Jess’s dad was a meat cutter here in Boise and so was his grandfather. It’s something of a family trade. Jess is the man behind the counter at Meats Royale on Overland, owned by Rob and Melody Rand, it’s one of those “old timey” butcher shops that have recently come back into popular favor.
The reemergence of thinking local has led many to seek out products that are produced locally and then sold by local merchants. The buy-local movement has only helped the renewed relationship between cattlemen and pig farmers and our local butchers. Some say it has given us a chance to experience a quality of meat “far superior to the feedlot zombies we’ve become accustomed to eating.” Our current tendency to prefer one-stop-shopping certainly has endangered the art of the butcher, but what was once a “dying breed” has actually experienced something of a resurgence.
Jess said that today the biggest threat to their business is the massive buying power of the large chain companies; whose actions can upset the conditions here in an instant, and often they do. The butchers and the cattlemen just carry on with their business as best as they can, as they seem to have done now for generations.
When Boise was founded it relied on the few shops in town that specialized in meats. The Capital Meat Market on Main Street opened in 1878. Cy Jacobs’ mill and distillery specialized in smoke cured hams and bacon. Each of these men butchered their own animals, and made use of as much of the animals as was possible. An important difference to note, Jess was sure to remind me that he was no butcher; he was simply a meat cutter. See, the butchers do the killing and the skinning, he just did the cutting. Before the turn of the 19th century, butchers did most of their own work after they purchased the animals and sometimes they raised them too.
Susan Williams, Boise’s first woman-butcher, took up what was then “a man’s work” as a “force of circumstance.” In 1887 Susan’s husband, a cattle rancher outside of Emmett was having a hard time selling his cattle for a decent price. He decided to open a butcher shop in downtown Boise rather than feed his lot over the winter or sell them for a loss. Williams set up a slaughterhouse near the river, hired George Gumpert, a proper butcher, and opened his shop on 8th and Idaho Streets
The completion of the railroad changed the way products could be imported and exported, but until the refrigerated rail car, beef was primarily bought and sold locally. Thanks to the railroad and their refrigerated rail cars, five companies went about capturing the whole of the American meat market.
By 1900 the large packing houses on the East Coast were making their way into local trades.
In 1903 Boise butchers got organized, and together they each consented to meeting the new Pure Food laws that were passed under what was called a “crusade against impurities in meats” (IDS Nov. 28, 1903). This maintained an even field of competition for Boise butchers. By 1910 the owners of Boise’s butcher shops had organized into the Boise Beef Trust. It controlled the prices each company in the trust paid to local cattlemen and hog farmers, that way they could ensure that no one was out-competed. Eventually, some of these same companies were suspected of collusion and of price fixing for their singular benefit. A small few were charged with paying the cattlemen less than what the stock was worth, charging the customer more money for the products purchased, and even shorting the customer on weights, but they were not charged with manipulating market prices, creating shortages, encouraging hording, or generally interfering in the livelihood of many others; the unintended consequences of their growth and cooperation.
The regulation of the meat trade increased through the twentieth century. The problem with an “increasingly mechanized meat industry is that the distance between the original product and the consumer gets wider all the time” and these regulations were meant to fill in the gaps. The federal government proposed to be the eyes and ears of the public, to ensure that each step of the process was safe and healthy, and to reassure the public that they were consuming food that was handled in a safe environment. This also ensured that the meat was sterilized and isolated from the market it was sold to.
If Meats Royale feels ‘old timey’ it’s probably because, well, it is. The building at 6300 Overland operated as a milk dispensary for years, but it has been a butcher shop since it traded hands in the 1960s. It has a clean and intimate setting. The men behind the counter are excited to hear what the customer wants, and are happy to help anyone with questions about their product. They buy local, fresh, and all natural meats. They cater to local hunters, and are now gearing up for the wild game season that keeps them busy through the fall and winter. These guys handle every order themselves, and they know exactly what is going into their products. At Meats Royale the consumer doesn’t have to worry about the infamous ‘pink slime’ (known in the industry as lean-fine-trim-beef or LFTB) that McDonald’s has since had to stop using in their products. The work is a skill and it is an art. It is dangerous and it is physically demanding. But these men take pride in their work and hope to give back to the customer the same care and support that they’ve received along the way.
Have a question about Boise’s history? Ask a Historian.
Azzam, Azzeddine M., Anderson, Dale G. “Assessing Competition In Meatpacking: Economic History, Theory, and Evidence” United States Department of Agriculture (May 1996)
 Paul Kita, “The Butcher is Back!” in Men’s Health Magazine vol. 27 issue 2 (March 2012) pp. 114-119
 “The Story of Boise’s First Woman Butcher” Idaho Daily Statesman (IDS) Jan. 2, 1949
 Arthur Baker, “Boise my Boise” IDS Jan. 29, 1979
 Meat Trust is Guilty IDS January 23, 1910 through April 30, 1910
 Perry Swisher, “Meat: The Public has Beef” Intermountain Observer (November 30, 1968) p. 6A