Eric Finley's been cooking since he was 16 years old, and about nine years ago he'd had about enough of it: "I basically wanted to find a day job and to specialize in something." He ended up with a position at Viande Sausage and Meats, and when its original owners (aka the Laurelhurst and Simpatica team) wanted to move on, Finley, along with his friend and colleague Paula Markus, took over and revamped the space as Chop Butchery & Charcuterie. "It was an easy transition for us moving in, all we had to do was come up with our own identity instead of being Viande," he says. "We wanted to come back to a more American approach as far as charcuterie and butchery goes."
That approach has definitely worked so far. In addition to its retail counter (at NW 21st Avenue's City Market) you can now find Chop's salami up and down the West Coast, and Finley is confident that its pâté products aren't close behind: "I don't know if anyone can touch us on our pâté." Of course, he's a little biased, but the long line of customers waiting at the PSU Farmer's Market says it all. Eater caught up with Finley to chat about the hours he spends hand stuffing salami while listening to country music, the awesomeness of his co-owner Paula Markus, and what's next for the butcher shop and USDA plant (located on N. Williams Avenue).
Do you remember the first time you broke down an animal?
Yeah, it was a hog — it was actually a wild boar that I broke down, that and chickens and rabbits and whatever. I did that in Hawaii and some stuff here and there in Texas where I worked, but I wasn't very good at it.
How did you go about getting better at it?
I'm self taught; I learned a lot under Paula and a lot by myself. Like with salami, for example, I learned by opening up a book. When we started the shop five-and-a-half years ago, we built a curing room down in our basement, and the first two months I started experimenting with salami. We started taking it to farmers markets and it was selling out like mad.
How did you and Paula Markus become friends?
Paula and I worked at the same restaurant back in the day. It was called Atwater's Restaurant and Bar, which is now the Portland City Grill. It was one of the higher-end restaurants back then. She and I had hit it off pretty well since day one, and we worked there for probably about three years. We knew wanted to branch out and do our own thing. And when the boys from Laurelhurst and Simpatica were like, "Do you guys want to buy the shop?" We were like, "Yeah!"
And Paula is one bad-ass butcher…
Paula runs the butcher counter, she's been there 11 years, so does basically everything to run that business. She does all the books, all the butchery, all the manaegment, all the ordering. She's the cornerstone: I believe of not only the butcher shop, but of City Market, as well. She's the first person you see when you walk in that door.
And she a tall, blonde hardcore lady butcher. I love her dearly, and I hope to see more female butchers coming into our profession. It's a very hard, tough, demanding job. When you're back behind the counter you're moving constantly. And we're so small that at any one time we only have three employees back there. So it's constant: cutting, helping, cutting, helping. And creating product, just to keep that case full. You're having to feed that case, plus making all the pate for farmers markets. Pretty much everything in that shop we make, and we make it behind that counter. It's a giant juggling act and she does it greatly. And she's got it down to a science.
What about the salami production side, walk us through a day in the life?
For the USDA plant, it's basically me and one other guy. So it's just two of us that work here. We get here at 6:30 in the morning, we clean, start cutting meat, grind it, and then we mix, and then we hand-stuff everything, and we hand-tie everything. To this day so we still use a hand stuffer, where larger places use a mechanical stuffer. We listen to a lot of country music and a lot of podcasts. And try not to drive each other crazy.
How much product are the two of you doing a day?
We're an extremely small production, the max we can do out of here is 450 pounds, which is microscopic comparatively. I'd say most days we only do 300 pounds. And that's it. And we leave by 3:30p.m. every day. Since we are with the USDA, our hours are from 7a.m. to 3:30p.m., so you can't go over that.
What would you say is the hardest part of your job?
The hardest part, for what I do now as far as making salami, is the fact that I do it every single day. Literally it's the same step every single day, and I've been doing that for three-and-a-half years. The first year I did it completely by myself — I did all of the packaging, all the production, just to see if I could do it. Now that I have someone full time, it still comes down to that we're stuck in a white room all day producing, and that can be really tough. Because of the production side of my job, my eyesight is bad. [Laughs] I just got these glasses on Friday. I went to the doctor and I said, "I can't see anymore." He asked me what I did for a living, I told him, and he said "Oh, yeah, that's it."
And the most rewarding part?
The most rewarding part is that I still work every farmers market on Saturdays. It's satisfying to go out there and sell our product to people. And hearing that they love the product — if I didn't have that, I think I would have gone insane by now. I do get that though; so it's good. Whereas, when you work the butcher counter, it's different because you are constantly talking to people all day long. And I just want to say, support your local butchers. Go to Laurelhurst, Old Salt, come to Chop, go to Gartners. New Seasons and Whole Foods? That's fine, but I don't think you're going to find that intimacy you find at a smaller shop. Plus those butchers work their asses off and they deserve the business.
What would you say is Chop's most popular product?
I wouldn't say one in particular, but I think we are really known for our pâtés. I'm not trying to come across as arrogant, but I don't know if anyone can touch us on our pâté. Once we got to the farmers market, we held the corner on the market as far as pâté goes. We have people coming from all over the county to get pâté, a lot of return customers who we see on a yearly basis for our venison pate or another specialty pâté. We'll do like two or three different ones each week. And I think we're known for our creativity, we're not just doing a pork pâté. And we're also getting to be known for our salami. We've started seeing our salami all over the city, up in Seattle, and down in LA.
What's in the cards for the future of the shop and salami production space?
We basically have two years left on our lease in this space. It's really cheap back here, and I don't want to move at this point. We are just going to hold fast for the next two years and let this grow as much as we possibly can. At that point we'll try to figure out what expansion means. So we want to be really smart. I've made a lot of mistakes along the way, I'm not planning on doing any more. I've learned from everything. [Laughs]
· Chop Butch ery & Charcuterie [Official site]
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