“Hey, Carolyn, how’s your mom?! She still working at the salon?” Ted asks as he jags up to the butcher counter. He has a compact frame and is always moving with intensity.
Not the random chaos of say, a chicken with its head cut off, Ted is THE supreme commander of his domain: Shawn & Ted’s Quality Meat Market.
“Good, good,” I say. “She’s not working at the salon anymore, but helping a lot around our house these days,” I add.
Normally, I avoid small talk like the handle of the grocery store restroom.
It’s repugnant to me because it usually feels forced and insincere. I realize it’s a necessary social norm to the alternative of living off the grid with squirrels for friends or Starbucks in Alaska. I know that seems harsh, but really, who enjoys small talk?
An example: There’s a coffee shop I purposely avoid (of course Karma designs that it’s my husband’s favorite coffee shop) because the barista has referred to me as Caroline for the last 10 years AND because during a “serving” of small talk, he said, “You know I always think of you and your husband whenever I watch that show Mike and Molly … because you’re a writer and she’s a writer.”
Who wouldn’t want to be compared with a 300- pound fictional character who met her husband at Over Eaters Anonymous?
However, there is one scenario where I appreciate the lost art of small talk and that is when it’s authentic and has a purpose, like my brief but informative conversations with Ted.
When you walk in to Shawn & Ted’s Quality Meat Market in the Renton Highlands it’s like walking into that one-time-fictional bar where everybody knows your name … literally, I’m not kidding, Ted knows your name. It is so important to Ted to remember every customer’s name that he even has a little cheat sheet taped to the butcher case with crib notes of descriptions of customers who for whatever reason he has a tough time remembering.
But there is a purpose to it … he actually cares about his customers and believes it’s vital to reinforcing the feeling of a fun old-time country atmosphere and extremely customer focused.
Ted’s my butcher and after eight years of being a weekly customer at his Renton Highlands butchery, he’s a friend. With summer feeling like it’s already here, I had to stop by and get some grilling tips from tips from Ted.
I was having a huge cookout at our house. I had ordered a couple of racks of baby back ribs, Kalbi marinated short ribs (a mixture of teriyaki, ginger, brown sugar and red pepper flakes), chicken thighs, a handful of brats, three pounds of extra lean ground beef and a few New York strip steaks.
I always over or undercook the steaks and so wanted to get some advice from Ted.
When I walked in, “Free Bird” was floating on the air waves at Shawn & Ted’s and I hung back behind the counter by the freezer and waited for him to finish helping his customer.
“Hey Bob, what are you going to cook with that ground beef?” Ted asked.
“We’re doing some grilling,” Bob replied. “Not sure if I should get the lean or extra lean.”
“If you’re grilling, Bob, definitely go with just the lean ground.”
I horned in, “Hey Ted, I just ordered a bunch of extra lean ground beef for burgers that I’m grilling up tonight, did I mess up?” I asked.
Of course he had a solution.
“You’ll be fine, just make sure that when you grill ground beef, especially extra lean DO NOT press the burger into hard patties. Keep it fluffy and loose. Compressing the air out makes the burger dense like a hockey puck.”
There is something satisfying when the grill is piping hot and the cheese is beginning to melt to press down the spatula on the patty and hear all the juices sizzle as they splatter on the flame in a showy display of grilling prowess.
“Another thing,” Ted shared with Bob and me, “never take your spatula and press really hard when it’s sizzling on the grill, because what you are doing is pressing out all the fat, juices and flavor.”
Note to self: don’t be a grill show off!
I watched Ted add up Bob’s purchase the will they all do at Shawn & Ted’s, by hand on the back of the butcher paper.
After Bill left, Ted waived me over for a “working” interview: I watched while he trimmed and cut.
First Ted slipped out what he called, a “Primal Cut.” Essentially a gigantic side of beef the size of a sack of Russet potatoes.
Watching Ted handle that Primal Meat was pure artistry. Using a sharp knife that reminded me of an Arabian sword with the curved tip sliding it this way and that way like a surgeon. Trimming the white fat with a practiced hand.
We talked about where his passion for customer “It’s important because you just don’t get that kind of service anymore. I spend so much time here that my friends are my customer service comes from.
“I learned to remember everyone’s name from Pike Place market, Crystal Meats, established in 1947.”
It was at Crystal Meats in 1988 that Ted found his calling. Instead of heading off to Bellevue College to be an accountant, Ted stayed put working 80 hour weeks at Crystal Meats.
“I learned the value of customer service from a very personable meat market and fell in love with the energy of the place and the customers.”
Crystal Meats went out of business in 2012 and so prompted Ted and his business partner Shawn to open Shawn & Ted’s Meat Market in Renton.
“My absolute favorite thing is to have a customer walk in and say that I was right about the beef choice. On a holiday I take pride in knowing that I’m a part of people’s conversation by just doing my job the way it should be done.”
Which is why Ted always tries to ask his customers what they plan on cooking with the meat they purchase.
“Three out of 10 people are buying the wrong meat for what they are trying to accomplish. Technically, our stew meat is the most tender when cooked correctly. But people buy a piece of meat, take it home, cook it incorrectly and they never come back because they think the meats not good.”
Which is why Ted likes to provide an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to ask questions and who also appreciate the quality service and product that they provide.
Customer service is a lost art. These days there’s not a lot of talking and communication.
There was also a pile of slivered New York steak trim and fat strips piled up and then wrapped up with care almost like a meat present.
I asked Ted what advice he would give to grillers this summer.
“Don’t give up! After 28 years I still learn something new every day. Just cook, don’t get caught up in it and don’t be afraid to mess up or ask questions, that’s what I’m here for!”