Labor Day: The meat cutter
By SUSAN KANTOR/For The News-Gazette
Jeff Baumann always dreamed of owning his own business, and a career in meat cutting led him to fulfill that dream.
Baumann, 54, was majoring in aviation at the University of Illinois and worked at Jerry's IGA grocery store on Kirby Avenue in Champaign, a job he started when he was 16.
"After two and a half years of college, I was like, 'OK, what am I really doing here?' I didn't know what I wanted to do."
Baumann was working in the meat department, and when a meat-cutting job opened up, he left college to pursue that as a career. He started at $7.50 an hour as an apprentice in 1977.
"You just learn on the job. You start off, you don't know anything. They give you a knife and tell you not to cut yourself."
Baumann spent about a year as an apprentice. As a journeyman, he moved to $10 an hour.
Baumann moved up to grocery store management and later became a salesman for Meats Plus, a company in Loda that sells meat to grocery stores. He intended to buy the company.
"It was kind of always my long-range dream to own my own business. (Meat cutting) still is hard work. It's cold and you tend to get arthritis. I'd been doing it for about 20 years."
Baumann bought Meats Plus and, six and a half years ago, opened the Old Time Meat and Deli Shoppe at 2018 S. Neil St., C. The store sells beef, poultry, lamb, pork and seafood. Unlike at a typical grocery store, a meat cutter is available if the store is open. It sells prime and choice meat, the two highest grades.
The job of a meat cutter today is different from when Baumann began. He learned to cut entire quarters of animals that would be shipped to the store. Today, meat is broken down into smaller pieces. For example, a rib-eye piece of beef comes in and only requires slicing into individual steaks. While meat cutters years ago would have to lift 150-pound sides, today's meat cutters have to lift 60-pound boxes.
A new meat cutter at Baumann's store is taught how to cut and how thick the meat should be cut. The training period is between two and three months. Kristine Schew, the head manager of the store, has been cutting meat for one year and was trained by one of the in-house meat cutters in two months.
"It's still craft, I would say, but it's just easier, like most other jobs," Baumann said. "If you went to the plants where they slaughter, then they're doing those same things that we used to do onsite. They're taking that whole animal and breaking it down. That job is the same, but your craft comes from how precise you are in cutting. If you walk in and want a 12-ounce ribeye, well, I can take a rib-eye, take one cut, and it will be within half an ounce or an ounce."
Since his store opened, Baumann has had difficulty finding and keeping meat cutters.
"I think it's the culture of everybody has to go to college. Everybody has the 'that's kind of crappy work' syndrome. It's kind of like 'I don't want to be a car mechanic' or 'I don't want to be a garbage man,' 'I don't want to be a meat cutter.' It's got that stigma. You're not going to make $100,000, that's for sure. And it's cold and it's hard work compared to sitting at a computer. But it's a hell of a lot better than working at McDonald's."
It is possible to make a comfortable wage as a meat cutter. Most are paid between $15 and $20 an hour.
"If you're the best at it somewhere, someday, somehow, somebody is going to notice it and you're going to have a chance to go somewhere. I just think as parents, too many of us say you've got to go to college. No, no you don't. There are still jobs out there for people. You just have to have a passion for it. That's the most important thing," Baumann said.
Baumann didn't intend Meats Plus to become a family business, but three of his four sons are following in his path: meat cutter to businessman.
"I've got all three working here with the intention of eventually them buying the business from me," Baumann said. His fourth son is 13, so there aren't plans for him to join the business just yet.
His oldest son, Ryan, didn't like his job at a car dealership. With the high turnover of meat cutters in the first years of the store, Jeff asked his son if he would cut meat. Ryan learned the craft and moved on to become a salesman.
"It's very good training for our other business because you get that knowledge," Jeff Baumann said, "if they're back there cutting it and they know the lingo of the people they're going to be selling to."
Jeff's second-oldest son, Mark, earned a master's degree in sports management and worked for Human Kinetics, an Urbana book publisher. When he was laid off, he decided to learn to be a meat cutter.
"I came here to learn the business, as far as how the meat, what it's called, how it comes," Mark said. "I can learn it from this side first and then move up there. That's kind of the plan."
Mark started in January and became a salesman for Meats Plus this summer. Although he may cut meat if the opportunity arises at one of the stores he sells to, he doesn't share his father's passion for meat cutting.
"To me it doesn't matter what you do. You have to have a passion for what you do," Jeff said. "That was my passion – meat. And I just pursued that and worked hard at it and opportunities came up."