Less than 5 years ago, owner Ryan Fibiger was carrying a whole pig from his van to his new shop: Saugatuck Craft Butchery.
A startled passerby called the cops.
The officer who arrived heard Fibiger describe his new venture: a shop dedicated to “better sourcing and better butchery.” The world deserves a sustainable alternative to factory farming, he said, and he planned to lead the charge through innovative ideas and traditional practices.
The policeman was fascinated. He stayed, looked around, and became one more convert to the better-butcher-store cause.
A lot has changed since that November 2011 day. The store grew, moved across Riverside Avenue and expanded. Fibiger and partner Paul Nessel merged with Fleishers Craft Butchery, and took on the new name.
Perhaps most importantly, they educated customers about humane treatment of animals, hundreds of types of meat cuts, and the incredibly flavorful joys of cooking the craft butchery way.
Along the way, Fibiger’s store became first a pioneer, then a mainstay of the new Saugatuck Center — and a destination for food lovers throughout Fairfield County.
Including, improbably, plenty of former vegetarians.
The story begins when Fibiger realized he hated his work as a banker/consultant, and had to get out. He found a Kingston, New York company — Fleishers — that was committed to the art of butchery as a means for improving and growing a strong food community.
He apprenticed for 6 months, then opened his own store. It was a small operation — just he, Nessel and a couple of employees — but it was fresh, different, and a key to the nascent redevelopment project on the Saugatuck River plaza.
Customers saw — in addition to the owner hauling a pig on his shoulder — whole lambs on the counter. All the butchering was done out in the open, in full view of the store.
Some people were horrified. But those who stuck around learned about a lost art.
“Westport really embraced us,” Fibiger says. “We grew up in this community.”
Westporters grew up too.
“Most people are disconnected from where their food comes from,” Fibiger notes. “They’re disconnected from meat itself. They see it in a nice package on the grocery shelf. They recognize a few cuts. But there are hundreds of them.”
“Whole animal butchery” is based on an old European model. Older customers tell Fibiger, “I haven’t seen that in 50 years.”
Fleishers — the Westport shop is now part of 5 in the small chain — sources from “real farms,” not feed lots.
As the store grew, so did the area around it. The Whelk opened across the plaza; Saugatuck Craft developed a partnership with owner Bill Taibe.
At first, the Saugatuck location was a risk. No one was certain the new development would succeed.
But now it’s hot. And, Fibiger notes, “I don’t think Main Street would have been right for us. It’s not where people shop for food.”
Food shoppers appreciate more than just Fleishers’ high-quality meat, and all-out-in-the-open butchering practices.
Every employee has an intimate knowledge of farms. They visit, talk to farmers, and see livestock being raised.
Fibiger is passionate about his store, his process, his accessible price points, his “insane transparency,” his meat and his customers.
But he has a special spot in his heart for kids.
In just 5 years, they’ve gone from being shielded by their parents from watching butchering, to being brought behind the counter to watch every step. They’re the future — of eating well, while supporting sustainable agriculture and humane practices — and Fibiger does his part to make sure they understand all that entails.
Something else has happened too. “Whether it’s medical or personal reasons, vegetarians are starting to eat meat again,” the owner says.
“They love coming to us. We talk about the humane treatment of animals. There are a lot of ‘ethical vegetarians’ out there. We share their values.”
Fibiger is proud that they trust him. He’s thrilled to celebrate his 5th year anniversary in Saugatuck. But like any good businessman, he’s always looking to improve.
Fleishers’ interior was recently updated. New products and cases were added. The restaurant is gaining momentum, as former chef Emily Mingrone — adored by the community — has returned. She plans exciting menu changes and dinner events this fall.
And Fibiger just started working with a Pennsylvania lamb farm whose only other customers are 3-Michelin-star restaurants.
“We’re glad to be here,” Ryan Fibiger says, referring both to Saugatuck and “the romance of Westport.” He adds, “We’re really glad that so many people understand and embrace what we do.”
Fleishers Craft Butchery is here for the long haul — and the whole hog.