs or butter or milk has come from.  It’s all coming from places that treat their animals, employees, and land well. It’s something we always hoped to have space for and COVID kinda gave us that opportunity to make it a focal point and we’re actually not going to change it back. 

family dining area converted to small co-op style grocery store

K: Would you talk a little more about managing employees and prioritizing their safety through the pandemic?

L: One of my things was that at the beginning of the pandemic when they shut everything down, I realized that no one knew anything. No one knew what was going on and no one had any real definitive answers to anything.  I wasn’t going to make any real expensive decisions based on anything that anyone was saying. An expensive decision is shutting down your restaurant and then opening it back up again and then shutting it down again and then opening it up again. Flip-flopping your business like that is extremely expensive. I’m doing everything in my power to never have to close. Never having to close means that no one here can get sick. No one that works here can get COVID, so in order to best ensure that I’m doing everything I can to keep my team safe. Keeping them away from the general public is the only way to do that. By allowing people to come inside and eat food or drink without their masks on is the opposite of that mission and I just didn’t see space for it, honestly.

“I’m doing everything I can to keep my team safe. Keeping them away from the general public is the only way to do that. By allowing people to come inside and eat food or drink without their masks on is the opposite of that mission and I just didn’t see space for it, honestly.”

I care about everyone here and that’s an easy emotional thing to say, but the bottom line is it’s not cost-effective to have your employees getting sick and having to close your fucking restaurant. It’s just not. It’s so expensive. I don’t know how restaurants that had to close for 2 weeks after they re-open are doing it. It scares me. Really scares me. So,  I was committed to making a decision and going with it as long as we needed to. We can make changes where we need to. This patio that we’re building is something we always intended to do, but probably wasn’t going to happen for a couple of years. This (reality)  made it a necessity. and soon we’ll have space for people to eat or drink outside, but I’m still not going to allow my employees to be around anyone who doesn’t have a mask on. It’s just not allowed. I ask that they don’t do that when they’re not at work and I would never put them in a position to do that when they are at work. 

some ruby brink staff (winter 2020)

K: How do you define success for yourself and what does that look like with your business?

L: well! Success for myself is doing whatever I want whenever I want.  If you can do whatever you want whenever you want then you’re doing just fine and I really truly have always been looking for that level of success. It doesn’t have anything to do with money. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything. It’s about making your life enjoyable to live as opposed to anything else. And so for me, I feel like I’ve been successful, even though I’ve had ups and downs, generally anything I do I try to be as successful as possible. or I just stop doing it. if it’s not making me happy, if it doesn’t work, there’s just no reason to do it. 

But success for the restaurant I sort of gage in a different way. I gage it in how well it does, how much the community responds to it, and how happy the employees are. 

One thing I say all the time is if we were in Seattle I don’t know if we’d still be here. Truly, Vashon has stepped up and made it possible for us to exist. People are shopping, coming in, ordering in, supporting us wholeheartedly and I feel so lucky to be here on a small Island where the community supports each other. It is so invaluable to be in a small community where everyone knows each other and where you can work things out in a really easy way. I’m from a small town so it’s comfortable for me and I like it. 

Lauren, Jake & Rustle (owners of The Ruby Brink) 2018

My business partners, Jake Heil and Rustle Biehn, decided to do this together and I can say that had we not decided to do this together I would not be doing this. This is a huge undertaking for 1 person, it’s a huge undertaking for 3 people. We’ve maintained 20 employees through the pandemic. It’s kind of insane and amazing and hard and we did it just fine. We’ve been really lucky to build a team of people that wanted to come to work and wanted to be a part of it and who believe in what we’re doing and support us. And it goes both ways we support what our team is doing also, so it’s really nice to have this family mentality of supporting each other and being here. Shout out to everyone for keeping each other safe and being really respectful of what’s happening in the world right now.

I think for me if I had to stay home during the pandemic this whole time I would have freaked out and the fact that I was able to come here and keep this business going and have a group of people around who are also focused on keeping this place alive? It’s just an amazing feeling to know that people put themselves in danger to make sure that this restaurant doesn’t close. I could never ask anyone to do that and I didn’t have to. 

The Ruby Brink builds the kitchen menu off of what’s available from the butcher along with what seasonal ingredients the island and neighboring farmers have each day. This process, rather than having a set menu and having to find the ingredients for the set items, is an exciting, responsible, and delicious approach to feeding the community.  Every decision is executed with care above everything else and that is a business model that I hope we can get used to seeing more of!  

Big thank you to Lauren Garaventa for sharing her experience!

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