David Welch likes to joke that he started working in his father's meat market when it opened in 1953. He was 5 years old.
"But they didn't make me go full time until I was 12," he said.
Welch's Stop & Shop has moved twice since it opened in Griffith, Ind., near Gary. When it opened its newest store in St. John, Ind., in 1989, Welch didn't install a meat rack to hang sides of beef. By then, the meat they bought was already broken down and packed in 60-pound boxes.
The business was starting to shift: Customers were looking for heat-and-eat meals. Although customers don't come as frequently to Welch's as they used to, they are loyal at the holidays. Welch said his sales for Christmas and Easter were up about 10 percent this year — enough to make the butcher confident that his son, Edward, will keep the business running after he retires.
"Unfortunately, the majority of people don't care. They're looking for a cheap piece of meat," Welch said. "But we do fine. We're a specialty now."
Between 1997 and 2007, the number of meat markets in the United States declined from 7,214 shops to 5,896 — about 18 percent, according to the U.S. Economic Census. Americans stopped buying meat from shops like Welch's and hit the supermarket, loading their carts with prepackaged, cellophane-wrapped cuts of meat.
But that may be changing.
Mom-and-pop butcher shops started to suffer in the '80s as big box stores like Wal-Mart expanded, said Lamar Currie, who has taught meat merchandising at Hinds Community College, in Raymond, Miss., for 20 years. The majority of his students likely will work in grocery stores, he said. A few will hope to start their own meat markets, but many are worried they wouldn't be able to compete with bigger stores' prices.
"They're scared of failing," Currie said. "They want security."
And yet, with local food movements growing, many are seeing an opportunity to revive the traditional meat market.
In the Hudson River Valley's Kingston, N.Y., a 6-year-old butcher shop is thriving by specializing in local, free-range meat that hasn't been treated with pesticides or hormones. Fleisher's Grass-Fed and Organic Meats — which was featured in "Cleaving," Julie Powell's follow-up book to "Julie and Julia" — butchers whole animals provided by small, sustainable farms.
Fleisher's offers one- to eight-week courses in butchery, ranging in price from $2,000 to $10,000. Joshua Applestone, who owns the business with his wife, Jessica, said his courses are booked through summer and that he gets inquiries about them every day from around the world.
"This type of field is so new and sexy and awesome. The people who leave our store are rocking and ready to go," Applestone said. "They get jobs because no one knows how to cut meat anymore."
Applestone is consulting with a couple who came to him for training so that they could open a butcher shop in Los Angeles this fall modeled on Fleisher's. One of the students, Erika Nakamura, said that even her mother shops for meat at Costco, but that she hopes to educate people about other, more environmentally friendly options for purchasing meat.
"There's such a disconnect with food," Nakamura said. "It's changing slowly, but it's happening: People want to see where their food is coming from, whether it's from a farmer or a butcher."
It's a new twist on an old-school idea, Applestone said. People want advice about how to buy and cook their food. They're looking for better-quality product and a sense of community that you can't find in the refrigerator aisle.
"We don't sell meat," he said. "We sell trust."