The new owners of a small abattoir in eastern Ontario have not only ensured the continuation of an essential service for local farmers, but also turned their facility into an informal school for aspiring butchers.
Quinn's Meats in Stone Mills, Ont., had been up for sale for a couple of years before it was purchased in February 2021 by Kara and Darold Enright, much to the relief of local meat farmers.
While the couple are not new to meat farming, taking over an abattoir still proved to be a steep learning curve, says Kara Enright.
"I have to admit within the first few months we just looked at each and we're like, 'What have we done?'" she said. "We definitely questioned our decision several times."
WATCH | New owners of Ontario abattoir training a new generation of butchers
The previous owner, Brian Quinn, was looking to retire so he put the slaughterhouse and adjacent deli shop up for sale after 45 years of business.
"We thought, 'Oh well, someone will take it over,'" said Kara.
As the sale dragged on without a deal, many in the local meat farming community, including the Enrights who run a small cattle farm near Tweed, Ont., grew concerned about losing access to a small abattoir that provides custom cuts, at a time when the wait list for many abattoirs stretches up to a year.
"Our family, as well as other local farms, were struggling to get their animals processed," Kara said.
"There's not a lot of processing capacity and we were worried that if we lose another processor in the area, that'll put even more strain on the other abattoirs. So we decided to have a look."
She says that visit led to the eventual purchase of the abattoir, and the family's determination to serve local farmers and residents.
"We decided it was a really good opportunity. ... We love being in a community that has access to all this local food."
Unlike much larger meat processing plants, Quinn's Meats provides custom cuts of animals, performed by a staff of four to five butchers who work mostly by hand at a communal table.
Since there's no assembly line, each meat cutter at Quinn's is expected to process a variety of animals from start to finish.
Kara Enright says that workflow presented a staffing challenge for the new owners.
"What we didn't realize when we first decided to purchase the abattoir is that it's actually really difficult to find experienced and skilled labour, and particularly butchers," she said.
So the owners turned to the abattoir's veteran butcher, Dave Kingston, to pass on the skills of the trade to a newer generation through on-the-job training.
"Working here you'll become a rounded meat-cutter," said Kingston. "You'll learn all the different cuts."
One of the four student butchers is Annie Garrett, who has worked at Quinn's for the past 12 years as a meat wrapper.
"I'm too curious. I was like, 'How do you do that?'" said Garrett. "When the Enrights took over and they were short on people with the skills, I was willing to do it."
Garrett admits it's been a steep learning curve despite all her previous days spent at the facility.
"Years of watching [the butchers], they made it look easy," she said. "But as soon as you have the knife in your hand, well, there's definitely a skill there."
In the end Garrett says she is not only happy to still be a part of Quinn's Meats, she also enjoys a new level of satisfaction her new skill set brings her.
"It's kind of fun to know something I make goes home to someone's family and they feed them with it."