By Jessica Coleman (Daily Staff Writer)
Doug Aylestock pushes around a side of beef in his shop’s meat locker. A meat cutter for 15 years, Aylestock says he realized his dream when he opened Blue Ridge Meats of Front Royal.
FRONT ROYAL - Doug Aylestock has not purchased meat from a grocery store since 1982.
It was at this point in his life that he became a butcher and discovered the difference between a mass-produced product and a fresh hometown cut.
In a world of mystery meat bought from giant retailers who often buy their products from overseas, Aylestock has dared to take a stand against poor quality meat.
Along with his wife of 13 years, Lois, he owns Blue Ridge Meats of Front Royal, a U.S. Department of Agriculture federal plant, producing retail and wholesale meats, naturally.
It’s the realization of a dream for Aylestock, who has worked in the meat-cutting field for 15 years. The couple’s friends, Rick and Elaine Fields, invested in their project and help them run the business.
“We built this from nothing,” Aylestock said. “It’s not been easy, but it’s really starting to take off.”
The Aylestocks founded the original Blue Ridge Meats in Loudoun County 16 years ago, where they processed deer for hunters. Last year, they processed about 1,000 to 1,300 deer. Mrs. Aylestock said she thinks this may be their last year running that facility in order to focus more attention on the larger Front Royal location.
“We’re hoping to bring some of that business here,” her husband said.
They buy predominantly local livestock. One hundred percent of the hogs the couple buy for production into retail meats are local. They raise their own sheep for wool and meat, and about 90 percent of the cattle they use come from the Shenandoah Valley.
“If we try to produce more local food, it will increase the monetary value of what [farmers] are doing,” Mrs. Aylestock said. “We want to do whatever we can to keep agriculture alive in this area.”
They also help out local 4-H members whenever they can, buying from them when possible, giving out prizes at the county fairs and bringing them in to see the fruits of their labor after their animals have been slaughtered.
“This is where their work really shows,” Mrs. Aylestock said, adding that many of the children want to see how the meat turned out to know what they are doing right and what they can improve upon.
The motto of Blue Ridge Meats is “Plain and simple, like it used to be, farm to table.”
The couple bought the plant that was formerly Guard Hill Meats in September 2006. They are quickly approaching their one-year anniversary, and both say the business is really catching on in the community.
“We’re just starting to build relationships with farmers,” Aylestock said. “But I think they’ll be coming here for a long time.”
The facility slaughters hogs, sheep and cattle for farmers. Hunters also can bring in their deer for processing. Blue Ridge Meats cuts and packages the meat per customer request. They provide paper and vacuum wraps.
“We are custom butchers,” Mrs. Aylestock said. “We let folks have the choice.”
These self-described “animal people” use humane slaughter practices and maintain immaculate facilities. None of the animals are given hormones or growth stimulants. There is no rough handling of the animals, and they are given food and water before being slaughtered, a practice many slaughterhouses avoid. Some women from local farms who bring their animals in even use homeopathic therapies to keep the animals calm, Mrs. Aylestock said.
The Aylestocks appear to be perfectionists about the whole process and aim for quality control that their customers can depend on.
“Customers are concerned not only with characteristics such as the nutritive content of animal products, but also want assurances that food animals are raised in humane conditions and receive humane treatment during handling and slaughter,” according to the USDA Web site. “USDA tracks animal health and welfare issues as they relate to food safety and the production and availability of animals for processing into meat.”
Blue Ridge Meats’ USDA certification is a matter of great pride for the Aylestocks, as they consider their humane practices mandatory for a superior product.
Mrs. Aylestock said she thinks the humane treatment positively affects the quality of the meat, although there has been little documented evidence to give weight to this belief.
“All the [meat] recalls that are going on right now are a direct result of getting away from this,” Mrs. Aylestock said, referring to Blue Ridge Meats’ relatively small enterprise and natural, humane practices.
They also prepare retail meats that can be bought in the store. Nothing in the retail store has ever been frozen. Several types of steaks are available and cost from $9 to $10 a pound. Whole or half sides of beef and barbecue hogs are also available. Prices are always subject to change as market prices fluctuate.
The specialty of Blue Ridge Meats, however, is its own special sausage. Aylestock, a self-described and wife-approved “great cook,” mixes his own secret batch of spices for the many varieties of sausage they sell. Customers can choose from mild, spicy, hand-linked, extra sage, Italian, sweet Italian or “good old country style.”
“I have a little different perspective about making sausage,” Aylestock said. “It has to taste good to me.”
He added that if customers bring in sausage recipes that they want him to follow, he would attempt the concoction, but if he didn’t like it, he would not make it.
The Aylestocks also smoke their own bacon and cure their own hams, or they will prepare these items for farmers who bring in their own hogs. Hot dogs, snack sticks, beef jerky and other smoked meats also can be prepared for customers.
Wool products made from the Aylestocks’ own flock of Romey sheep are sold in the retail shop as well. Skeins of yarn, naturally dyed, are available for those who crochet or knit. Wool blankets, hats and shawls are made by Elaine Fields, who also does custom orders. They range in price from $20 to $180, depending on the product.
Mrs. Aylestock said the wool products are an important part of the establishment.
“You’re using the whole animal,” she said. “There’s nothing going to waste.”
Baked goods are available periodically and vary in price. Amish cheeses also sometimes find their way into the retail shop. Polyface free-range hens from West Virginia are among Mrs. Aylestock’s favorite products, and Alaskan salmon is flown in once a week.
An average day at Blue Ridge Meats starts with several inspections. First, Aylestock said, freezer temperatures are checked and the data recorded. Preoperative and sanitary inspections are completed before equipment is put together and cutting begins. They cut until about 4 p.m. and then clean up and break down the equipment, only to start again the next day.
“It’s a busy day,” Aylestock said.
There are three full-time meat cutters and one who works part time. Mrs. Aylestock also is around daily to help handle the administrative aspects of the business and assist customers.
There used to be a lot more slaughterhouses than there are today, her husband said, but customers have gotten away from buying their meat at the family-run establishments.
“I think it’s coming around, though,” he said. “I think people want to know where their meat is coming from.”
Blue Ridge Meats is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. They also set up shop at the Freight Station Farmer’s Market parking lot in Winchester on Tuesdays and Saturdays. For more information, call 636-6050 or visit the Web site at www.blueridgemeats.com.
Contact Jessica Coleman at email@example.com