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Three Things

Stephen Alexander Add to ...

Stephen Alexander, owner of three Cumbrae’s retail meat stores in Toronto and Cumbrae Farms, a wholesaler for naturally raised meats, started with one store in 1994 when he was 22 years old. A third-generation butcher who grew up in top-flight butcher shops in Australia, Mr. Alexander credits his upbringing for giving him the skills to be successful in his industry.

How has 2010 been compared to other years?

2010 is shaping up to be a great year. Once spring came, people were spending again. We noticed that buzz. Sales went up and people were happy to buy. Our biggest seller is the same as every year – beef. We’re primarily a butcher shop, so beef. We have our own herd of wagyu [cattle]which we breed ourselves. They’re a very high-end luxury item, not like a rare imported truffle from Italy at $1,000 a pound – it’s a locally raised cow – but in 2009, people were shying away from that, saying, ‘I don’t really need that $50-a-pound steak, I can have some nice hamburger and a regular Angus sirloin.’ This year, people are prepared to indulge a little more, back to what was normal shopping habits for us.

We had huge momentum from 2006, 2007 and 2008 when people were out there spending money, but once the recession came, our high-end items slowed down. I don’t think we lost any customers, but people were careful, even if they had the money. Perhaps they’d have a roast chicken instead of a rack of lamb, about a third of the price.

One thing I noticed at the start of the recession was that my restaurant clientele, the chefs who buy from me, did an immediate about-face as far as expensive items went. Everything went to a price point. They all wanted to get into inexpensive cuts that they could turn around and sell as a main dish under $30 instead of $40. The restaurant industry had to reconfigure quickly and get their price points down. Everybody wanted value for money, so we found our wholesale clientele shifted really quickly to the inexpensive cuts like lamb shanks or shoulder instead of premium cuts, or short ribs and braising cuts instead of strip loins. Consumers were really embracing it too.

I don’t think it was a bad thing. The quality of the food on the plate didn’t go down and the chefs got creative. Our sales didn’t go down either, but the growth we’d been experiencing stopped.

What’s your advice to entrepreneurs who want to open in your industry?

My industry, artisanal butchering, is definitely big at the moment. Anything artisanal, with product of origin, whether it’s meat or vegetables or dairy, is a great growth industry. I don’t think it’s going to be a flash in the pan. People are very concerned about how they eat now, for a whole lot of reasons, not just because of the taste but for health and the sheer love of food. It all ties into the environment, supporting local farmers and sustainability, so I think it’s a great field to get into.

What else have you learned that you’d like to share?

I learn something every day. My dishwasher can teach me how to organize my sink better or my head farm manager can tell me how we can raise cattle better. We learn from each other.

We have a real group mentality here. We’ll do a dish here in our kitchen and five of us will sit around, taste it and all compare notes. People are everything in business. Looking after them, treating them with respect and having them love what they do is the most important thing. I learned that from my father who had guys who worked for him for 25 years. Make it so it’s their company as well and not just yours. When you’ve got good people that you know care, make sure you care for them. If I was going to give anyone advice in business, that would be it.

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