Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
As part of The Five Days of Meat, Eater had the chance to talk with Louis Esposito, third-generation co-owner of Esposito's Meats located in the heart of Philly's Italian market. Even after a 12-hour day, Louis was willing to have a lengthy conversation about the family business - now in its 103rd year of operation - and life as a butcher.
Like many children of parents that run a small business, Esposito found himself working at an early age in the shop. Before there was any slicing of meat, however, there were small tasks and floors to sweep. While a more traditional story would have Esposito working his way up slowly through the ranks, Louis chose to pursue a career in law before eventually ending up back in the family business.
Working alongside his brother Lee, Louis Esposito provides beef, pork, lamb, veal, poultry, and seafood to the Philly market. Their retail storefront handles the consumer side, while their commercial operation, tucked in the back of the building, provides product to many of Philly's top restaurants, including several Stephen Starr operations.
[Photo: Dan McKay/Eater Philly]
Eater Philly: So what made you want to transition from the legal field back to the family business?
Louis Esposito: The food business — while you certainly wouldn't call it life-or-death — is often critical. Timing, emergencies, problems that pop up, customers who need it now — those things have to be dealt with very quickly, because you are dealing with perishable products. You can't talk about something for weeks and weeks, like you do in law to perpetuate legal fees, ya know? In the food business you have to deal with issues quickly and put them to bed and move on. That's not how the legal system works. You don't make money if you are fast in the law.
Was it your parents' hope all along that you would come back to the business? Go out on your own, only to return?
I think they knew. This was sort of a gesture to my dad — he was supposed to go into law school and wound up going into World War II. When he came back, he couldn't sit at a desk any longer. He'd seen too much, done too much. [Going to law school], it seemed like it was his wish. But I always knew I'd end up in the food business.
Along those lines, how's it working with your brother? Are there other family members working at Esposito meats?
My brother, he's my partner and we're very close. We can have differences of opinion when it comes to business, and we are able to keep that on the side and get past it. We sort of have a division of labor: He's more involved in the retail business and I'm more involved in the hotel/restaurant side. We've divided the areas of responsibility, but we support each other.
So does Esposito's do more business on the retail side or with the hotel/restaurant industry?
I'd say the lion's share of business is in the hotel/restaurant industry.
What happens in typical day of work for you? What's it like to run a butcher's shop?
Show up about six...
So early mornings.
The way we're set up, we are still a very service-oriented industry. People are putting in orders all night, in the morning, throughout the day — so you're always reacting and under pressure. It's become a business of frequent deliveries and low inventories on the restaurant end. Timing is critical. You come in, deal with the day, and try to get everything done before you have to start over.
Any breaks throughout the day?
It's fairly continuous, We have 12-hour days divided up somewhat, but nothing ever comes to a stop.
Having been here since your teens, have you seen the Italian Market change over the years?
It's evolved, but it's continued to be a vibrant market. The area has seen an influx of different waves of immigrants over the past 25 years — Korean to Vietnamese to Hispanic — but it's continued to be an ethnic market with a strong Italian heritage. A lot of anchor businesses have been here close to 100 years, just like ours.
Along with the evolution of the neighborhood, have consumers changed with what they're looking for? Are they more knowledgeable, looking for different types of products that you wouldn't have seen 20 years ago?
Fringe items that used to be very ethnic, along with by-products, are becoming a staple on many menus now. Things like pork cheeks, veal cheeks and flat iron steaks, which 30 or 40 years ago was a pot roast.
It seems like those simpler, lesser-known cuts have been getting more expensive, too.
No one asked for those items, food service-wise, until the past six or seven years ago. But it was always part of our repertoire because of the retail side (of the business). Same way with hanging tenders. We used to sweep them off the floor of the truck because they were sort of a throwaway item. No one wanted them.
So what is a hanging tender?
The animal only has one. It's in the inner cavity and just hangs there. It's been called the diaphragm, but whether it is or not, I don't know. But it's a muscle that really doesn't have a whole lot of purpose. Meat used to be shipped hanging, swinging, and it used to fall to the floor during the shipping process. Now it's an extremely expensive piece of meat. [Ed note: readers might be familiar with it on menus as hanger steak].
How would you go about cooking a hanging tender?
Grilled like a normal piece of meat.
What's your favorite piece of meat?
And how do you cook it?
I'm a traditionalist. No barbecue sauce. Very little in terms of marinades or rubs. Maybe some seasoning after cooking, but I'm a beef lover and tend to be pretty straightforward.
Shifting gears a little bit, with the rise of food culture and the celebrity of chef life, how do you feel about the changing perception of being a butcher? Traditionally, it's been a more blue-collar job; nowadays, maybe it's a little more accepted as a hipster profession?
It's still hard work. Everything we produce has to pass federal inspection, and meat coolers are damp and cold — 40 degrees. The glamour aspect? A lot of the television overstates it somewhat, but I will say there is a renewed appreciation in the local butcher. In this particular market, we never really lost that since we never went to a pre-packed, self-service type of butcher shop. We interact with the customers, ask them what they want. It's an old-fashioned presentation.
Do you find customers walking in, looking a little lost sometimes?
Well, that's where the butcher can come in and impart a little knowledge, especially if they have recipes that require certain ingredients and might not be aware of the cost involved.
Final question - if there was anyone out there that was an aspiring butcher, maybe without the family connections that you had, what would you recommend as a career path?
Well, I'd tell them to think about it first, not to make a hasty decision. But it can be rewarding work. Some people love to work with their hands. Some people are masters with carving wood, others are masters with a butcher's knife.
— Dan McKay