As manager of the Corti Bros. Market meat department, master butcher Mike Carroll has been a familiar face for 37 years. He’s the guy who will cut a steak to your specs and suggest how to cook it. He’s the guy who singlehandedly corned 3,000-plus pounds of brisket each St. Patrick’s Day.
“Beef has been great to me,” he said.
Carroll, 56, is retiring Friday, Oct. 30 (“I thought Halloween would be a good time to go”), but will return part-time in December to “supervise” the hectic holiday rush. After that, he plans to travel with his wife, spend time with family and hang a “gone fishin’ ” sign whenever possible.
Q: How did this start?
A: I began here as a bagger in 1978, but on my lunch hours and breaks, I would sit in the back room and watch the guys cut meat. I ended up working in (the meat departments) of all four Corti stores (in the 1980s). We had six or seven journeymen meat cutters in every store, so I learned a lot.
Q: What was it like in the back room?
A: There were whole (livestock caracasses) hanging in the cooler, and we broke down beef, lamb, hogs and veal. But we had to stop (the time-consuming task of) breaking down cattle because we couldn’t keep up with beef sales. We started bringing in primals (beef sections) in boxes, and still do, but we still have to cut the meat. A lot of stores don’t cut meat anymore, it comes in Cryovac packages. All they do is price it and display it.
Q: Is meat today better than it was in decades past?
A: The quality is better than it’s ever been, and there are more flavor profiles. More local growers are better at raising animals than they’ve ever been. Also, there are a lot more federal controls making sure that things are safer for consumers.
Q: What’s been the effect of rising beef prices over the years?
A: We had to think up new approaches and look for cheaper cuts. We’d take a Diamond Jim roast and cut it into barbecue steaks. We introduced the T-major roast (beef chuck shoulder) and brought back the (forgotten cuts of) flat iron and hanger steaks.
Q: What are some of your memorable accomplishments?
A: Our prime beef program has overtaken our choice beef program. We were the first to “cradle” rib roasts, removing the meat from the bone and then tying them together, and a lot of people copied that. I introduced pre-seasoned and marinated cuts (leg of lamb, tri-tip). One of the things I’m most proud of is our cradled lamb loin.
Q: Are customers better educated than ever?
A: Yes, because of the Internet. Sometimes they’ll ask me questions that maybe I don’t have answers for. I have to stay up with (current knowledge) or ahead of it.
Q: You grind your own beef, and one best-seller is Mike’s Ultimate Burger Blend.
A: It’s prime chuck, prime London broil and whole brisket, ground daily. Sometimes we’re missing one of the muscles (such as hard-to-source prime chuck) and we can’t make the blend that day because I won’t substitute any other meats. So we have to tell customers we don’t have any. I’ve had them walk straight out the door in a huff.
Q: Got a good story?
A: It was Christmas time, we were very busy and I noticed a lot of people standing in front of the meat counter, but they weren’t being waited on. I went up to one of our (meat department clerks) and said, “Why aren’t these customers being helped?” She said, “Mike, they’re in line waiting to pay for their groceries.” That’s how far back they were from the checkout stands. I said, “Oh ... .”
Meat department manager at Corti Bros. Market, 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 736-3800; www.cortibrothers.com.