Could this be the best retail butcher shop in the world?
It’s a brave suggestion, but seasoned international travellers say there is nothing to match it in New York, Beverley Hills, Tokyo, Paris or London.
Put simply, the Victor Churchill’s retail butchery in Sydney’s inner east makes a statement about red meat like no other place of meat purveyance on earth.
To some, it is an indulgence – an extravagant folly which could never hope to financially recoup its obviously enormous original investment. The shop fit-out is rumoured to have cost $2 million.
Some say the development is a ‘money is no object’ monument to its founder, Victor Puharich, who started Vic’s Premium Quality Meats in 1972 and built the business into one of Sydney’s most successful meat wholesalers.
To others, Victor Churchill’s makes a brilliant, fearless statement about just how far the red meat retailing concept can be taken, elevating highest quality beef and lamb into something worthy of reverential worship.
Oprah Winfrey a fan
It certainly has some serious pulling power. Oprah Winfrey paid a visit during her recent Australian expedition. International food and travel TV shows are not infrequent visitors.
Pull-up in a taxi outside the Puharich family’s Victor Churchill outlet in the leafy suburb of Woolahra, and the first thing that strikes you is that this is serious Sydney ‘old money’ territory, where disposable income knows no bounds. The shop nearby is a perfumery, selling bottles of scent that can run into four figures.
It’s not until you push through the heavy bronze doors (solid brass metal sausages form the door handles, cast from real Victor Churchill snags) that the place really starts to leave an impression. Firstly it’s laid out nothing like a conventional butchery.
There is no obvious counter across which the butcher deals with his customers. Instead, the wrapping and transaction area is a discrete alcove. The large space is full of dark wood panelling, subdued indirect lighting, acres of brass fittings and expansive non-slip marble floors. The whole place takes on the air of a gentlemen’s club rather than a site where customers come to buy meat.
Soft speaking, knowledgeable attendants glide across the open floor-space, discussing menu ideas with customers and helping design their next meal.
The quality of the red meat on display matches the extraordinary expectations built-up by the shop’s appearance. To put things into perspective, on the day of Beef Central’s visit, Rangers Valley 300-day grainfed Angus – widely regarded as one of the best branded beef programs in the nation – was only the middle-level of three beef product ranges on offer.
At the top end is Blackmore fullblood Wagyu, longfed for more than 500 days at Peechelba feedlot. This is the full-monty, marbling score 9+ product that normally finds its way into world-class restaurants in the US, Russia and elsewhere, run by god-like chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Keller and others.
At $189.99/kg for dry-aged sirloin, the product is not cheap, but then nobody steps into Victor Churchill hoping to pick up a bargain.
Purchases tend to be modest in volume, but high in total dollar price: an older lady selects two perfect eye-fillet mignons, and a middle aged businessman, six or seven pristine, plump, perfectly-trimmed lamb loin cutlets. Neither get much change out of $60.
But there is an undoubted ‘brag factor’ attached to making a purchase at Victor Churchill’s, particularly if the attractive carry-home bag can be positioned strategically so that dinner guests can see it on the kitchen counter.
Unique, striking features
The range of unique, striking features within the store is almost too long to list.
One of the most obvious is a temperature and humidity-controlled dry-aging room, centrally located in the store and entirely surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass. This provides an uninterrupted customer view of primals and quarters moving past on a constantly rotating chain.
The dry-aging room features a dramatically backlit Himalayan ‘salt brick’ wall that lines the entire back wall. The translucent amber-like salt blocks are extracted from mines in Pakistan, and apparently play a vital role in the aging of beef by absorbing moisture, purifying the air and infusing the raw material with a beautiful salty flavour.
The room is kept at 2-4 degrees C, with most of the product being dry-aged for 21-28 days. The key effects of dry aging are the concentration of flavour through the dehydration effect (yield loss of 12-20 percent is common), and the breaking-down of connective tissue in the muscle, resulting in more tender meat.
The refrigeration units in the display windows work on a high-humidity coil principle – normally considered much too expensive for use in retail applications, but which keep the displays in pristine condition without drying or discolouration.
During demolition when the site was being established, an old convict-built sandstone wall was discovered and it was decided to incorporate it into the overall shop design. Normally this would have been impossible in butchery working areas for food safety reasons, but the solution was to erect more floor-to-ceiling non-reflective glass as the backdrop wall for a butchers’ ‘working stage’ room, also in full view of customers.
Elsewhere, the hot and cold kitchens feature cattle-hide clad walls, also protected behind floor-to-ceiling glass for food safety reasons, designed by famous Texas-based leather artist, Kyle Bunting.
The front entry area display window features a see-through double-glazed refrigerated vitrine which allows customers and passers-by to view an ever-changing array of hanging meat and poultry – all displayed on custom-made copper and glass shelving. Produce is also featured in an illuminated ice display.
Custom copper refrigerated cabinets line a wall where premium meats are displayed, together with value-added specialities such as terrines, pies, pates and parfaits prepared on-site.
The deli (charcuterie) counter displays many of the world’s top quality cured, artisanal meats such as Spanish Jamón Ibérico, prosciutto and chorizo sliced with legendary Dutch Berkel meat slicers. Alongside is a specially imported French Labesse Giraudon brass rôtisserie for poultry and game birds. A museum-quality antique Berkel floor-standing slicer, restored in Europe at a cost of $40,000, is displayed nearby.
“With a retail space like this, it’s not just about the product or the service, it’s about something more – and that’s the experience the customer has,” said Anthony Puharich, chief executive of Vic’s Meats, which developed and owns the butchery.
“The whole engaging of the customer is something that’s very important to us. I suppose it’s what dictated the design.”
The Victor Churchill project was intended to be a “flagship, a one-off store,” he said.
“We always wanted to break the conventional mould, but we also wanted it to be a shop that locals could be proud of.”
The butchery became the first Australian business to win “Best in Retail” at the 2010 Interior Design awards in New York. It also won last year’s Australian Interior Designers’ Premier Award for Interior Design Excellence and Innovation.
“I didn’t want that physical barrier dividing the customer from the person who was serving or giving advice,” Anthony said about the layout, which dispenses with the traditional butcher’s counter and displays meat in refrigerated cabinets, with salespeople working the floor.
He said it was the relaxed nature of the retail experience that had been Victor Churchill’s greatest success.
“I just wanted to make the meat purchasing experience a lot more personal,” Anthony said.