If necessity is the mother of invention, then burn out is the mother of change.
That’s exactly where Eric Finley found himself while working at a hotel in Hawaii. A lifelong restaurant rat since 15, Eric started as a dishwasher and worked his way to line cook. The late nights, grueling pace, and the general lifestyle brought him to a decision. Something had to give.
Eric moved back to Portland and decided to go to culinary school and aim at becoming an executive chef. Hotel executive chefs can pull it down, and that’s what Eric needed to do and stop scraping by as a line cook.
It wasn’t until about a month in to school that he realized what the real problem was: He just didn’t want to cook anymore. He was working at Castaña at the time and just didn’t have the drive to keep it up.
It was internship time, and Eric bucked the advice of his advisor and applied to one place and one place only, a restaurant she didn’t think he could get in at: The French Laundry. He got it.
All set to go, place to stay lined up, ready to revitalize his career and hopefully his passion for the job, his bags were packed. Then he got the call from his advisor saying he wasn’t going. They had closed up shop.
“She says, ‘But I can get you into Buchon.’ At that point I was so angry I was just like, ‘Fuck it. No, I’m done.’ I got another internship here in town and literally on my way to talk to the chef I whipped a u-turn and just went back to Castaña. I basically broke down crying and explained what happened, so I ended up doing my internship there.”
This turned out to be the best very that Eric needed. He found out for sure that he was done cooking, but the one thing they did a lot at Castaña was charcuterie. He latched on to this idea and it seemed to have all the upsides of still being culinary but getting out from under a boss’ thumb, off the line, and onto a more reasonable schedule. Engaged at the time, his future wife worked days. If they wanted a family, his current schedule wouldn’t work. Two married strangers that pass one another on their way to work raising a child don’t for a happy home make.
As luck would have it, after half-begrudgingly accepting a butcher position at New Seasons set to start the next day, Eric got wind of a job listing at Viande, the butcher’s counter owned by John Gorham. John Gorham is no joke and Viande is legend.
“I had to work the next day and I told myself, ‘I want this job more than anything.’ So, I took a shot. I gambled. I met him in the parking lot after immediately getting a resume ready and he told me I had to come back the next day and do a stage with Paula. If she liked me I was in.”
Well, he was in, and his working side-by-side with Paula for the next few years got them to the place that a lot of employees get to: They wanted their own space. They ended up buying the very counter they stood behind and so they had it.
We really wanted to get away from what I think is a somewhat elitist, French-style
Eric and Paula went gangbusters. They built a curing room in the market’s basement and began really focusing hard on pâtés and most importantly changing everything around to fit their vision of what a small, American-style butchery should be.
“Thats why we chose Chop. It’s a little corny, but it’s very simple, to the point, and is very Americana and accessible. We really wanted to get away from what I think is a somewhat elitist, French-style to what we were, which was truck driving, Levi’s wearing Americans.”
That first year was saying yes to every event and doing anything possible, like hitting farmers markets hard, defining themselves while distancing themselves from the legend that was Viande before Chop; it proves hard to distance yourself from a notion while in the same location.
They had gotten away from Viande at the end of that first year, but had also gotten away from themselves a bit.
“At the end of that year we looked back and realized we’d kinda lost our way a little bit. We had said yes to everything, why don’t we just start saying no to everything? We focused back in on our roots of becoming great butchers and not trying to become rockstars, which is starting to happen a lot in the butchery world.
So, that second year in business they just put on their boots and went to work. Eric continued to churn out the salami, and with the help of a very small staff things started to look up. This is Portland, a saving grace for exposure and the best way to keep a small business like Chop afloat was being able to go to the markets on the weekend and sell 400 slices of these wild pâtés and selling clean out of every cured meat he brought with him.
“I’m from Bakersfield, CA. There is no way in hell I would open up a small butcher shop in Bakersfield. I just couldn’t do it, but we are fortunate to be here (in Portland) and that people love what we do. We are fortunate to be in this part of town (Alphabet District). I probably wouldn’t even sell as much pate and charcuterie if we were out in Tigard or something.”
They had really hit their stride in the third year when Eric began to think like a restauranteur who’s tasted success: let’s open another one.
“What if we build a USDA facility and a shop? Let’s go to the other side of the river. We’re not known over there at all. We had this crazy line at the Saturday Market, I bet we can pack it in. Let’s expand our brand over there.
“John over at Tasty & Sons had this space in the restaurant they’d walled off. At the time, my wife worked for Tasty & Sons and I knew what they were doing. They were pulling down 350 covers and that was just for a brunch. That’s 350 people looking at us, all eyes on our shop.”
The Williams location, Chop 2, opened May 14, 2011. Eric’s first child was born May 14, 2011.
“I had overextended myself. I was dealing with a newborn baby, my wholesale business, and expanding my retail shop, by myself. Oh, not to mention keeping a marriage together.”
The USDA-approved facility was great for wholesale production, but the retail space could not have been a bigger disaster, especially financially.
“Well, what I didn’t realize as a bad business owner and decision maker was that after people got done eating brunch they didn’t want to buy any charcuterie because they were full thanks to John Gorham. We were also tucked away in the back…and (maybe worst of all, the kiss of death sometimes) there was no parking on Williams.
“We were in pretty bad financial debt with Chop 2. The Williams location had sucked us dry and we were in pretty bad shape to the point that we were worried if Chop was going to still exist. We can either sell a sandwich for four dollars, which takes two people, or we can sell a salami for four buck and it takes only one person which lasts forever. So, I decided that on January 1st, 2013; that we were shutting the doors. It was sad, but it was sinking us so badly that when you’re worrying about payroll, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit. We’re done. We’re dead.’”
The first year he was back there in the plant, Eric made 300 pounds of salami every single day by himself for a year. Eric was just grinding away, growing a wholesale business that fit much better in that location than retail. It was a mistake he’ll admit, but that’s business.
It wasn’t until January first of this year when Paula and I looked back at where we had been and where we were now that we saw the growth of the company. We were now completely out of it, out of debt and even into a surplus that we realized, “Wow, that was a huge accomplishment.”
Chop is now on the brink of a goal Eric had in mind some nine months ago. While digging themselves out of the dregs of near ruin, Eric made a decision to try to differentiate himself from the big boys in charcuterie.
“I am so small, I can’t beat the big guys. I can’t compete. So, I had to figure out how to get around them. Nine months ago, we decided to go all natural. No more nitrates and a switch to celery salt for curing.
“The only reason I did that was to get in to Whole Foods. That was my end game.
“It wasn’t until the VP for Whole Foods here in the NW, a Chop customer for some time, saw me at Saturday Market and said, ‘You guys are all natural now? Let’s talk.’”
Anyone else would have jumped at the chance and thrown caution to the wind, but Eric, maybe a little snake bit by Williams, and certainly a bit more savvy, put the breaks on.
With the holiday season coming up, and his production maxed out in the space he had, he knew that a massive partnership with Whole Foods would have spread him too thin. He asked the VP to come back to him after the holidays, and if he was still interested, they could talk then.
Starting May 13th, Chop will have three varieties of charcuterie in your local Whole Foods. Just one of only a select few brands available. He also has wholesale accounts to cover and a butcher’s counter to supply. The problem he’s running into now is one you wouldn’t expect: He can’t make enough.
“It’s a huge problem. The difference between wholesale and retail is that I simply cannot say no to my wholesale accounts. The minute I do that, they’re just going to pick up and go to someone else.”
Eric and Chop are in a bit of limbo now. They’ve got options, a few problems to solve, but workable and manageable issues that Paula and Eric will tackle as they’ve done for five years.
Eric is still a butcher at heart, and that means something to him. Though he’s in the plant most days, he started behind that counter where the familiar face of Joel is the one that greets you most often now. Eric empowers the guys who work for him. Once upon a time it was all Eric’s recipes and experiments, and those are still around in a more refined form, but Joel is keeping things funky and interesting.
Fuck you, old man. I’m gonna prove you wrong
“A lot of people kinda shy away from pates. That French-style does, I’ll be honest, kinda taste like cat food sometimes. With everything we make we aim for the American palette. I’m not old world at all. I could care less about Europe and the European palette. Our pates and fun and funky and very well balanced.”
Eric is also bucking the old-timer trend of guarding his secrets and ideas.
Camas Davis approached Eric about a year ago to teach a class. Eric, though averse to doing “events” anymore while focusing on his business and his trade, decided these hands-on classes with Camas through the Portland Meat Collective were an ideal way to spread his messages and experience in butchery and charcuterie.
Camas had actually applied to work at Chop before heading off to France for a while. Though getting a job at Chop wasn’t in the cards at the time, he really appreciated Camas’ publishing background, knowledge, and experience with the Portland food scene. From whole hog to Salami, Eric has been able to pass on his knowledge to the up-and-coming charcuteries of the world.
“There’s this old guy mentality in the meat industry, and in salami for sure, that this is some kind of secretive thing we have to do. ‘You need to go to Italy and train like I trained.’ Once I started hearing that I was like, ‘Fuck you, old man. I’m gonna prove you wrong.’
“All of the younger guys coming up and doing this, we all know each other. We want to break that whole old world mentality that you’re gonna have to learn to do this yourself. I don’t think it has to that way. I think it can be this great, collaborative community. I love talking about meat. I’ve had other butchers come through the shop from all over the country and I will show them literally everything and answer any question they have.”
In the competitive, narrow-margined world of charcuterie and butchery it’s a careful balancing act of art and science. The best are part philosopher and part cook. Your butcher, in Eric’s eyes, is a part of the family. In his years at Viande and then Chop, he watched children grow up, people pass away, people struggle and keep coming in to support him and his business, the least he could do was care about them too. We could use a little more of that right now, and Eric isn’t shy about what he hopes that might look like:
“Hell, I’d love to see a butcher shop on every corner.”