MAKE no bones about it, I am an unequivocal fan of the high street craft butcher. Through recessions, changing shopping habits, diet and lifestyle trends, the butchers that remain are the ones worth holding onto.
Craft butchery is a dying trade, but despite its harsh reality and the language that surrounds it, I am yet to meet a butcher of note who didn’t have a gentle way about them.
A butcher trades in finality; yet respect, welfare, quality and reverence for the animals they encounter are in ample supply. It is a trade that chooses the person, not the other way around. One such man is Michael Twomey of Twomey Butchers.
Beginning as a small butchers on Macroom’s high street, Michael has worked up to establish a chain of shops specialising in sourcing the best Guaranteed Irish produce in Macroom, Bantry and Bandon.
A man to spot an opportunity, he is also the largest supplier of Irish Wagyu, some of which you may have already had the good fortune to taste at the West Cork Burger Co on Washington Street in Cork city.
“When I was younger, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and uncles, they had cattle and sheep and any spare time I had was spent there,” says Michael.
“I hated school. I started working cleaning up in the butcher’s shop when I was 14, gave up school when I was 15 and went full time into the butchers’ trade, earning £25 a week.”
That was 36 years ago, and he has not only stuck to his trade but found ways to innovate.
“There was no formal apprenticeship, I was learning the trade as I was going along. Things were different then, I learned a lot of the old style of butchery and that has influenced the way we do things now. I’m always thinking about modernising, but keeping things in the old style as much as possible. It differentiates us from supermarkets and competitors.”
High street butcher’s have seen a serious decline in the past five years. Michael feels the future of his trade is not in competing with cut-price supermarket meat, but to offer something different and better.
“We shouldn’t do what we are doing the same way as the supermarkets. We can’t compete with them; shops like ours don’t have the firepower or the footfall to do it, so you really need to be able to distinguish yourself from them to stand apart,” says Michael.
That’s where his relationship with farmers and the Guaranteed Irish mark comes in.
“We are the only Guaranteed Irish butchers shops in Ireland, and we have been for nearly 20 years. It’s an idea that has always resonated with me: I only sell Irish meat, we hand bone all our chicken fillets and 80% of the meat we sell in Macroom comes from a 20 mile radius.
“What really kicked it in for me was learning in the mid1990s about the mass use of antibiotics in continental pork. I got onto one of my local pig farmers at the time, Ted Hartnett in Crookstown, and from that point onwards I swore to only use Irish pork, eventually extending that across all the meat we source now.
“I applied for the Guaranteed Irish mark as it was something I felt strongly about. The Irish standards are head and shoulders above most countries, so why should we import meat from countries with a lesser quality standard?”
“I started out in a partnership with Michael Tiernan in 1987, and established the current Macroom location in 1996.
“The unit was half the size of what it is now, a real old shop, and we knocked it all through when I bought the neighbouring house and unit. We’ve been here for 22 years.
“The day we opened I had to borrow £35 off my mother for my shopping, I had no money. I was broke, way behind on my mortgage and I owed suppliers money too.
“But we worked away for eight years, building up the business and paying back everything I owed, then in 2001 we rebuilt the shop, and in 2007 built our own processing unit about a half-mile from here. We opened in Bantry in 2010 and in Bandon in 2016.”
PREMIUM WAGYU BEEF
Michael’s three shops service a West Cork customer base and restaurants right across Ireland, largely thanks to his next bright idea: Irish Wagyu Beef.
Wagyu Beef is a breed of cattle renowned in Japan for its excellent marbling, texture and flavour. Michael stumbled upon it by accident because, as he says, most of the time he’s too busy working in his business, not on it!
“There are no contracts, just a shaken hand and word of mouth — the West Cork way!” says Michael.
About six years ago, he met Jim Goode, a farmer rearing Wagyu beef in West Cork.
“I didn’t really know what Wagyu beef was, but Jim said he’d meet me and gave me a couple of steaks to take home and try. We got on really well, I cooked them and was hooked straight away. I knew I had to sell Wagyu!
“Five years ago, I took an ad in the paper that said ‘Wagyu cattle wanted, €4.75p/k paid’, I think cattle at the time were making €3.70p/k. I held a meeting at the Castle Hotel in Macroom, about 100 farmers turned up on the night, 39 signed up and about 15 farmers are still on board today.
“It’s been a very slow process and at times I regretted doing it but there are times that it’s good and this year in particular has been great. We had 130 Wagyu cattle this year, we’ll have about 150 for the next two years, and 270 then after that — so it is growing. Most of the farmers are in Cork; one in Galway, one in Wexford and a couple in Kerry.
“We sell a lot of Wagyu in Dublin, not as much in Cork, but I think that’s down to letting people know what Wagyu is and why it’s premium. We supply Osteria Lucio in Dublin; in Cork you can find Wagyu in our shops, The Castle Hotel in Macroom, Square Table in Blarney and The Ambassador Hotel, Hayfield Manor and the West Cork Burger Company in the City.
WEST CORK BURGER COMPANY
Michael met Henry Hegarty (founder of Wokabout) eight years ago via Henry’s father.
“We started supplying Henry hand-boned chicken and now we supply all the meat that Wokabout use. One day, Henry mentioned a burger restaurant he’d visited in Amsterdam and said he’d love to model a place like that in Cork.
“Henry tasted the Wagyu and was blown away! Next thing, he wanted to talk to me about opening a burger place in Cork and would I be interested in being a part of it. We went into partnership with Henry and Cian Bradley of Irish Bacon Slicers. We supply the beef and Wagyu for the burgers, Cian supplies home cured rashers and Henry makes all the sauces and salads — the three of us together make everything. We decided, if we’re gonna do this, we’ll use the very best of Irish produce!”
It’s been quite the journey for Michael. From a teenager struggling at school to a successful businessman in his fifties, supplying some of the finest beef in Ireland to some of the finest restaurants in Ireland. And yet, in his own words, this breadth of influence he has had, and continues to have, is something he never envisioned: “It’s only really been in the past few years I’m trying to make a career out of it — just before I should be retiring!”