BY ELISABETH ANDREWS
When David Schell needed a part-time job in college, he followed his roommate behind the meat counter of Mr. D’s grocery store (now O’Malia’s). “I never would have expected, three years later, to be considering what I was considering,” he says. His idea was to start an independent butcher shop in Bloomington, which he described in a business plan written as homework for a class at IU. Before he knew it, he found himself, at 22, an entrepreneur.
Six years later, The Butcher’s Block has been an immense success. Located in the strip mall on the northeast corner of East 3rd Street and the Bypass, its weekly turnover can total up to 30,000 pounds of meat. The shop supplies many of the town’s top restaurants, but its primary focus is on retail and customer service. Many shoppers stop in every week; some, every day. “There are people who haven’t missed a Saturday since we opened,” Schell says.
The shop’s unofficial slogan is “Today’s gourmet done the old-fashioned way,” and it lives up to that promise with a delectable mix of traditional and trendy elements. Along with the white aprons, handwritten signs, and tomato-red T-bones and sirloin, there are rabbit-and-ginger sausages, fluorescent handmade pasta, and spice rubs in flavors like Tokyo Miso, Barbados BBQ, and Marrakesh Za’atar. Schell stocks buffalo, elk, ostrich, alligator, goat, and wild boar in addition to beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, and veal. He also reserves 16 feet of his counter for fresh seafood, flown in daily from both coasts.
While the 28-year-old Schell is the source for all things culinarily current, when it comes to ribeye, pork chops, and chicken breast, he defers to his formidable staff of old-world butchers. These men, who collectively have nearly 150 years in the business, form a veritable who’s who in local meat-cutting history. Ralph Calabrese, 77, trained Richard Powell, 65, who in turn trained Ralph’s son Greg, 55. The three men oversee all the meat preparation, including grinding 16 different types of sausage and smoking their own salmon, ribs, and deli meats.
“I’m doing it just like we used to do it years ago,” says Greg. “In the old days we had beef hanging on rails, and now it comes in boxes, but it’s the same basic routine we had when I was fifteen years old.”