There’s something about a good local butchery that inspires slavish loyalty in customers. You’ll find followers queuing down the street at crucial times of the year. There are still quite a few dotted around the country, but their numbers are dwindling. The ones that survive and thrive do so because they have a point of difference. Warkworth Butchery is one of those. Owner Rob Lees did his apprenticeship in Christchurch in a traditional butchery. It was owned by ‘a rather difficult character’ as Rob delicately puts it, and there was a high staff turnover. Rob estimates that during his first five years he’d worked with 35 butchers. But no experience is wasted – and it made him realise what kind of boss he’d eventually like to become.
The Warkworth Butchery is both old and new: there’s been a butchery on this spot for around a hundred years, but Rob and Renee Lees have breathed new life into it since they bought it in 2014. When they took over the ‘Stubbs Family Butchery’ it was in a sorry state and took a few months to get it going again.
“Local customers seemed really keen for a good butcher to be part of the main street again though,” recalls Rob. “They’d come in with advice and opinions both personal and business-minded. They really seemed to have a sense of community ownership – it was pretty awesome!” He applauds the effort some customers make to shop here and judging by rapturous testimonials from locals now, they are equally full of praise for Rob’s service.
With canny forethought, Rob has positioned the butchery at the top end of the market – for quality and consistency, but not price. Everything is made on the premises: sausages, black pudding (the latest ‘superfood’), white pudding, salamis, chorizo, ham and, of course, their prize-winning bacon. Having his own smokehouse on site is a big plus for Rob. “We sell a lot of bacon,” he says rather ruefully, and you get the feeling it’s a huge understatement.
Most importantly, everything is ethically farmed and free-range, and a lot is organic. Plus, they tend to use single suppliers – they find the good ones and stick with them to build long-term relationships.
Matt Macfarlane at the Wharf Street Bistro over the road says that Rob’s lamb and pork belly is second to none. “Rob being able to source great free-range meat is a real selling point for us,” he says. “He’s been known to come in on a Sunday when I’ve needed something urgently. And he does an amazing smoked brisket just for the bistro. We certainly appreciate having him just over the road!”
Free-range and organic however, are labels that have their pros and cons. “People perceive anything with these tags as expensive, but most of our meat is cheaper than the supermarket,” says Rob. “I hate waste, so I price it to move.”
The window is nothing less than art. “Yeah, we know how to put on a show. But we get our biggest kick out of service. We like to get to know our customers. It’s more than just ‘have a nice day’. We know their kids’ names and we know where they’ve all been on holiday. It’s a real, personal service and that’s what we love most about this business.”
As well as your usual beef, pork (Freedom Farms free-range) and lamb (Southdown, from the Kaipara), there’s venison and wild goat, duck, ostrich, pheasant, quail, pouisson, rabbit and hare. The game is mostly from the Fiordland company ‘Fair Game’, which produces wild food, but it’s fully inspected.
Rob’s turkeys are Croziers and the chickens are Bostock brand, from the Hawkes Bay. “We’ve been with them from when they first set up,” says Rob. “It’s a fantastic business – they even grow their own organic chook food. It takes any questions out of the equation, you know?”
Finally, there’s the knowledge. The same knowledge that allows everything to be made on site, and to order. (You can get natural-skinned, allergen-free sausages that are gluten, preservative and nitrate-free. With any additions you like, within reason.) If you’ve got a bit of a do coming up, Rob can also give advice on how-to, and how much. “If you’re cooking for a crowd it’s really easy to over-cater,” Rob says. “We tend to save people money by figuring out the right amount per person. And we’ll help you to get the best out of your meat, in any situation.”
In just a couple of years, Rob and Renee have established a rapturous following in Warkworth, and brought a piece of history back to life. This is one traditional butchery that will be sticking around for a while.
www.warkworthbutchery.co.nz | 10 Queen Street, Warkworth | 09 425 9947