Type: Butcher Shop
Owner: Sainu Kanichirakal
Manager: Alec Fletcher
Why I Shop: Selection and quality of meats: organic, grass-fed, Mennonite, naturally raised, etc
Owner's favourite products: Grass-fed beef and organic chicken
Amelia's favourite producst: Mennonite whole chicken, grass-fed beef, blackened Saskatchewan kabobs, Berkshire bacon
Specialties: Beef, Pork, Chicken and Lamb with antibiotic & hormone free, pasteurized, grass-fed and organic selections. Handmade sausages, shish-ka-bobs and burgers.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday at St Lawrence Market
St Lawrence Market Series: Witteveen Quality Meats
Witteveen’s Quality Meats first drew me in with the selection of organic and free-range meats. Many counters display local products, but Witteveen’s stood apart as having it all. Organic, free-range, grass-fed, local, AAA and everything in between.
I was looking for a whole chicken to slow-cook when Witteveen’s had the bird I was looking for: organic and free-range from a Mennonite farm. Since then I have bought the majority of my meat products from Witteveen's, always looking forward to a new recommendation. I have enjoyed their organic chicken, antibiotic and hormone-free pork, grass-fed beef, delicious hand-made kabobs and many products in between. Upon deciding to begin a series on my favourite St Lawrence Market vendors, I knew I wanted to start here - with meat, with Witteveen.
I walked into the market like I typically do on a Tuesday. After a busy weekend, the market and I share a laid back vibe. I had scarcely approached the meat counter when a familiar face appeared at the cash. I didn’t even open my mouth to speak before the manager, Alec, asked me what he could get for me today. “Well actually I’m here to talk to the owner about an article for my blog."
Not a typical order at a meat counter, I presume.
The owner, Sainu, was deep into preparing something with a marinade; his hands and forearms showing the evidence. Under his black Witteveen’s cap and crisp black apron an aura of unbreakable focus was directed to the butcher block. I'll admit I was a little nervous and excited to be conducting my first interview.
Whatever happened next, I was thrilled to be making a connection with a vendor - with my vendor - the owner of the butcher shop that had filled my table and BBQ and belly with meat over the past eighteen months.
“I’m sorry I kept you waiting; I had to fill a huge order of kabobs. The order had to be ready for 10 and he could come at any minute, you know? So I had to get it done. I make one-thousand two-hundred fifty pounds of kabobs per summer”.
“Chicken, beef, pork, lamb. And I use real chicken breast. Fresh chicken breast. That’s the key: quality. Everything has to be fresh and top quality and I have to be honest with myself about that. I don’t care if there’s chicken left over from last week; I use fresh chicken. That’s the quality of my product. And if I’m to be honest to my customers I first have to be honest with myself”.
I had just begun to talk to Sainu, sitting at one of the modest black café tables beside Witteveen's, and he had already displayed himself earnestly as a man of ethics and character. That’s my type of person!
Witteveen’s has been operating for sixty-five years under the family name. (The original shop is in Brampton). The tradition-based St Lawrence butcher shop has evolved along with the tastes of the clientele. When the owner Sainu was taking over the business he wanted to emphasize the traditional aspects. “One thing I asked about was the name. I didn’t want to change the name the customer had come to know”. Witteveen is a family name and the family has been in the business for decades. “They trusted the name to me. After they saw what a hard worker I was we decided to keep the family name”.
Witteveen's, however, doesn't just rest on the laurels of an established name. The St Lawrence Market location has evolved, adapted, and focused on quality products and customer service.
“We carry three types of chicken: regular, organic and Mennonite. That was my idea several years ago, carrying more organic produce. Six years ago organic was just picking up and when I was the manager I wanted more of these products available to my customers. And now you can see them in my shop,” he gestured behind him to the chicken case, “regular, organic from Fenwood Farm and Mennonite King Capon”. Other Witteveen's highlights include Berkshire Pork from Perth Pork, beef and pork from Beretta Farms, grass-fed beef from Wilderness Ranch and natural beef from Norpac Beef.
He continued, “I only buy meat from Ontario. Everything we sell is raised in Ontario. We produce the best meat in the country here in this province; why go to Alberta? Why go somewhere else? When we produce the best quality products right here”. I told him that my family came to Ontario ten generations ago on conestoga wagons. That we were Mennonite, originally, and that many branches of family had farmed. My grandmother’s relatives brought the first Holsteins to Canada, and another branch, the Downeys, still farm organic potatoes sold in the market today.
Sainu is from Kerala in Southern India. A fixture of the butcher shop for eleven years, Sainu started at the counter. After over a decade he is obviously not the type of owner to leave the prep and actual butchering to the employees only. I asked him how he ended up owning and running a butchering business.
“Well I was working here at the counter while I was a student. Working hard. It didn’t matter to me whether it was laying out meat in the cases, cleaning, taking the garbage, whatever. I was working hard”. After a couple of managers came and went the job was offered temporarily to him. He ended up managing for four years. “That’s when I redid all the displays. And I focused on customer service. I would rather pay the extra wage on the weekend to make sure a customer never has to wait in line. We are all busy, the customer is busy, they have many things to buy at the market, cheese, veggies, whatever. I want to give the customer the product that they want”. He's been the owner now for two years.
He counted on his fingers, “honesty, quality and customer service. These are the three things I base my business on”.
Sainu is not a boastful person. He is proud of what he does and proud to be in the market. He spoke of being an owner one of the best markets in the world (ranked #1 in the world in 2012). He spoke of his class of clientele, his loyal customers. He is excited about all the development around the market - the condos - and very hopeful for the future of business in the market. As an StLM advocate I was thrilled to hear this. Thrilled to hear about a business that saw growth in the past year and about an owner who is passionate about the market as a whole.
“I see the whole market as mine” he said with his hands to his heart. “It’s my customer who walks in, and my market. They may go here, and there, and buy from my shop or from others. I see the whole market as mine”.
Sainu sees the customer and the market in a holistic way; as a symbiosis.
I was able to share a story with him about the quality and taste of his products. Recently for a family member's birthday party I splurged and bought grass-fed New York steaks for the potluck. I kept them nice and simple - garlic, salt, pepper - and my Granddad cooked them to perfection.
As we were eating I heard several comments from the adults “This steak is so good!”, “Wow this meat is delicious” etc. But the true test came from the two kids in the room, both picky eaters. The little girl, who typically did not eat red meat, not only gobbled up her piece, but went over to her dad’s plate to steal the rest of his! Both siblings couldn’t get enough of the steak and literally ate us out of it, much to the shock of their parent. My family was surprised, but I have to say I kinda wasn’t. Kids are very sensitive to taste and texture and they know when something is good. Or when something is off.
In my conversation with Sainu I gained an even better appreciation for my favourite butcher shop. The man behind the counter is also the man behind the business, and he’s on a mission to get the best meat to his customer. I’ve always chosen Witteveen for their quality and selection of meats and because they align with my ethics. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the owner is a man of ethics himself. His philosophy shines through his focused and helpful employees. It is visible in his rich and diverse selection of meats. And it’s tasted in the food I serve to my family.
Photos copywright Amelia Pipher Cayne