The Kosher Butcher: Surviving Amid Change

Demonstrating butchering at kosher butcher Fischer Bros. & Leslie on New York's Upper West Side (Photo by Leah Koenig via The Tablet)

Demonstrating butchering at kosher butcher Fischer Bros. & Leslie on New York’s Upper West Side (Photo by Leah Koenig via The Tablet)

Kosher butcher shops, long in decline in New York City and elsewhere, are finding ways to adapt and survive, writes Leah Koenig in The Tablet. The kosher butcher was once a mainstay of Jewish communities.

Like the synagogue and the mikveh (ritual bath), the skilled kosher butcher was once integral to settling a Jewish community. Without a source of kosher meat, a community would not sustainably grow. By the 1920s there were approximately 5,000 kosher butcher shops in the New York area, and another 5,000 spread across other U.S. cities. Often a single neighborhood, and sometimes a single street, would have multiple stores competing for the business of a discerning clientele.

Today, only a tiny fraction of those shops remain, leaving metropolises like Chicago and the Bay Area with just a single independent butcher, and other cities like St. Paul and Cincinnati with none.

The reason for the decline, writes Koenig, can be traced to supermarkets, whose butcher, bakery and other sections have, of course, decimated food shops – not just kosher butchers – in many communities. Contributing too was the growth in kashering (salting and soaking) at production houses, where large quantities of meat are kashered. Only a few butchers, like Fischer Bros. & Leslie on New York’s Upper West Side, still kasher their own meat whenever possible.

Fischer Bros. & Leslie’s owner, Paul Whitman, has overseen an expansion of the butcher’s business model.

Fischer Bros. & Leslie delivers meat downtown, to the Hamptons, and to people’s vacation homes upstate, and ships across the country with overnight FedEx.

Meanwhile, Whitman said, “many families now have two parents working out of the home, which means there is a greater need for prepared foods.” In response, approximately 40 percent of the store’s business is made up of foods cooked in its in-house kitchen: everything from potato kugel and kasha varnishkes to kale salad and quinoa with slivered almonds. Fischer Bros. & Leslie also makes rotisserie chicken, which can be difficult to find with kosher certification, and recently bought a sous vide machine to start experimenting with roast beef.

Go to The Tablet to read more about the history of kosher butchers in New York and elsewhere, and to learn about the oldest working kosher butcher in the country at Fischer Bros. & Leslie.

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