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Who does the butchering? It matters.

Here's the beef
By JENNIFER CARTER Staff Writer

Steve Andal stands at the front counter of Andal's Custom Meats. Andal's father, Ivan, started the business 50 years ago.
Photos by Frank Varga / Skagit Valley Herald

Andal family aims to expand retail sales

Andal's Custom Meats used to be out in the country. These days, it's only about a mile outside of town.

Steve Andal's custom butchering business still sits on the same site where his father started it 50 years ago, on Hickox Road, near the southern edge of Mount Vernon.

"The city came to us," Andal said.

Now Andal hopes to draw city-dwellers to the business to buy steaks, chicken, jerky and specialty smoked meats from a glass-front refrigerator case in the crowded front office.

It's been half a century since Ivan Andal, a meat manager at Thrifty Foods, started doing custom butchering for hunters and farmers in his garage. It was a hobby at first, but by 1965 Andal was tired of working for retail stores. He decided to work for himself, doing custom butchering full-time.

With a truck equipped as a mobile slaughterhouse, Andal provided "field-to-freezer" service for local farmers. He would slaughter livestock in the owners' fields and take them back to Andal Custom Meats. There he would age the meat to make it more tender, cut it to the specifications of each owner and freeze it.

 

Livestock owners still pull into the business's long driveway to pick up tidy packages of frozen meat wrapped in white paper. Steve Andal, 55, joined his father in the business after he graduated from high school in 1968. When Ivan Andal died of lung cancer in 1977, his son took over.

Bigger cut for retail sales

Custom slaughtering for small farms still makes up around 80 percent of the business, but Steve Andal said he hopes that will change. As the number of small farms declines and the city's population increases, Andal hopes retail sales will become a larger part of his business.

"I think that's where the future's going to be," he said.

The custom slaughter business hasn't been bad, either. Andal said he's been knocking down walls ever since he took over to make room for an expanding business. Andal still provides field-to-freezer service out of the latest incarnation of the Andal's Custom Meats mobile slaughterhouse, a truck he customized in 1980. Most of his customers are in Skagit and Island Counties, but he'll go farther afield if the customers are there.

Darla Sullivan (left) bones beef for hamburger at Andal's Custom Meats while Fred Andal uses a band saw to make choice cuts and Cathy Andal wraps meat.

That won't change, Andal said, even if the retail business picks up.

"We'll always do the custom," he said. "That's how we started."

The original building was large enough to process three head of cattle at a time, but the current one has room for 85 to 90. Carcasses hang in one of three walk-in coolers for about two weeks after slaughter. The aging breaks down the muscle, giving the meat more flavor.

"In the fall, we're just wall-to-wall here," Andal said.

Andal's Custom Meats remains a small, family operation. Andal's cousin, Fred Andal, runs the retail end of the business. He's worked with Steve Andal for 28 years. Steve's wife, Kay, does the books and Fred's wife, Cathy, wraps meat and helps customers. The Andals usually hire about four people during the fall, when demand for custom slaughter services peaks.

The custom business falls off by Christmas, and that's when Andal relies on the year-round nature of retail sales. He launched the retail side of the business over a decade ago.

A 400-square-foot walk-in freezer just off the driveway holds crates and shelves of neatly wrapped and labeled packages. In the fall, Andal said, the freezer is so full there are only narrow paths to walk between the crates of packages.

He uses labels to keep different customers' meat segregated from start to finish. Each carcass aging in the coolers and each white paper-wrapped package in the freezer is marked with the owner's name or for retail sale.

Andal said the majority of his customers are hobby farmers, who raise small numbers of animals and like to know they are getting meat from the animal they raised. He said he prides himself on always returning meat to its proper owner.

No antibiotics or hormones

U.S. Department of Agriculture rules allow custom meat cutters to butcher and return uninspected meat only to the animals' owners. They may also sell custom cuts of USDA-inspected meat.

For retail sales, Andal buys certified Angus beef, pork and chicken from a Lynnwood supplier. The animals are raised without antibiotics or added hormones in Eastern Washington, and slaughtered at federally inspected packing houses there.

Andal said independent meat cutters have found a niche market as consumers seek meat that is fresh, high in quality and raised without growth hormones and antibiotics.

"People trust the small operator," he said. "We've been here forever."

Andal said concerns about food safety at large packing plants also push customers toward independent butchers. In 1993, after hundreds of people in the Northwest got sick from E. coli contaminated hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants, Andal's business boomed.

"I sold all the hamburger I had in a day and a half," he said.

Andal said his retail prices are usually competitive with those of larger supermarkets and discount stores. A sign at his store last week advertised New York steaks for $7.99 per pound.

He said meat the larger stores occasionally offer at deep discounts to draw customers can't compare to his in flavor and quality. "You get what you pay for in the meat business," he said.