Meet Kari Underly.
A third generation meat cutter, she was introduced to the trade by her father at Underly’s Market, a butcher shop and ice cream parlor in South Bend, Indiana. As an adult, Kari entered a three-year meat cutting apprenticeship program and became a journeyman meat cutter with Martin's Super Market in South Bend. Over time, Kari continued to develop her cutting skills as well as her business savvy and instinct for marketing and merchandising. Today, retailers, foodservice operators, associations, chefs and farmers across the country regularly tap into Kari’s expertise.
Kari talked to us about her career, her book The Art of Beef Cutting, and life in Chicago.
How did you become a butcher?
Having a grandmother, grandfather, and my father as butchers, I guess it was destined to be, but not at first. I started earning cash after school while working in the meat department at the local grocery store. Becoming a butcher was more out of necessity. I paid my way through college working every job possible as a butcher.
We understand you did an apprenticeship? What does an apprenticeship for meat cutting involve?
I was fortunate enough to work for a company that offered education and training to its workforce. I jumped on it. After working as a meat wrapper, I applied for a three year apprenticeship program to become a journeyman meat cutter. The meat cutters made quite a bit more than a meat wrapper and I needed the cash to pay for school.
As an apprentice you start doing odd dirty jobs, I guess to pay your dues. There are very few quality apprenticeship programs available currently for those who want to get into the business, so I will always be grateful for the opportunity.
What's it like being a woman in an otherwise male dominated industry?
It’s been a challenge from the beginning. When I first started, I was the only female meat cutter in the company, and everyone thought I was nuts to try to do this. I had some "old" meat guys who took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew. Thank you Chuck, Mike, and Dan! There were other guys who I believe felt threatened and made my work difficult, so thanks Jeff, John, and Terry for giving me the determination to keep going to school! And by the way, I became all their bosses! Of course there are still challenges, but I've always believed that hard, honest work gets rewarded. I think I’ve proven myself.
How has the industry changed since you got started?
When I started we bought cattle packs or large primals and broke it down ourselves. You could still buy quarters of beef broken down into primals, but many guys were starting to buy subprimals. This was the beginning of the shift to single muscle, case ready meat that was cut and packaged off site. Jobs also moved off site. Most of the meat cutting jobs moved to the center of the country. So if you wanted to stay in the business, you went and worked for a supermarket. Today there is a shift in our philosophy on how we treat farm animals for food and a desire to leave behind a sustainable system. Consumers are interested in supporting local agriculture. Meat cutting is back, baby! The problem is that the education and training hasn't caught up with the enthusiasm to learn skilled butchery. Chefs and meat cutters have been forced to train or teach themselves to cut and butcher meat. There is a strong need for high quality training for meat cutters in the United States.
How did you start Range Inc. and what does your company do?
Range was incorporated in 2002. We develop and implement new and creative ways to market and merchandise meat. We do this through new product development, meat cutting training and education, meat department development, profit and yield analysis, and collateral development. Some of our accomplishments: we helped the Beef Checkoff develop and launch the Flat Iron Steak, the Denver Cut and the Petite Tender; we developed both the current Beef Made Easy retail and foodservice cut chart posters; and of course, we produced and developed the book, The Art of Beef Cutting.
Tell us about your book, The Art of Beef Cutting. Who is the audience and what can they expect when they open it up?
When I first started writing the book, the audience was culinary schools, grocery store professionals, butchers and chefs. They are still target groups, but now consumers and food enthusiasts are interested in learning to cut their own meat. They can expect beautiful photography, with clear and concise step-by-step instructions on how to break down primals to subprimals and individual cuts. There are also chapters on basic beef terminology, knife skills, a flavor chapter, a profit analysis chapter, and lots of my quick tips throughout the book. It's perfect for the club store shopper. I am proud to say the book was nominated this year for both a James Beard Broadcast and Journalism Award, and an International Association of Culinary Professionals Award, as well. It was a good year! The book is available on Amazon.
Why did you decide to write The Art of Beef Cutting?
I wrote the book because I could not find a book or information on meat cutting that documented what I knew. And people kept asking me if I had instructions on how I cut meat. So, I thought it was a good business opportunity to extend my training classes and have participants buy my book. It took me over six years to write and produce The Art of Beef Cutting. It was definitely a labor of love.
What's next for you?
I would love to open a school to train and certify future butchers. I also want to focus on today’s local sustainable food systems.