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Like Sex in the City, but with meat: Toronto's gourmet healthy butcher scene

Peter Sanagan, a 33-year-old chef and former culinary instructor, belongs to a new generation of Toronto meat buyer who is concerned with where food comes from and how it gets from the farm to the plate. He is the most recent owner of 206 Baldwin Street which has been a butcher shop for more than 50 years. This past October Sanagan bought the iconic 400 square foot space and renamed it Sanagan's Meat Locker. Sanagan's motivation to run a small specialty butcher shop stems from his desire to provide quality local produce like the kind he prepared in the kitchens of high-end establishments such as Toronto's Mistura and The Falls Inn near Collingwood.

"In Ontario we're not as lucky as, say, California or Vancouver B.C. where they have a more temperate growing zone where vegetables have a longer season," explains Sanagan. "But meat is something we can do well and it's all year round."

Sanagan and his Meat Locker are just one of the many establishments in the city that have embraced and consequently helped spur on the trend of locally farmed meat. New York Times food and travel writer Adam Sachs recently showcased this trend in an article he published exploring what he calls Toronto's "serious love affair with all things meaty."

Though Sachs focused on restaurants like Black Hoof, where you can order a tongue and cheese sandwich, and Caplansky's Delicatessen, where smoked meat reigns supreme, he does note that "there is the newly hip interest in the butchering arts."

Most Toronto neighbourhoods feature a butcher who offers local produce. Meat on The Beach claims a long history in that east side neighbourhood; St. Lawrence Market boasts several butchers; Cumbrae's is in Cabbagetown and Rosedale hosts Oliffe -- just to list a few.

The Healthy Butcher is one of the newest stores to offer specialty and local meat. The original location opened in 2005 on Queen Street West and there are now additional locations in Kitchener and on Eglington Avenue West. Business has been so good (they serve 40,000-50,000 customers per year according to co-owner Mario Fiorucci) that they are soon launching an on-line ordering and delivery service.

When Sanagan took ownership of the butcher shop on Baldwin, he asked former co-worker Derek Easton to help him out. The original offer was for Easton to butcher a few days a week, just until things were operating smoothly. However, Easton never worked just a few days a week -- demand was so high that he has been on full-time since is first day (and Sanagan recently added student help from George Brown's culinary program).

"I know that this stuff will sell because it's good, but I didn't realize how many people prefer to come to a shop like this," says Sanagan.

The product does sell because of superior quality and taste (which is why foodies flock to butcher shops like Sanagan's) but Sanagan's Meat Locker and other specialty butcher shops attract all types: established professionals, different ethnic groups, and also a younger market concerned with personal, ecological and social health, such as registered nurse and fitness model Katie Vom Scheidt. The 26-year-old got all of her meat from a large chain supermarket until she heard through word-of-mouth that Sanagan's sells antibiotic-free chicken. Vom Scheidt, being a fitness and healthcare professional, was concerned about consuming antibiotics and hormones in her food. So she, like many others recently, changed her meat-buying habits and says she won't go back.

"You can definitely taste the difference and it just feels good to know that I'm putting something in my body that's not pumped full of hormones and chemicals," says Vom Scheidt.

Vom Scheidt's most common purchase, Sanagan's hormone-free, antibiotic-free and free ranged chicken breast, priced at $5.99 per pound, is on par with many supermarket prices for boneless, skinless breasts. It's the specialty items, such as hormone and antibiotic free top sirloin ($7.99 per pound at Sanagan's), which tend to be more expensive than the supermarket cuts.

Price is often the most contentious point for considering a switch to locally farmed meat. Farmers who don't use a factory farm model -- the method of raising livestock that uses confinement and biotechnology in order to produce the highest output for the lowest cost -- spend more money per animal. If animals are free-range there's more space to pay for and if they're free of hormones and antibiotics they take longer to become ready for slaughter (a cow raised without growth hormones takes eight more months to mature than a cow raised using hormones). There are also extra costs for the retailers who buy in smaller amounts as they don't receive the same bulk discounts supermarkets do. By the time an organic chicken hits the shelf it can be three times more expensive than its factory farmed cousin.

It's for this reason Sanagan refers to some of the movement towards local produce as a "privilege-trend." It's only available to those who can afford it.

The emergence of the 100-mile diet, (a.k.a. the locavore movement), can be linked to the trend towards local produce and away from factory farming. The locavore movement challenges people to only eat foods grown or harvested within 100 miles of their home. The founders claim "the choices we make about what foods we choose to eat are important politically, environmentally, economically, and healthfully."

Jacob Lay, a Traditional Chinese Medicine Practitioner at the Head to Toe Health Center in Kensington Market, sees the benefits of diets that include produce from local farms and free from additives.

"In a time and age where quantity has overcome quality many foods are pumped full of fillers and chemicals," Lay explains in an email. "Consuming any amount of pesticides, steroids, antibiotics and preservatives found on some food can inhibit our ability to absorb nutrients, interfere with hormone levels and put an increased demand on our body's ability to detoxify. This can lead to issues with the immune system, cognitive abilities and the digestive/eliminative system."

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