Ben Howe Butcher is closing this week after almost sixty years. This story is from an interview with Ben Howe that has been edited
My old man started in Hawksburn in the 60’s or 70’s. He worked for a guy called Wes Oxley who, by the end of the War, owned about 20 stores. Bank managers were like gods back then and my dad couldn’t get a loan for a flat. But, back in those days, if you had a good boss and you really worked hard, they would often help their staff with regard to loans, housing, a well paid job and so forth.
These small business owners acted as benefactors. My old man had the same philosophy. If he had staff members around for over 10 years, he would often help them buy a shop and set it up. That is how things evolved many years ago.
So my dad leased a place before moving to Glenhuntly Road in the late 1970’s. But the more shops Mr. Oxley owned, the more money he lost. He used to hire a factory in High St. Prahran where they made sausages and transported them across the city.
Mr. Oxley also hired three full time accountants. He didn’t care what the managers of the shops did as long as they made a profit. If they underperformed for about three weeks, he’d be there on Monday morning and he’d relieve them for somebody else.
We weren’t the only butcher on the street back then. There used to be about six on Glenhuntly Road in the 1970’s. There was about six on Fitzroy St, now there are none. There was about seven on Hampton St. now there’s two.
I don’t attribute the closure of butchers to the prevalence of supermarkets. The supermarket effect is overrated. What’s killing the fresh food industry is that we are a takeaway society. I’m really concerned about obesity and the high sugar content on the takeaway menu. Sugar is addictive, and the brain sensors always want more of it.
In the olden days, families would eat dinner together more often. I think it was a happier time. But, as people buy takeaway food instead of fresh vegetables and meat, it becomes harder for these small shops to remain successful.
I sometimes stand by people at the supermarket and look at their trolleys. They have only got a little packet of mince, or a little packet of chicken ribs or wings. There’s not lots of meat in there, just sugary and junky stuff.
Every day meat comes fresh in the morning. We pare it, then we sell it. The next day, more meat comes in. We pare it, then we sell it. My old man’s philosophy was “everybody should be able to afford to eat good food.” That used to reverberate throughout my mind continuously during the day, and I’d make sure that I hold the edict that he instilled in me.
But they are building apartment blocks here. The Coles around the corner is going, that’ll be twelve stories. This shop will become eight stories. I notice there’s a cyclone fence around the service station near McDonald, it looks like that is going to go. Eventually, we will have plenty of places to live, but nobody will have a job.
I think Glenhuntly road is a bit behind the other main streets. I hear stories about Chapel St and Richmond which are horrifying. There are empty shops everywhere, with ‘For Lease’ signs all over them.
And if you go on the Business for Sale website, there’s zillions of cafes on there. You can pick them up for virtually nothing if you want. How many more cafes do we need. How much coffee can we drink. Why are there bakeries everywhere? It’s because a kilo of wheat costs jack-shit. Then they add water to it and it expands and you get a couple of bucks for fucking nothing. Meat is expensive. A cow costs $2000.
I think you should judge a street by its core businesses. Fresh food. Fresh vegetables. Fresh meats. Supermarkets. Banks. These main staples gives a street its character. Not the fact that it has 35 coffee shops. The old saying is that the best way to maintain a profit is to sell a service, and selling a product – especially fresh food – is hard. But, if no one does it, the end result is people will miss out on the opportunity to buy fresh produce.
The only way that places like mine could remain competitive in the long run is through a coup d’etat. A revolution of people voting with their feet. A movement of people saying to themselves “I want good food.”
I hope there is room for these types of shops to open in the future. The biggest detriment to this industry has been the live sheep and cattle export. It’s the worst thing that has happened. This is because a) jobs leave the country. b) it is inhumane and C) all of the product goes overseas. It’s a bit like gas. We sign all of these future contracts, and we don’t know what the future holds
Unfortunately, there’s also so many different meanings to the term “value added.” It changes depending on whether you’re a retailer or a consumer. My problem is that people only look at it from a financial perspective. I’m too involved in the movement. The romanticism of being in a business and interacting with people. If I had been more ruthless I probably would’ve done better, but I’m too emotionally attached.
I know one thing. I am down in the gutter. I talk to the poor people. I talk to the rich people. I talk to the middle class. I interact with all kinds of people all day long. If you’re sitting in the office in Canberra, how do you know what’s happening?
I’d like my next job to be one where I help people. I don’t want to run around as an inspector kicking people up the backside. Running a butcher shop helps people. It’s part of the essence of life; food, shelter and water. You don’t need a brand new mobile; just those three things.
By Aron Lewin.