In his spotlessly clean and gleaming premises in Apirana Avenue, home-made small goods dangle alluringly behind the front window. Step into the cool interior and you’ll see refrigerator cabinets stacked high with a vast array of fresh and vacuum-packed meat in cuts you’ll only find in a traditional, local butcher’s shop.
Avon has been offering his special cuts and award-winning strings of sausages to loyal customers in Glen Innes and across Auckland since opening his doors in 1980, and says he has seen many changes over that time, both in the local landscape, in the meat people buy, and in the way they like to cook their steaks and other joints.
His first taste of working was a holiday job he fell into when he was about 12 years old. “I had my first experience in a butcher’s shop, in Te Kuiti, raking sawdust on the floor of my uncle’s shop, and preparing chickens, ducks and turkeys. They had to be plucked; there was no Tegal’s in those days. So it was my job to deal with them,” Avon says. “I couldn’t do it now.”
Then in 1966, he left school and began working for a small butchery in Manurewa, where his mother did her shopping. He started as an apprentice and did his time, working there for about 15 years, as well as in other shops owned by his boss, “until a part-time chap said to me that if I didn’t move on and get into my own business before I was 30, I would end up stuck in a rut. I had wanted to take over the business I was working in, but I could see that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.”
So, in 1980, Avon acted on the advice of his workmate, and became the proud new owner of a run-down butchery in Glen Innes. It took a while to settle down and understand the differences between running a small, local butcher and having a shop based in a much larger centre. “People shopped differently in the town centre and had different buying habits – it was a matter of figuring it all out and being prepared,” he says.
“And of course, people’s patterns change over time anyway; to stay in business you have to keep up with what your customers want.”
Avon says one of the biggest things he’s noticed since he’s been in business is that people are eating less meat; and when they do, they want better quality, leaner cuts.
Starting off as an apprentice in an old-fashioned, traditional butchery has given him skills and knowledge that modern butchers may not have, and Avon has never abandoned those early lessons on the shop floor. He still counts among his specialities his home-cured bacon, hand-made sausages and other meat products, such as dried sausages and biltong, that he makes on the premises.
But whatever’s in those recipes, it must be darn good, because Avon’s hand-made sausages are without question very popular, and the butchery sells between 200 and 500 kg of them every week. Customers can choose between around 20 different varieties, and to keep up with requests many of these are now gluten-free. Some of the more popular sausages are the award-winning pure beef; the beef, bacon and mushroom; lamb supreme (lemon pepper, mint and sage); spicy Tunisian lamb; and in the gluten-free range the top sellers are Spanish chorizo, Italian fennel and chorizo crillio.
“We tweak our recipes regularly, based on research and customer requests, and we’re always happy to try recipes that people bring into us,” says Avon. “Our Argentinian sausage, for example, is an authentic recipe that an Argentinian customer brought in some time ago and asked us to make, but it is very popular now. It takes a bit of time and experimenting to get recipes like these right, but when we do, they can be very successful.”
Avon has a loyal following of Argentinian and South African customers who come from all over Auckland and the North Shore to buy his home-made products, like the dried sausages that take six days to prepare. “People will travel to get something if it is really good, so in some ways we are a destination shop.
Over the years this care and attention has been recognised, and Avon has won a clutch of medals and awards for his various meats and home-made sausages. His streaky bacon is regularly honoured with gold medals: “It’s the best in the country,” he says proudly, and he wins gold, too, for his beef sausages, “also the best in New Zealand”, as well as a whole fistful of other medals over the years. “Winning these medals backs up the quality that we are always striving to achieve,” says Avon.
Ask Avon about the secrets behind his successful bacon and sausages and the most you’ll get out of him is that it’s the good quality products that go into them in the first place – plus “my secret recipes that I won’t disclose.”
“It’s the little details that make us special,” says Avon. “There aren’t many shops carrying the variety that we stock – salami, bacon, sausages, many different cuts of meat. Our homemade products are very strong sellers, and because we understand the quality of the meat, we can offer cuts in styles that the supermarket simply doesn’t do.”
Regular favourites with customers are beef short ribs, “they’re not always available at the supermarket”, butterflied lamb, pork belly and pork spare ribs – “I make sure they are always in stock” – and whole fillets – scotch, eye and sirloin.
Avon holds up a tomahawk steak, at 700-800g, a huge, juicy hunk of beef that you’d never set your eyes on in a supermarket. Originally developed in the US, in – not surprisingly Texas, it is relatively new here, but is very popular now. “We buy in whole carcasses so we can cut steaks like this, nice, big, thick steaks, which allow people to appreciate the quality of the meat. We like to offer different styles and less well-known cuts, and we find our customers like that, too.”
Keeping his prices competitive is important for Avon, too: “As owner and manager, working here myself, with a lower rental than some areas, and lower overheads because I am a smaller business, I manage to keep my prices down, and my customers happy!”
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By listening carefully to his customers, Avon Rzoska, owner of Avon’s Butchery, has kept his business humming for close on 40 years.