Friday, October 24, 2014

Edible Ojai: Watkins Cattle Co.’s butcher shop to spotlight pasture-to-plate

As published in Edible Ojai, Winter 2014

Watkins Cattle Co.’s butcher shop to spotlight pasture-to-plate
After five years of making the rounds of Ventura County’s farmers’markets with their coolers full of pasture-raised grass-fed beef, Watkins Cattle Co. is planning a March opening of their very own butcher shop in Meiners Oaks, in the heart of the Ojai Valley.
“We’ve always wanted to open one,” says Shane Watkins, 43, who co-owns the company with his father, John. “We should have done this in ’08, but we just didn’t have the capital.”
What started with just a few head of cattle has grown to an annual herd of 250—most coming from their 3,500-acre Cañada Larga Ranch in Ojai—and a seemingly insatiable demand for a product many meat purveyors can’t boast offering.
“Everything we are harvesting is grown by us or grown to our standards,” says the younger Watkins.
After numerous books and documentary films have focused public attention on the horrors of modern factory-farming of meat, and more than a few health crises attributed to the overcrowding and pharmaceutical practices it entails, many customers are abandoning mass-produced, grain-fed meat in favor of a healthier and more
humanely raised product.
“It’s always been the way we did it … no hormones, never any antibiotics and open pasture. We feed grass
hay and supplement with vitamins.” The animals are never confined in a feedlot, Watkins added quickly.
Despite a population that leans heavily toward vegetarianism, Watkins says getting started in Ojai wasn’t difficult at all.
“We’ve actually changed a lot of vegetarians!” he says with a laugh.
His tone quickly becomes more serious, though, to drive home a point: “We’re not in the business of killing animals; we’re in the business of bringing good healthy meat to the table.”
Healthy animals move around and aren’t confined. Cattle are meant to eat grasses, not the grains used by factory farms as a fast, cheap way to fatten livestock. Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and higher
in omega-3s (healthy fats). And it should come as no surprise that healthier, happier animals taste better.
The Watkinses have discovered that aging the meat 20–23 days also gives it a distinct flavor and tenderizes it, which is especially important in a drought year, when the cattle are moving more to get to a water source—using muscles that would never get a workout in a feedlot.
As a third-generation butcher and rancher, Watkins knows meat and is passionate about old traditions. His grandfather was in the ranching business in Temecula, and in the early ’60s established a slaughtering and cutting facility at the Lompoc Penitentiary. Shane’s father, John, worked the retail side for nearly 40 years, finally retiring from Scolari’s in 1998.
He remembers the days when you’d go to the market and head back to the butcher counter, where you would see hanging carcasses—something you just don’t see nowadays.
“Butchering is a dying breed. It’s an art to break down and cut meat,” he says.
With the butcher shop, Watkins looks forward to providing a more customized experience than they have been able to provide at the farmers’ markets. And you can bet you’ll see a few carcasses hanging in the cooler.
“The butcher shop is going to be fun. We’re going to experiment with jerkies and snack sticks. We’ll have bacon-wrapped burgers, pork and beef burgers.”
The Watkinses have been raising hogs and chickens, too, which have steadily increased the variety they are able to off er. (Forty percent of their business is with more than a dozen local restaurants.)
Watkins also looks forward to doing customized orders at the shop and cutting steaks on the spot to any thickness. As for the locavores wanting to know more about where their meat comes from, no problem: “We love to talk about our product. We can even show you a
picture if you want.”
The new shop will be able to handle game processing for local hunters, too, which Watkins says has been a growing business.
As for what’s next, Watkins and his father have lofty goals: “I’m on horseback six or seven days a week and Dad’s in the plant. It’d be nice to have a point where it’s our full-time business.”
Hearing Watkins talk, it’s clear Ojai is just a first step.
“My future is to give Harris Ranch a run for their money! Maybe have a shop in Thousand Oaks, Malibu, Santa Barbara.”
“But,” he says, slowing down and turning serious again, “I don’t want to lose the personal touch.”

In March, look for the new Watkins Butcher Shop at 105 E. El Roblar Dr., Meiners Oaks. More info at

For photos and recipes pertaining to this feature and more from this issue, click here: