Finding high-quality cuts of meat has never been more difficult. Today there are barely 6,500 independent butchers, compared with more than 25,000 in 1977.
However, while more meat is being sold through supermarkets, there are signs of a revival in consumer demand for high-quality butchers.
In 1977, independent butchers made up almost half the market by volume of meat sold in the UK. Now they hold just 13.8 per cent of the £5.4bn retail market, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission, the industry regulator. In comparison, supermarkets make up 75 per cent.
“Butchery is more akin to an art than a science,” says David Lidgate, a prize-winning, free-range butcher whose family has run a shop in Holland Park, west London, for five generations.
Indeed, so carefully crafted is Mr Lidgate’s business that his turkeys for this Christmas are being fed on blackberries and the pigs used in his sausages munch on brambles. But there has not been much space for shops such as Lidgate’s on the high street.
Butchers are unusual among high street traders for the absence of chain stores. Those that there are seem in terminal decline. Dewhurst is Britain’s biggest chain of butchers, with 101 shops, down from 1,400 outlets in the 1970s. The next largest group is Walter Smith, with 30 shops mostly in the Midlands. Other than these two, there are few butchers with more than a handful of shops.
George Maunder is the new managing director of Dewhurst, his seven-shop family-owned chain having taken over the larger business in April. “Dewhurst has hardly survived. It was a dying chain,” he says.
But Mr Maunder intends to transform Dewhurst, which he says was “a very stereotyped butchers along one format” at the lower end of the market. He has begun the process of relaunching the chain as higher quality meat vendors, and intends to rebrand more than half the Dewhurst outlets.
“Whilst we might be a chain, what we are after is imitating small family-owned shops,” he says. “These are the people that are really succeeding.”
Although the trend of long-term decline in independent butchers remains, it has levelled out. Independent retailers’ sales by volume have contracted by just 2.4 percentage points since 2000 to 9.5 percent of the market, compared with a 10 percentage point drop in the five years before that.
Guy Attenborough, of the Meat and Livestock Commission, says: “The butchers that remain now are well-established businesses, and we are unlikely to see a substantial decline in the coming years.”
Graham Bidston, chief executive of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders, the industry body, agrees. “Closure rate is lower than it ever was. Supermarkets say themselves that it would be difficult to take any more of the market away. The situation has stabilised,” he says.
Despite shoppers’ growing interest in quality and healthy foods, butchers have missed out on organic products. The Soil Association put butchers’ share of the market in organic meat at just 1-5 per cent, compared with their larger market share in meat as a whole.
But with crises such as BSE, foot-and-mouth and the avian bird flu making headlines, customers have be-come more sanguine about abandoning independent butchers. “People tend to go independents when there is a crisis on for some reason – they seem to have more confidence in them,” says Mr Bidston.
David Lidgate says his shop is “doing well on the back of public fears of buying a mass produced product. BSE really helped us, because we knew where the meat came from. Bad publicity always helps.”
Mr Bidston says that avian flu has raised issues for butchers ordering for this Christmas. “Their problem is whether to order the same number of turkeys and possibly get stuck with them. Butchers have got to make a commercial judgment.” But he does not expect the crisis to have a big impact on business. “The meat industry is very flexible. Two months hence, consumers will be better informed and things will have settled down.”
Mr Lidgate puts the survival of his own shop down to the ability to introduce new products, something that has facilitated the change in his business from a workforce of just four when he began in the trade, to the “small factory” of 40 he now employs.
“We had to move on. Now you can come into the shop and buy a whole three-course meal. The deli side of the shop brings in 30 per cent of our money,” he says.