Griffith Butchery has come a long way since being lampooned in its early days for selling ‘orgasmic’ meat.
The butcher shop and now bakery at the Griffith Shops marks its 30th anniversary this week, firmly entrenched as a trusted supplier of ‘pristine produce’ to a loyal clientele from throughout the ACT and across the border, and witness to profound changes in the culture and life of the national capital.
But if owner Richard Odell had been made of lesser stuff he wouldn’t even have stayed with the trade, let alone developed his own business.
As an apprentice in a shop at Campbell, he had been let go in a downturn, but his employer’s required explanation to the then Apprenticeship Board must have mentioned something else because he received a letter saying he should not be allowed to use the tools of the trade within the ACT ever again.
To this day he does not know what his employer told the board but in the meantime, he had found another position and his uncle helped him write to the board saying he already gained employment and “I’ll leave it to the better judgment of my now employer.”
Richard never heard back and he went on to complete his apprenticeship and years later in 1989, at the age of 28 with a young family, hustle up a bank loan to buy the Griffith business.
He lists dogged determination not to give up, regardless of what others say, think or do as a key to the business’s success. That and loyalty.
“Because there are plenty of naysayers that would have stopped me, if I’d listened to them [I would have] let their negative attitude override my positive attitude,” he says.
Of course, time has been on his side with the demand for organic produce constantly growing and that niche market becoming firmly established.
Not much of a scholar, Richard left school at 15 after a friendly teacher helped him obtain an apprenticeship. He had working after school at David Jones in Woden Plaza when in those days it had a butcher shop.
Richard wanted his own business but was always going to do things differently, inspired by his father who was a prominent figure in the Canberra Organic Growers Society.
“That was a little seed,” he said.
He also couldn’t abide by some of the practices he had seen in the trade such as misleading labelling.
“There were classic things being done that weren’t true to my heart that you inherit,” he said. “It was a big step, big turning point, a line in the sand, saying no I don’t want to do those sorts of things.”
He started off supplying Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) certified beef for pies at the old Urambi Hills Bakery in Phillip but it wasn’t until Daryl and Ron Ward from ‘Bellevue’ in Cootamundra came knocking on Canberra butcher shop doors in 1990 offering soon-to-be certified biodynamic meat that the organic trade began in earnest.
A butcher Richard knew at Kingston had told Daryl its wasn’t for him but ‘that bloke up at Griffith’s doing that sort of stuff go and see him’.
He did, and the deal was done soon on nothing more than a handshake, and it has stood the test of time through thick and thin, particularly the Millennial Drought of the early 200os.
“That loyalty runs deep,” says Richard.
But the drought severely tested it, when the crippling price of organic grain forced Ron to look closer to home for clean feed and lose the Demeter certification that had served both supplier and butcher so well.
Ron had already decided to feed his livestock and continue to supply Richard rather than sell the valuable dry feed he had stockpiled, but when that ran out he had to turn to the grain.
“Even if we’d shaken hands and walked away everybody else in Australia was in the same position,” Richard says.
“The only thing that would have changed was I’d have to get meat from a different farmer that may not come in carcass for me, but in a box. That box mentality changes the whole skill set of the butcher, and I would not have been better off.”
So they have stuck together to this day but it came with a price, as many customers walked away and the business had to re-established its brand based on the pristine produce concept because while Ron was no longer certified, his biodynamic farming practices did not change.
“It always has been a case of focusing on the pasture more so than the certification, but after 13 years of being accredited you hang a few hats on it,” Richard says. “Ron would say, even if someone wanted to challenge us, we were still way ahead in soil fertility.
“I think it’s one of those little things we learn in business along the way, to carry on regardless no matter what others say or do.”
And Richard wasn’t about to shy away from being upfront with his customers.
It’s has always been about the customer knowing the provenance of what they are buying and how it is produced. There are photos of Bellevue on the walls, and on the counter there have been snaps of the salad-bowl pasture that produces the lamb and beef on display below.
He and his sons Tim and Mike, now integral to the business, enjoy advising customers on cuts of meat, its nutritional value and how to store, prepare and cook their purchases. It’s upbeat with a sense of fun, including the quip “I love vegetarian food, it goes great with my steak” on cartons and T-shirts.
“Everyone who comes into the shop deserves that great service and to enjoy their food. I hope that they come in for an experience more than just buying chops or snags,” Richard says.
Part of that experience has been the addition of the bakery and smallgoods range, to diversify but also make use of every part of the carcass possible and nor waste anything, out of ‘total respect for that animal’s sacrifice’.
A popular part of the business, the bakery under Patrick Lau now sees its award-winning pies walk out the door.
While Richard was never really one for awards, he admits to being somewhat of a convert after filling the trophy cabinet for the business’s bacon, sausages, and pies.
“It’s good for business, it’s a real buzz. I wasn’t keen but having now won a couple, it is nice,” he says.
Richard has seen a lot of change in 30 years, in tastes, the impact of multiculturalism, and shifting customer needs.
He’s selling more prepared products such as butterflied lamb, kebabs and kofta for the busy consumer, and more turkey outside of the traditional festive season. And he could sell more goat.
“There is a market here, and a wholesaler wants me to cut it up for him. It’d be good to help out the smaller farmer and fill that cultural mix that is now in Canberra,” Richard says.
While Bellevue has been a constant, Richard has seen other organic and free range suppliers come and go. But Steve and Kim Roberts from ‘Bundawarra’ at Temora have been supplying its pork for 15 years, while Deutscher Turkeys in Horsham, Victoria, has been sending off its big birds for 26.
Chicken has been the most problematic but Queensland’s Inglewood Farms – the best in Australia, says Richard – has now been a dependable supplier for five years.
Cultivating and nurturing those business relationships has also been a big factor in Griffith Butchery’s success.
“Having mateship is a big thing,” says Richard. “I’m not just doing it for myself or family, there are many other people relying on the business to succeed.”
And the butcher who got a chuckle out of his ‘orgasmic’ jibe?
Well, he’s no longer in business, says Richard, with some degree of satisfaction.