It’s tragic to think that in the many moving parts of a business transaction, that only one part in the process can leave the experience tasting like sour grapes. I went into the St. Paul Meat Shop to ask Benjamin Roberts about food. To quiz him on his favorite dishes, his favorite cuts of meat even, or why the food is so important to him. What I quickly got was that food was just the end of the transaction.
To Benjamin, the phenomenal food at the Meat Shop or the nearby Cheese Shop speaks for itself, but the experience of that food does not. So expecting to discuss food in extensive detail, the conversation turned quickly to service, as we sat in the front window of the Meat Shop on a sunny day in July.
“I want people to come in and feel really well taken care of,” he tells me. “Somebody busted their ass to make sure this animal was well taken care of. That this piece of cheese was lovingly made. In the case of the cheese, it was put on a boat, cut cold in Europe and cared for, however long. It had care taken for it every step of the way. I tell my employees, ‘I don’t want you to be the one to mess it up, so take care of it.’ This animal was well taken care of. It was out on pasture. It was taken care of on it’s way to where it was slaughtered. People made sure it wasn’t stressed… we do a really nice job butchering it, honoring the animal and making sure we’re not wasting anything. It’s an economical thing as well as a philosophical thing. Do a good job, utilize every part of it, and don’t then be an idiot and be the one to screw it up.”
Benjamin’s passion about how people should be treated is clearly evident. Food has been the vehicle for him to display that passion towards individuals who walk through the door. Greetings from the staff happen quickly when walking into the Meat Shop. And attention to detail is paramount. Part of not screwing it up in Benjamin’s mind is making sure the meat is cut properly or isn’t left out long enough to let it spoil but equally, it’s being personable—showing that it’s important to come into work each day with the genuine interest of being helpful to the customer.
Sitting on two wooden stools in the window, Benjamin’s passion can easily be judged as intensity. Eye contact is focused and purposeful and conversation seems elevated. Not because he is too intense, mind you, but because it feels as if he may be juggling chainsaws in his mind with ease. Talking with him makes me feel like he’s thinking about the cheese shop, a specific product they are about to add to the meat counter and his family at home, simultaneously, all while hearing every syllable out of my mouth with an expert answer to my questions in wait.
Knowing his background clarifies to me why he is the way he is. He didn’t start in any service industry at all. Benjamin actually grew up in Boston and headed to Macalester College in St. Paul because he wanted a small liberal arts college in a big city. He got his B.A. in creative writing, which he jokes didn’t qualify him to do much of anything, so he got a job working for Harvard University’s hedge fund. He did that for a couple years, quit, found his girlfriend (now wife) and moved to New York. In the city Benjamin worked for a multinational corporation on Wall Street, making computer systems and sitting in a cubicle. “I knew sitting in there wasn’t going to be for me,” he says. Aching for a desire to interact with customers, he landed a job managing a restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn called Applewood. With a farm-to-table focus, they fell into the realm of fine dining but Benjamin admits he liked the restaurant business, “but it wasn’t my favorite thing.”
What he did love was being around food and people. Back to Minnesota he went to search for a job in retail, “that would be a little gentler on my soul than the restaurant business could be.” He found the owners of France 44 (the company responsible for the meat and cheese shops) and pitched his idea on how to make some money running a cheese shop.
They opened on in Minneapolis and about a year and half later they opened a second one in St. Paul. They scouted some other places near the St. Paul location and in time, the Meat Shop came around as well.
“It had really been an interest of mine to open a whole animal butcher shop. There was only one at the time in the cities. It was Clancey’s in Linden Hills. It was the only one working with small farms and bringing in whole animals and to me, that just seemed like a huge opportunity to do something like that in St. Paul.”
But the idea didn’t stop with high quality food from small Minnesota farms. Seamlessly and instantaneously, Benjamin rests his right arm on the counter by the window and delves into the most important part of it all—service.
“When I moved here, there were only two cut to order cheese shops and I visited them both and neither one was what I wanted in a shop. We’re a service oriented business. Yeah I’m interested in food but I’m much more interested in providing service. I don’t feel like either of those places embodied that in the way that I want it to. Where you’re getting a greeting. Where the person behind the counter will go out of their way to be extraordinarily helpful to you. People talk about customer service. Wanting to be good at customer service. They don’t know what that means. This isn’t to be condescending or say that we have something figured out but I don’t think people putting out a help wanted ad really understand customer service. Beyond just having people behind the counter being robots, they’re saying, ‘Yeah, I’m here and I actually want to help you, I enjoy the act of being helpful to you.’ We pay our employees higher than average because we get people who really want to help instead of like, ‘I’m here, how can I help you?’ We’re not hiring robots, and we spend a lot of time of drilling in good service practice.”
“So how do you get your employees to understand that,” I ask him.
“Finding people is very very difficult,” says Benjamin. “It’s hard. The people we have are incredible and we try and do everything we can to keep them. They have healthcare, 401ks. We spent $25,000 last year to feed my staff. Twenty-five grand just to feed my staff. We spend a ton of money to keep people. We want to treat them well. We want to keep providing them a place where they want to have input and autonomy and make a decent living and generally to work with happy people.
“...at the end of the day I’m comfortable as a business if we make less money. It’s OK. We’re fine to share the wealth with our employees.”
He admits to not having any better understanding of the plan than anyone else, but when it comes down to it, he is a firm believer in happy employees resulting in happy customers.
“I’ve been doing this job longer than I’ve been doing any other job in my life, I still look forward to coming to work most days. My job has gotten infinitely more complicated,” he says with a smile. “There is a lot of working with employees and resolving differences but I love my customers. We know so many of the people now. Some of these people have been shopping with me for over 8 years. I’ve watched their kid being born and then as an 8 year old. These are people that are kinda awesome and I love that part and if you work in a cubicle all day, you don’t really get to be part of that community.”
It’s a sentiment that gives me the belief he knows this is exactly what he should be doing but just to double check I ask him, “Did you have any expectations of where you’d be?”
“Oh no,” he responds. “My belief has been do a whole bunch of things you know you don’t like so you get closer to knowing what you do want to do.”
“So what do you want to do?” I prod. “What’s the ultimate goal?”
“Oh, world domination,” he fires back with a smile. As if he knew the question was coming.