Guy Bartolomei's first meat-cutting job included hoisting 250-pound pieces of beef from a truck tailgate to waiting meat hooks. "Like if you watched the 'Rocky' movie? He would sit there and punch those? That was what we used to get in."
A quarter cow at a time, Bartolomei lugged two and a half animals, a ton of beef a night, as a 17-year-old still in North Tonawanda High School. He would break them down with knife and saw to provide more skilled cutters with the primal cuts they would carve into steaks and roasts for Budwey's customers.
That was 1972. Bartolomei still cuts meat for Budwey's, 38 years later, with a few years at Wegmans and Quality in between. His son has become the third generation of Bartolomeis to cut meat for Budwey's.
The biggest change for Bartolomei the butcher has been the end of the "Rocky" scenes. His old job is history. The beef comes in boxes of 40 to 50 pounds, primal cuts encased in plastic. Bartolomei misses having a little more time to talk to customers.
But you don't miss the lugging.
"If I had to do it now, I would probably hurt myself badly. It was all leverage. You had to grab it just the correct way, kind of bend at your knees, pull it close to your chest, kind of hoist it up. You had another guy holding the hook, then you lift it up and hang it."
Why did the switch to boxed beef happen?
"Basically, they eliminated the jobs where we used to start out, breaking down the quarters. It saved the grocery stores from having to hire as many people. Back then, to do what we're doing now at this store, you'd need 10 to 12 meat cutters. Now we've got five or six."
What's the most common meat misunderstanding?
"I'd say that 90 percent of the people who come in here don't understand there are different grades of beef, just like anything you buy, couches or cars. So sometimes the $4.99 a pound strip steak might not be the great deal you think it is. 'Select' is quite a bit less expensive than 'choice.' Then people come in and say, 'That steak was tougher than I expected.'
What's one thing people don't know about modern butchers?
"A lot of the time people don't realize that something can be on sale, like chuck roast, that we can make ground chuck or stew meat out of that for them. We can do that for them, and it'll cost them a lot less than if they bought the packages."
So you will cut it up for me for free?
"Yes. Sure, a whole sirloin tip will cost in the area of $40, at $2.50 a pound. But the ground sirloin and other things you'd get out of it -- sirloin tip roasts, cube steaks, sandwich steaks, stew -- are up toward $4 a pound. So you can save a lot of money."