Beau Bellamy gets to Buzz Food Service at 7 a.m., a full hour before the day’s meat cutting begins.
Buzz sells fresh meat and seafood to restaurants, resorts and other commercial customers in seven Appalachian states — all from a headquarters just outside Charleston. But before any of that can happen, the butcher shop has to pass a daily inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s why Bellamy’s here: to get things ready.
“They’re not looking for chunks of meat. They’re looking for tiny little specks,” Bellamy said. “And if they find something like that, you either have to fix it or they can shut you down altogether.”
He spots a tiny piece of meat, smaller than the size of a match head, wedged between two tables. He takes a cloth and cleans it off.
“That’s enough to get you in trouble with the USDA,” he said.
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Bellamy clearly knows his way around this meat shop, even though he’s only been doing this for about a year. He spent the 10 years before that as a paramedic, riding around on ambulances.
Then the pandemic hit. Beau and his wife had a premature newborn baby with breathing troubles. He didn’t want to risk bringing anything home, so he quit. He delivered bread for a while, then worked for a friend’s asphalt company. Finally, he saw a billboard for a brand-new paid apprentice program at Buzz.
Buzz was expanding. The company built Appalachian Abattoir just down the street from the meat shop. Abattoir is French for “slaughterhouse.” It’s where Buzz processes locally raised cows and pigs.
Most of the time, animals raised in Appalachia get shipped off to the Midwest where they’re fattened up, slaughtered, processed and butchered. The meat then makes the whole trip in reverse, traveling thousands of miles to end up in your grocery store.
Buzz built its abattoir to keep at least some of that meat right here at home.
“Essentially, four companies in the Midwest produce 85 percent of the beef and pork we eat in this country,” Buzz President Dickinson Gould said. “We put ourselves, essentially, in the position to supply ourselves.”
Buzz staffed its new venture with employees from its butcher shop. This created a problem. They needed more employees to replace them, and experienced meat cutters aren’t in ready supply.
“I had many people say to me, ‘That sounds like a great plan but where are you going to find the people to do that kind of work?’” Gould said. “And the best idea we came up with, and we kept coming back to was, let’s start from scratch with a real apprentice program and teach people from the ground up.”
Previously, Buzz trained meat cutters one-on-one. New hires learned at the elbow of a more experienced butcher. That process would no longer suffice with so many newbies coming aboard all at once. The company needed to formalize the process.
When Bellamy and four other apprentices started working at Buzz in September 2021, they began an intensive curriculum that covered every aspect of the meat business. They learned about cutting meat, as well as the economics of it. They learned about the biology of cattle. They’ve taken field trips to other processing facilities. They get the chance to work shifts at General Steak and Seafood, Buzz’s retail operation in downtown Charleston.
As it turns out, this approach has helped apprentices become much more proficient much faster.
“In the past it would take about a year and a half for a new staff person to really be able to work completely independently and really cut some of the higher end or more expensive cuts we process here,” said Angela Gould, the company’s chief operations officers. “Now we’ve found with this group, that is reduced down to about six months.”
There is no better example of this than Bellamy. He is now a maestro of the meat shop’s band saw, using the screaming machine to turn giant hunks of beef into delectable-looking steaks.
He is even training students of his own. A second class of six apprentices started in January 2022.
“It’s two years as a paramedic before they allow you to get on an ambulance,” Bellamy said. To be able to walk in the first day and start to learn — and then after 5 months to be able to teach someone else — it’s certainly a credit to the program and the people.”
Despite all that, Bellamy’s education is only half over. The whole apprenticeship program takes two years to complete. At the end, he’ll hold a certificate recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s a ticket to any kind of life he desires.
Have you noticed there aren’t as many grocery store butchers these days? Buzz President Dickinson Gould said that isn’t because stores no longer find it profitable — they just can’t find anyone qualified to do the job.
“Grocery stores are essentially realizing, where is the next generation of people qualified to do this work?” he said. “They don’t exist, nor is the school you can send them to for training. It’s exactly the kind of training we’re building here.”
Bellamy plans to stick around at Buzz. But even if he does leave and go to work for a grocery store or start a butcher shop of his own, it would still serve Buzz’s overall goal for the internship program: to make the supply chains that we all depend on a whole lot shorter.
This story originally aired in the Aug. 26, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
TheFolkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.