OGDEN -- It is Monday in Anaya Market’s meat department, which after the weekend rush means deep-cleaning day.
A trio of butchers, known as carniceros in Spanish, polish and shine every piece of equipment at the store at 150 N. Washington Blvd. in Ogden. They try to take advantage of the lull in customers.
The work must be done before they can refill the refrigerated display case with piles of fresh cuts of meat.
These butchers are part of a group disappearing in the American landscape. Some grocery stores are even doing away with dedicated butchers in their meat departments, instead opting for prepackaged steaks, roasts and legs.
Not so in Mexican butcher shops or carnicerias.
Butcher Roberto Velazquez from the Mexican state of Chiapas said what the Mexican meat department offers is fresh meat, cut daily. He started in Anaya Market’s meat department seven years ago.
“We cut meat every day. At Walmart, their packages can sit there for two to three days,” Velazquez said. “We try to have fresh meat.”
But aside from fresh meat, the carniceria offers a cultural connection to its customers, allowing them to make dishes that remind them of home.
Compared to their American counterparts, the carniceria offers thinner cuts of steaks, which is preferred for the Mexican grilled dish carne asada.
It also has items not found in most mainstream supermarkets, such as tripe, cow tongue and intestines.
“This is what people want, what people need,” said butcher Gerardo Torres. Torres, from the Mexican state of Michoacán, started working as a butcher six years ago.
Those choices also attract other immigrants looking to make Asian short ribs or South American steaks. The carniceros said they add to their repertoire by meeting the needs of their customers.
The newest member of the trio is Sergio Herrera from Mexico City.
Before joining the meat department about a year and a half ago, he worked in landscaping. He saw an opening at the shop and jumped at the chance to get a job indoors and learn a trade.
“I had to learn when I got the job,” Herrera said. “When I got here, I knew nothing about cutting meat.”
Like his coworkers, he started manning the counter, learning to cut meat during slow times under the tutelage of more experienced butchers.
In addition to cutting meat, he said he also learned how to interact with customers and spot the signs to keep the product fresh. He continues to perfect his technique.
“Right now, I don’t know everything,” Herrera said. “I’m still not an expert.”
That quest for freshness is one of the things that has helped the carniceria thrive, said Jeremy Russell, director of communications and government relations for the North American Meat Association.
But while carnicerias have grown in number across the country, most butcher shops have disappeared.
“The heyday was quite a while ago,” Russell said. “They would have been out-competed when the supermarket put in the meat counter.”
The convenience of the supermarket caused the demise of many butcher shops. Supermarkets offered their one-stop shopping and ability to recoup costs by spreading profits across multiple departments.
“The supermarket business is competitive and with Walmart coming in and taking over everything,” Russell said, “butcher shops couldn’t survive.”
Nationally, however, even the butcher behind the meat counter is disappearing, in favor of prepackaged food.
One butcher who has managed to maintain a place in the Top of Utah is Craig Smart, owner of Mountain West Meats.
Smart started working in a butcher shop while in high school and has been in business for 30 years.
“I can make a living with it,” Smart said. “I can put out a better product than grocery stores can.”
He has seen numerous butcher shops come and go, but he luckily found a niche to keep his business going. He offers his customers family meat packages and wild game processing, as well as buckets of slush drink, a Slurpee style beverage he sells for parties. Customers can order his products through http://www.mountainwest-meats.com/.
Three decades of experience have also made him an expert at cutting meat.
“Sometimes you find in butcher shops that prices are a little higher,” Smart said, “but I try to make it worthwhile for people to come here -- a little extra service.”
It is that service that the carniceros pride themselves on.
Instead of grabbing a prepackaged pack of ground beef, customers can order whatever amount, no matter how small.
“We don’t care about quantity,” Velazquez said, “we care about quality.”
But their success also has to do with serving a fast-growing demographic that is accustomed to the services provided by a carniceria.
Since Velazquez started working in Anaya’s Market, even before he became a butcher, he saw many other markets spring up as well.
The interesting thing is, Velazquez said, is they all remain busy.
He said business grew, even after the economy collapsed and many immigrants returned to their home country.
Torres believes the reason is because the Latino population in the United States is here to stay.
“The country has changed a lot with the arrival of Latinos and every day, there will be more,” Torres said. “With more Latinos, there will be more stores catering to them.”
And the carniceros are ready to serve them, because for Herrera, Velazquez and Torres, being a carnicero helps them get a cut of the American dream for themselves.