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Monday, May 16, 2022

Greg’s Meat Market: Middlebury butcher follows 40-year-old vision

Located at the central intersection, a couple of hundred feet away from the newly constructed Amtrak station, Greg’s Meat Market holds an array of surprises. The grocery store has a local, mom-and-pop atmosphere. As I step inside its produce-packed door, I’m welcomed by a cashier and roam the aisles filled with all kinds of products at a price suitable for a college student's budget. 

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Inside Greg's Meat Market

Beyond their diverse selection of items, Greg’s Meat Market speciality is their deli and butcher. Led through the swinging doors, I meet Carl, the department manager who shines with a bright full-face smile, his beard in a hair net.

“People see their local butcher as their friend,” he tells me. “That's what I love about this job.”

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Carl takes us on a tour around his small but clean and tidy kitchen.

Originally opened in the 1980s, Greg’s has a long history in the town of Middlebury. Greg Rye, the store’s founder, set out with a vision for an independent grocery store that concentrated on the butcher shop. Though Greg’s thrived among local residents, Rye eventually sold the shop.

I speak with the store’s manager, Gail, who tells me that new ownership “wanted to change what everyone loved about Greg’s in the first place” and eventually the business went under and the building sat idle for years. 

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It wasn’t until 2019 that Greg’s reopened as a grocery store and butcher in the style its founder had intended, following the homestyle example set nearly 40 years ago. Even though bringing the store back up to par was “a huge undertaking,” explains Gail,  “It’s already grown an amazing customer base. When we open up in the morning, I have five or six guys who always come for coffee and breakfast. I know about their families, they know about mine; it's really nice.”

The pandemic arrived only eight months after Greg’s reopened their doors, forcing them to switch to delivery only. One positive outcome, though, was being able to see what their customers really wanted to buy the most, allowing them to provide accordingly once they were back in person. In the butcher, business actually boomed during the pandemic; as restaurants closed, people were inspired to buy fresh meats and prepare them at home. 

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Back in the butcher, I watch in amazement as Carl seemingly effortlessly slices huge chunks of meat into picture-perfect pieces. “I’m glad this one came out pretty,” Carl laughs. Maneuvering a bone knife, he uses a 12-inch blade for the large portions and a six-inch knife to cut thin slices. Once he is done slicing, he makes use of the large machine next to him and vacuum seals his works of art into bags for the customers.

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Not only are there knives at different lengths and flexibility, there are different knives used for different animals in order to avoid cross contamination.

Carl tells me he loves how folks here are progressive and environmentally conscious. “We have some regulars who will always bring their own tupperware containers for their meats to reduce the use of plastics, and I think that's great,” he said. In addition, almost all of the meat used at Greg’s are from local farmers. Carl sometimes even receives deer from customers who hunt. The store butchers and packages it for them.

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Carl chats with a regular seeking a popular beef tenderloin cut.

While Carl is telling me this, a customer approaches the window — a regular. While Carl patiently writes down his order, my eyes examine the cold but cozy workroom that is lined with neatly organized papers, packaging and calendar dates on the wall for December, their busiest month of the year. 

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Given how comfortably Carl engages with his Vermont customers, it might come as a surprise to learn he is from Florida.

“My best friend moved up here,” he says. “He wouldn't stop talking about it!”

Carl moved to Middlebury, honing his chops (pun intended) at the Hannaford Meat Cutters program, where he eventually made his way to Assistant Manager.

Before becoming a butcher, Carl worked as an X-ray technician in a doctors office for five years. “I guess that's where your surgical precision comes from,” I joke. He chuckles. 

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As Carl turns around, he leads us into the smaller room connected to the main kitchen, where he readies the meat grinder. Standing on an elevated step, he pours into the machine the leftover cuts from steaks, per the customer's request, and puts the ground meat into bags that he proceeds to press and then seal. He repeats the grinding process twice, and I watch as the meat changes from pieces of all sizes to evenly ground beef. 

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Carl steps up to the plate and adds in the meat.

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After grinding, Carl will vacuum seal and press the ground beef.

Greg’s has a good relationship with the college, and they often cater for sports teams travelling to or from Middlebury. Carl often sees students who will buy discounted meats first thing in the morning. Once the Amtrak station opens right next to the shop, the store predicts they’ll be receiving even more students who want to buy groceries or grab a meal. 

As Carl and I wind down our interview, he compliments my camera and shows me some of his own photos of the Vermont sky, often free of light pollution. As for plans for the future, Carl plans to stay at Greg’s and has a two-year-old in the house and another child on the way. “We’re expecting April 10. It's gonna be a boy,” he says.

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Carl, his wife and his son, Carl Jr.



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