As remote cattle towns go, Normanton in Queensland’s gulf country boasts its fair share of distinctive buildings. There’s the famous “Purple Pub”, the stately iron-laced Carpentaria council chambers and the historic triple-gabled Burns Philp general store for a start.
However another that stands out, not for heritage reasons but purely because of its attention-grabbing bright green coat of paint, is the Gallagher family’s butchery.
The shop’s vibrant lime livery is just one clue as to the many ways the Gallagher family aims to provide a remote country butcher shop with a difference.
The shop has been owned and run by local cattle producers Michael and Nola Gallagher and their sons Ashley, Calvin and Troy and their families for the past 14 years.
Michael’s family came to Normanton as drovers almost a century ago. He continued the tradition until the early-1980s, when improvements in road transport and restrictions on walking cattle during the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign saw demand for droving services dry up.
Michael and Nola had previously used their time to buy country around Normanton as it became available, and when droving work ran out they focused their energies and resources on building up their cattle breeding and growing operation.
Today they run a herd of 5000 cattle on a network of properties that form a semi-circle around Normanton, in addition to a growing property on downs country further south at Richmond.
A paddock sale with a catch
Becoming butchers was never actually in the Gallagher’s plans.
The opportunity arose when a local butcher offered a handy downs finishing paddock for sale in 1999, just the type of country the Gallaghers were seeking to complement their bullock finishing operation.
However, the paddock came with a catch. The butcher was only prepared to sell it if the purchaser bought the butcher shop as well.
Michael had plenty of experience in butchering to draw upon, having worked for the same butcher over many years during his off-seasons as a drover, but the family knew little about the business of running a butcher shop or retailing to the public.
Despite their initial reluctance, with three sons working in the family business they decided it was worth giving the idea a go.
Fourteen years later, with the business supplying a large clientele of locals in Normanton and Karumba, as well as tourists, supermarkets, pubs, caravan parks, Gulf island communities, cattle stations and fishing vessels, it’s fair to say they’ve made it work.
Nola said the family had simply had to learn the hard way, “by doing”, and through patience. “It took a while to build up,” she said. “We didn’t do anything great to start with, but we learned as we went. Eventually it has built up and built up throughout the years.”
Middle son Calvin in particular, a university-qualified mechanical engineer, has embraced the culinary side of the butchery, and develops value-added products such as gourmet sausages, oven-ready meals and daily wet dishes every day.
The several regional Sausage King trophies that adorn the shop’s front counter – all won with sausages made from their own grassfed Brahman beef – stand as testament to the family’s commitment to producing consumer-satisfying products.
The key to making vertical integration work
Many cattle producers have toyed with the idea of value-adding their own beef and extending their level of ownership through the supply chain, however few that have tried have been able to make it work in practice.
When asked what their secret has been, Michael answers simply: “Bloody hard work”. Oldest son Ashley, who also sits on the Carpentaria Shire Council, adds that it comes down to taking the time to know and understand the business of meat retailing, and being “hands on”.
“Just the hours and the preparation that goes into it, you have to do it yourself, you can’t put a manager into the shop,” he explains.
“You have got to take a lot of care with it, making sure that you are only putting good quality product out there and to make sure your workers are doing that.
“It takes hours and hours and hours of work every day to turn it out the way you want it.”
The Gallaghers uniformly agree that having several family members working together is a huge advantage for their business, as it is enables each to share the load, to take breaks as required, to successfully manage both the cattle production and butchering sides of the businesses, and ensuring that the businesses are working towards the same goal.
The butchery has also complemented the cattle business.
The Gallaghers process six to eight finished steers, typically aged two to three years, from their own Brahman cattle herd for the butcher shop every week.
A combination of licks and molasses-based liquid suspension supplements are used to finish cattle to slaughter weights. To ensure a secure supply of cattle during the wet season, several decks of steers are trucked in to holding paddock close to town at the start of each summer.
Additional red meat needs such as rumps and fillets and white meat products such as chicken and fish also bought from wholesalers every week.
Changing consumer trends
Whereas few might expect a butcher shop in a remote corner of Australia to provide much more than a basic range of muscle meats and trimmings, the Gallagher’s meat cabinet offers a diverse array of red and white meat choices, as well as value-added products and ready-to-cook meals.
Ashley said the family has noticed distinct changes in consumer preferences in the 14 years they have been running the butchery.
“When we first took over this shop, if we put a stir-fry in this cabinet it would still be there a week later,” he said.
“Now we make it in a 40kg batch and it is all gone in a day.”
Their locally produced grassfed beef – most of which is drawn from their own herd – is also very popular among locals and tourists alike.
Provided cattle are maintained on a constant plane of nutrition without setbacks, eating quality often improves with age, Michael maintains.
“There is a lot of talk about milk tooth and two tooth, but unless it has a bit of age the flavour isn’t there,” Michael said.
Nola told Beef Central that while the family was initially hesitant about taking the plunge into butchering, they are now grateful they did.
“We didn’t really want the butcher shop in the first place but it has been a life saver I suppose you could say,” Nola said.
“You can generate an income from a butcher shop when you’re not getting much from cattle.
“It is cash flow for us, and it also means you can sell your own cattle.”