When Chef Jesse Griffiths opened the doors to his first brick-and-mortar restaurant last fall, a few things were non-negotiable. He would buy only whole animals, work with local Texas producers, source the freshest possible ingredients, and find a way to use every bit of what he had.
It’s an expensive way to operate. So, to make it financially viable, Jesse tacked on a butcher shop.
The result is Dai Due, a restaurant and butcher shop in one that work together to move inventory, serve guests, and support a sustainable food system. We sat down with Jesse to learn more about his approach to to business and how he’s using creativity and flexibility to make good, equitable food a reality.
Tell me about your background and how you became interested in butchery.
I’ve been in restaurants my whole adult life, since I was 16. I got into the back of house, the kitchen, and I wanted to work days. There was a period where I got a little burned out on the line, so I started doing prep, and part of my job was butchering. I just really enjoyed it.
Then we traveled to Europe and worked on some farms over there, and seeing the whole systems in place, where the food was coming from — I got a little more interested in it. Especially how this region (central Texas) is reflected through food; it’s very heavy on animals because they are one of the only things that can really thrive. This is a very harsh environment. We might get a little rain, but we also might get hail, or we might not get any rain for four years. It’s a very hard place to grow things.
And if you look at it historically, it’s a kind of meat-based economy here. I thought it would be a really good lens to look at local food, through a butcher shop.
You started out with a farmers’ market stand — how did that come about?
We started out as a supper club almost nine years ago. It was a dinner that we would do in a farm, or at a hotel — wherever we could find. What they call a pop-up dinner now; we didn’t have that newfangled term back in the day.
That was my job. We were doing three or four a month, almost one every week at its peak. Then we started doing the farmers’ market because we wanted more… I don’t know. Stability? Reach? We wanted another giant pain in the ass. [Laughs.] So we decided to go to the farmers’ market and double our pains in the asses.
It was great. It was fun. It was still volatile because of said weather; bad weather could shut us down.
Were you selling meat or doing other foods?
We’ve always called ourselves a butcher shop. But we deal heavily in seafood, we deal heavily in fruits and vegetables and bread, and all these things, and we did that at the farmers’ market as well. If artichokes were in season we would pickle them or marinate them and sell those. If we got a bunch of wild boar we’d make sausage out of it. Meat is a heavy focus, but it’s not the only focus. The farmers’ market reflected that.
And it was all about what you could get access to locally at that moment.
Absolutely. That’s what everything is about to us. It’s such a dynamic approach — not to brag, but it’s exciting to me because we have to be dynamic.
Tell me about the evolution to the brick-and-mortar shop and restaurant. Did you have a concept for the restaurant or butcher shop first, or was it always a hybrid?
It was always the whole idea, because we knew that the equation for us would include whole-animal butchery. The base of everything that we do is very expensive — I don’t mean what we charge the people, because we charge people a very fair amount considering what we’re paying. Probably too fair, according to my accountant.
We source everything locally that we can, all of our fresh product. All of our dry goods are organic, and we don’t discuss that at all. If you’re eating rice or flour, you’re getting an organic product. Nobody does that, because they don’t have to.
Because it’s really expensive.
Yeah. So, the way that we can mitigate those costs and make it a successful concept is to use whole animals.
We can get every ounce out of something that way, and it’s also more fun because you have to approach everything with a formula, like, how do I use the ribs in the same amount of time that I use the tenderloins and all the trim and the bones. They all have to be used and sourced and placed throughout these two businesses. That’s a fun thing to figure out every day: how to use it up.
It’s so fluid, it changes. Between now and service we’ll have some changes on the menu. We don’t have cilantro anymore because it’s out of season — well, what are going to put in there that’s going to give that dish a fresh note? We have to preserve very heavily. We’re putting lemon verbena in the tea because we don’t have a lemon.
How have you approached sourcing and built relationships with local ranchers?
A lot of the relationships have been very long-term ones, being that we’ve been in business since 2006. People also know that they can approach us if they have stuff. We deal mostly with just a core, smaller group of farms, and then seasonally they will ebb and flow. Some people will breeze in and out, and if they remember to send me a text or email then I’ll buy something. Or they’ll have too much of something, which is great for me. I love the distress, because we’ll make hay if we get a good deal on tomatoes or something else.
It’s fun, and it’s frustrating at the same time, because instead of dealing with one company that drops everything off every morning, I’m dealing with 30 people who may or may not be good at communicating, who may or may not show up when they say.
It’s a very much more personal experience, and you have to go into it with a lot more grace, because you’re not dealing with people who got into this out of a love of business. They got into this because they love what they’re doing and they’re trying to be good business people, same as me.
But the rewards are really great. They show up with something you didn’t order, like 10 pounds of free cactus paddles, like today.
And it helps you and your team be creative, I’m sure.
Always. And the product is too valuable — either it’s so expensive or so beautiful and you’ve made the connection personally with the person that’s growing it, you can’t throw that away or treat it like a commodity.
That’s one thing that I’ve found distasteful in my years before working here. You open up a box of hanger steaks, and that’s from 80 cows. You have no connection. But if the farmer drops off one lamb, you’re going to really value every little piece of that, and in turn your cooks value it more, too. I think it makes them better cooks because they respect the product more.
And then the connection between us and the customer is also, likewise, personal. It’s a very pleasant way to do business across the board. But it’s been a hard translation, too, as we’ve gotten bigger. A thousand people come in and eat every week now.
How do you deal with the purchasing? Is there anything that’s predictable, or is it all one-off?
It’s all one-off. They didn’t bring the leeks the other day, so it’s like well, that’s one less vegetable side we have. The way that translates is, customers are like, “This place doesn’t have any vegetable sides.” Some things will pop up like snails, or these little rare treats, and we’ll literally get 12 orders out of them a year. You show up at the right time and you get that.
We’ll reprint our menu sometimes three times in an evening, because we’ll cycle through the first thing, go into the next thing, and then that might sell out and then, just to keep people happy and give them enough choices we might have to reprint the menu and put new things on there. It’s really funny to see one table looking over and being like, “What is that? That’s the rabbit! We got different menus.”
It’s not appealing to a lot of diners, but we just haven’t figured out a better way to serve everyone. People want an equitable food experience, but you’re going to have to give a little bit, be a little bit flexible, in order to achieve that.
Do you feel like there’s been an education hurdle at all with customers in explaining what you’re doing?
Yes. Until we opened the doors here we would very much communicate through our weekly mail-out, which we still do to our customers. We were able to pretty much outline every item we were selling and talk about where it was from and why it was special. In this context it’s not possible.
We can’t put biscuits and gravy made with organic flour milled in Texas with organic cultured butter and wild venison sausage. Nobody cares! They just want to have breakfast.
We thought about it, and I just opted to not say anything. The servers are highly trained about it; we try to tell them as much as possible about all of the product. The very design of the restaurant — this is our whole prep area right there.
I think you also have to give people a lot of credit and know that intuitively someone will walk in… you don’t see any labels on the product because we make everything here. There’s a butcher counter, and there’s likely to be an animal laying on the butcher counter. And there’s a fire. And there are seats. What that tells them is pretty much all they need to know.
Sometimes it’s ugly, sometimes it’s bloody, and sometimes we drop stuff on the floor. It’s kind of a mess, a little bit. But it’s just real. We have absolutely nothing to hide in terms of what’s going in the food, but we didn’t want to say that. We just wanted to demonstrate it.
And we came into with enough customers that have been with us for so long, they know precisely what we’re doing. But there’s a lot of things that are going into the food that people don’t know anything about. They don’t know that we pay three times as much for olive oil as we would need to. I could just buy olive oil and they would never know. And we don’t even really talk about it. But that’s OK. Sometimes I think people just get it when they eat, and that’s fine.
So you’re purchasing for the shop and the restaurant at the same time, right?
Right. An animal comes in — let’s call it a deer — Tuesday night. Wednesday, they start breaking it down. It gets made into sausage; some of that sausage is served in the dining room and some of it’s sold out of the case, raw. The chops get cut, and they go to us on the hot line. They’re grilled and served out here, typically on a Wednesday or Thursday night. We make stock and sell that retail, or we use that in our cooking. Then we make rillettes, and that’s again sold retail and also put on the cold meat board at night. It goes here and there and then at the end, Julia the butcher will be like, I’ve got too much backstrap. And I’ll take that and I’ll put that on the menu out here in the restaurant, or we don’t sell all the sausages, so we put them back in the case. It’s kind of a flow, and it works beautifully.
Do you find that customers are cool with not knowing you can come here and get a certain cut?
That’s education, and the beauty of that is that it usually happens at the counter. People walk in and ask for beef tenderloin. We’re typically going through one cow a week, maybe 1.5, and that’s going to give us two or three tenderloins. That’s going to go really fast.
We feel that we have to use the whole animal and move it — we’re not going to bring in boxes of tenderloins. It’s the way that we function, and it’s the best way for the rancher, and it’s utilizing the whole animal. The bright side is, “Well if you love tenderloin, can we recommend this culotte?” And then we’ll describe why tenderness isn’t necessarily the best thing. It might have a little more structure, texture, and more flavor.
Or, “If you like beef tenderloin you’re going to love this Pere David venison backstrap. Try this out, this is an invasive species — you’re doing double good, eating a very healthful meat and you’re also helping control population of an invasive animal.” And you just thought you were coming in to buy beef tenderloin, and you’re walking out of here with some exotic venison cut and it’s beyond just raised where it doesn’t have much of an impact, but it has a positive impact.
Do you operate the restaurant and butcher shop as separate businesses when it comes to budget and goals?
Financially we do monitor them separately, but I think of them as one business. That’s the prep part, and this is the heart, the warm part. Even the design — it goes from white to more warm colors back here. I really still think that everything we’re making and the values we choose to instill in our staff is that we are not two separate teams. We are one team, and we are just helping each other out constantly. The people working the line, if they’re caught up they’re going to help out down there. So far we’ve done a really good job of keeping the businesses together.
Financially, of course, it’s divided out. We have different margins for both. But I like to think of it as a holistic approach.
What would you find in the butcher shop on a regular day?
There’s a few mainstays. Chicken liver mousse, venison breakfast sausage, wild boar chorizo — those are just about the only things we’re going to have all the time. Everything else is somewhat of a rotating schedule.
Our roasting hens are really good; we do a brined roasting hen. We’ve always done that. In that context, with that chicken farmer we spend… I mean, it’s not a ton of money, but it’s good money. We’ve been a consistent customer with them for probably four years now. Every week they know that we’re spending money with them, and that feels really good. There’s two other businesses that we’re into it a quarter of a million dollars a year each with them: our beef, and then the guy that brings us our venison and our hogs. Those are serious numbers. That feels really good to be able to put that into a local economy instead of some nebulous conglomerate.
Obviously it’s more expensive to buy locally and from a sustainable producer, but do you make some of that up by buying whole animals and doing everything in house? Where is that balance?
The balance usually comes from the whole animal, because a ribeye and a bone cost us the same amount. It’s not to say that it’s cheap, but it helps. It’s the only way that we can make it work.
Our labor cost is also very, very high, because we constantly need people making everything: shredding cabbage, peeling lemons to preserve them, doing everything by hand.
How many people do you have on staff?
Wow. And how many seats are in the restaurant?
56. And then we’re about to add 20 more seats outside.
Is it profitable overall to take on those costs instead of outsourcing them, or is it something you do because you believe in it?
That’s not the issue. The issue is, how do we make what we do profitable?
It’s not whether it’s profitable. It has to work. We’re trying to prove a point that a more fractured food system based on a multitude of small producers and people interested in financially supporting them — our interest is making that viable. We don’t have a choice.
We’ve chosen the way we source, and we have a very high standard of what we bring in. It is not something that someone from business school would look at and say, that’s a great idea. But it puts the burden on us to be flexible and creative. We make it work.
We’re not just a bunch of hippies trying to do the right thing, because the first step in sustainability is financial sustainability. If you’re doing something great and you go out of business, you’re not doing anything great anymore. We have to stay in business and succeed and be financially profitable in order to pay our investors back, in order to keep the people that we’re trying to support paid.
If something’s not working then we attack it, or we have classic loss leaders and other things, things that don’t make that much money, and then we recoup that on other things. I think we’re a very good deal. Some people don’t; people think that it’s very expensive and it’s like, well, almost everything is based on a very formulaic approach. If you feel that the asparagus was too expensive, it’s because we paid a lot for the asparagus. It’s just how much it’s got to be to keep the lights on.
Are your clients the same for the restaurant and the butcher shop?
Yeah, for the most part. A lot of people come in and eat and stop on their way out and shop at the butcher shop. A lot of familiar faces, people that have been with us for years.
Are there some cuts or items that you get that you’d only serve in the restaurant and some you would definitely put in the butcher shop?
Sure, we only serve pork chops in the restaurant because we sell so many of them. We don’t have the ability to put it in the case because we sell every one of them.
What are your tips for other chefs or restaurateurs who are interested in expanding their butchery program or starting something in house?
The most important thing is finding an outlet for all the pieces and no matter what your projections are, it’s going to come up differently. With a whole animal, it’s like you’re starting 10 races at once and you want everyone to cross the finish line at the exact same time. It’s a real trick, because if you have too many bones piling up, that problem’s not going to go away with the next whole animal you’re bringing in. And if you start throwing things away, then the point is lost.
You have to find an attractive and salable outlet for every single bit of it — which is why we put a restaurant on here, because we knew that in selling things, this is the best outlet for a lot of the items that come off the animal, like stew meat, brown meat and bones, and off-cuts, and things you don’t have a lot of.
We projected that the restaurant would be 80% of our sales volume versus 20% in the butcher shop, and we were dead on with that. I would not want to run a butcher shop. It would be very challenging. But the restaurant is a pressure release on that, and vice versa in a way.