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Unusual Jobs: Butcher keeps his edge at Super 1 Foods

Thu., July 17, 2014

When Derrick Self comes to work at Super 1 Foods on 29th Avenue at 5 a.m. the store isn’t open. Self is the manager of the meat department, but his day doesn’t start with steak cutting.

“It’s not like in the Rocky movies where we go around and slap the meat all day,” he said.

His day begins by stocking shelves and taking care of countless odds and ends.

“We sell a lot of hot dogs in the summer and I mean a lot,” Derrick said Monday morning, while cutting open cardboard boxes and pulling out dozens of packs of franks. “That and the ready-to-go salads, like potato salad and macaroni salad.”

He works his way down the empty aisles stacking, organizing, checking expiration dates making sure everything is just so.

“I do like things in a certain way,” he said, “people shop with their eyes. Things have to look nice.”

He’s looking for a good spot for a red cardboard store display to be filled with packages of pepperoni.

Assembling the display is like cardboard origami – fold here, hold that edge, fold that part in – yet the contraption is still a bit wobbly.

He surveys the area, joking that some aisle intersections seem prone to collisions.

“You don’t want too many displays there,” he said. “There are too many wrecks.”

Packages of summer sausage and bacon find their spots in the cooler as Self works his way through the department. Price tags need to be replaced, and around 8 a.m. things are looking pretty good.

Self has been with Super 1 Foods since 1992. He’d just graduated from high school when a job on the bakery cleaning crew came open at the store. He’s been there ever since.

“I guess I haven’t traveled far,” he said, laughing, “I grew up just over on 32nd Avenue.”

From the bakery he worked his way to the meat department where he completed a butcher apprenticeship.

By the mid-1990s, Rosauers Supermarkets purchased this Super 1 Foods store and that allowed Self to spend some time in the meat department at Huckleberry’s Natural Market, but he was soon back on 29th Avenue. And he’s been there ever since.

Self is a tall man with a good sense of humor.

“I’m just one of those people who come to work every day,” he said, while walking from the back of the store to the front office for the umpteenth time Monday morning.

When the shelves are stocked he heads into the office to make next week’s schedule for the seven people he manages.

His lunch break comes already at 9 a.m. and what does the butcher have for lunch?

“Beef jerky of course,” Self said with a big grin, ripping open a bag.

With the morning’s chores behind him he’s ready for some meat action.

Super 1 Foods has a full-service butcher counter and most of the cutting, grinding and prepping is done in store. A huge smoker puffs away in the backroom, churning out smoked chicken and the sausages the store is known for.

Self hauls four big chunks of sirloin out of the cooler and gets to work cutting steaks.

It looks effortless when Self grabs the meat with one hand and a huge butcher knife with the other.

A swift cut here, a slice there, a bit of fat trimmed off there and what began as a shapeless meat cube suddenly begins to look like steaks.

Confidence and experience show in every cut, making the process look, well, mindless.

“What do I think about as I do this?” Self said. “Usually all the other stuff I need to get to before the end of the day.”

Considering that he has made a living around very sharp knives, Self has very few battle scars – and all his fingers.

“Of course you have to be very careful when you cut,” he said. “But you are more likely to cut yourself on a dull knife than a very sharp one.”

Butchers have their own knives – Self said his knives last about four years – and typically don’t send them out for sharpening. And there are about as many ways of sharpening knives as there are butchers.

“I’m not an expert at all,” Self said, adding that the cutting surface is very important for the life of the knife. “Don’t cut on cement or glass – wood is the best.”

For sanitary reasons and ease of use, the butcher department at Super 1 Food uses white plastic cutting boards and surfaces.

In a little less than an hour Self is done with the meat cutting of the day.

The steaks are put on Styrofoam trays, wrapped and labeled and put out in the store.

“Most of our meat has never been frozen and it comes from the Northwest,” Self said, adding that frozen meat tends to lose moisture and some taste.

During an average workday, customers ask for special cuts of meats, recipes and cooking instructions. Self and his counter staff do what they can to comply.

“We get requests for tripe sometimes, and for sweetbreads,” Self said, explaining that sweetbread is the pancreas.

Customers ask more frequently for grass-fed or hormone-free meat today than when Self started as a butcher.

And of course prices have gone up.

“But people rarely complain to us about the prices,” Self said.

When asked if he’s much of a chef, he chuckles.

“I wouldn’t say that. I barbecue a lot – I really like to do that,” he said.

Friends and family hit him up for cooking tips and he’s usually brings the meat to gatherings and celebrations.

“I never get tired of it,” Self said. “Being the meat guy, you just have to bring the meat.”

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