Turner & George: The new butcher’s on the block
With Smithfield Market down the road, St John Street residents are spoilt for choice with a range of quality meat suppliers. But if getting up at three in the morning is not your thing, there is another option. Richard Turner and James George, the team behind the East London Steak Company, an online meat supplier, rebranded their business and took over a closing butcher’s on St John Street last November. Six months later, George thinks they actually complement the market, rather than compete with it.
“I think the market is still 80% business to business,” he says. “The public, if they want to go up there, they gotta go up before seven o’clock. Not a lot of people like that.” At 39 years old, George is “the butcher side of the business” and learned the trade at the historic wholesale market where his father has worked for 60 years.
“I was studying advertising and wasn’t very happy. So I decided to quit the course, go back to my parents, and aimed at a kind of year-long stint at Smithfield before I decided what I was going to do, if I would resume education or pursue a career. But that year sort of turned into seven years,” he remembers while he is busy cleaning the tiled walls of his shop on a sunny Friday afternoon.
He just got comfortable, he says, so he stuck around and eventually set up his first company, sidestepping the market and supplying meat directly to restaurants. “When I was at Smithfield, I met a couple of chefs who were going up and buying their own meat. And it was basically a case of ‘well I could do that for you’, you know. And then, ten years later, I met Richard.”
Turner, the other half of the business, also brings a lot of meat-expertise to the table – as, among others, the executive chef of Hawksmoor and director of Pitt Cue Co., he knows the meaning of a quality cut of meat. When the East London Steak Company, an online-only business, turned out to be working for them, the pair thought it would make sense to open an actual shop.
“We work with small farms, for example we’ve got a beef farmer down in Devon who produces two animals a month, and we get those two animals. We got a pork farmer in Wales and they produce four animals a month, and we get those four animals. And they drive down the animals, they’re killed, they collect them and bring them to London, they deliver them to us.” That sounds about as direct as it gets, short of driving to the farm and getting a live animal yourself.
Despite their previous success, only 25% of their business comes from destination shoppers, people that travel to the area to visit the shop, explains George. “On a Saturday it kind of splits 50/50 but through the week, which is not a hugely busy period for us, we are more reliant on the locals,” he says.
“What we’ve started now is cooking up food [like smoked brisket buns], in the hope to sort of draw people out. Today we had about 30 people queuing up from Expedia, in the Angel building. We sold out in like an hour. But we don’t want to do things en masse, even the food. There’s enough room to cook three or four briskets [under the grill outside] and when they go, they go.”
Dating from 1865, the building that houses Turner & George is actually listed, predetermining its use as a butcher’s or fishmonger’s. The shop that occupied the cold stores downstairs before was only supplying restaurants, explains George. “They would come in at four o’clock in the morning, packing up all the meat for the restaurants, sending the vans out, doing a little bit of paperwork in the office and then they’d go home at about ten o’clock. So there was never any window in, no counter, it was almost like a production facility.”
St John Street has been part of James George’s life since he was nine years old, due to his father working at the market. When George left the market 16 years ago, he actually ended up renting the basement of the very same shop he now works from, to have space to prepare the products for his meat-supplying business. Today that operates from a factory in Essex, where he lives too. Nonetheless he tries to be behind the counter in Islington at least two or three days a week, plus Saturdays. “I think if someone’s name is above the door, then someone needs to be inside, you know.”
If you can’t make it to the shop, you can still order your meat online for next-day delivery (within Greater London).
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