An Endangered Butcher Gets His Groove Back

Six months or so ago, Jeffrey Ruhalter was a butcher in a deep funk, grappling with a sinking family business that dated back to his German great-great-grandfather in 1870. Jeffrey’s Meat Market is, he says, the last original tenant at the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, opened by his grandfather in 1940. The dynamics of change, along with the global economic downturn, had blindsided him.

In the past year, nine restaurants he supplied with meat closed, one right after the other. “How do you collect from restaurants that have closed?” Mr. Ruhalter asked. He was in the process of laying off three of his seven butchers.

He was so depressed, psychologically and fiscally, that he discontinued Day of the Rose, a random holiday when he handed out 20 dozen roses to women at the market. “All you had to do was breathe if you were a woman; 2 years old or 82 years old, you got a rose,” he said. “I couldn’t afford it anymore.”

By midsummer, Mr. Ruhalter, 54, was seriously considering closing.

So he went into therapy to see if he could reinvent himself.

After about six weeks of treatment, Mr. Ruhalter had gained some clarity and realized what he had going for him.

“What am I?” he asked as he stood in his stall last week, surrounded by the odd assortment of 31 portraits local artists had painted of him — smiling Jeffreys, sad Jeffreys, bloodstained Jeffreys, a beheaded Jeffrey. “I’m someone’s butcher. That’s what I am. My grandfather and father hated being butchers, but I love it. It’s not over till the fat lady sings, and then I’ll kick her in the teeth.”

After the epiphany, Mr. Ruhalter slipped off his white apron, put on a black suit and a colorful tie and hit the streets. For several years, he had run an emergency meat-supply business — its name is a colorful variant on “Who Messed Up the Order” — for restaurants that needed last-minute provisions.

If business was not coming to him, he decided, he was going to go and get it. “I’m in the middle of a million restaurants, and I figured there’s got to be a way,” he said. “I walked in cold to one and then another and another, found the chef and said: ‘I am Jeffrey. I’m your local butcher. I want your business. What can I do for you?’ ” The result: 65 new orders.

Mr. Ruhalter, who has offered butchering classes for a few years, added a sausage-making class that was an immediate hit, at $75 a pop.

“Sausages have become a major player,” he said. “I can custom-make them fat free and salt free. I make them from lamb, pork, veal, chicken, turkey, venison, wild boar, elk, all natural, organic,” he rattled off. “They’re selling out.”

It also helped that the Essex Street Market recently extended its hours to 7 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. and is now open on Sundays, bringing in extra money.

Between the therapy and the new revenue streams, Mr. Ruhalter has gotten much of his groove back, and he has decided to remain in business.

Though Day of the Rose remains on hiatus, female customers still get special attention from Mr. Ruhalter, who wears his long brown hair in a ponytail and has two hoop earrings on his left ear. “Swashbuckling,” is how he describes his look.

A longtime practice he has maintained, despite everything, is paper-wrapping a handful of thick-cut bacon for each new customer. If he knows it is your birthday, it might be a free steak.

Last week, a young blonde stepped up to the counter and seems uncertain about buying a goose, saying she would check back.

“Dear lady, when you make up your mind, call me; and if my wife answers, hang up right away and call back five minutes later,” he told her.

Mr. Ruhalter, who has no wife, recently moved to an apartment on Ludlow Street to be within walking distance of the market. “I write the check on the first and stop crying by the third,” he said. His own sizable rent has made him fully aware of how gentrified the Lower East Side has become since his grandfather’s day, how much the culture has changed.

“Everybody goes to Whole Foods,” he said. “Women aren’t staying home cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner anymore. They’re not having five kids. They’re having one. Everybody works now. They come home exhausted.”

Recognizing a need, he has revved up Dinner by Jeffrey, fully seasoned meals ready to pop in the oven, starting at $12 for two. “It’s a service for women and it’s available only by invitation,” he said. “Because if I don’t like you, make your own damn dinner.”

Mr. Ruhalter, slim and tautly muscled, eats little himself. To relax at night, he watercolors and writes poetry. Over the years, he has curated several art shows at his shop, assembling paintings and sculptures behind the glassed-in meat cases. Once he even put on a hat show, displaying a local milliner’s wares on mannequin heads along the counter. His permanent collection includes a rendition of a bacon dollar bill, a painting of a hamburger crowned with a golden halo and a lacquered bacon headdress, like something Bob Mackie would design for Cher.

One wall alone holds six paintings of the butcher. He pointed out his favorite, by the artist Linda Griggs. “My chin is raised, I’ve got the apron around my neck, I look proud, as if I’m the king of a company, a C.E.O.” He gazed at it for a moment, his chin raised, then smiled. “Narcissism, it’s a sickness. But my therapist says I’m getting better.”

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