Update: In December 2011, James Whelan opened a second shop at the Avoca Food Market in Monkstown, Dublin.
Pat Whelan is a member of a dwindling brotherhood, independent butchers. In the 21st century world of supermarkets, it’s getting increasingly hard to find these food artisans who thrived in a bygone era when people moved away from farms and no longer raised their own meat. His shop, James Whelan Butchers, in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland, has been in business since 1960. The current shop, in a strip mall adjacent to a major supermarket, was opened in the 1970s, The location was appealing because it had ample parking. When asked why he became a butcher, Whelan answers, “It’s part of my DNA. It seemed natural for me to do. It’s was never a question of doing anything else.” What Whelan calls the “art of butchering” has been in his mother’s family for five generations. His dad is still involved in the business.
James Whelan Butchers shop
It’s a gleaming, contemporary shop. The 1,200 square feet is stocked with meat, poultry, deli-style meats and a variety of sauces to enhance your cooking. At a time when people embrace ease, the shop sells take-away food prepared daily. All the customer has to do is heat and serve. On a given day, shoppers might find an Irish food classic such as lamb stew or shepherd’s pie or something more exotic, like lasagna. They also offer prepared sides. This busy shop employs almost 30 people.
Despite competition from supermarkets and three other independent butchers in this town of 20,000 (Whelan’s the only one raising his own meat), the business is thriving The shop serves 4,500 customers a week (most are repeat visitors). But, Whelan doesn’t stop here. He’s been selling meat (delivered all over Ireland and in the UK), via his website since 2004. He has a database of 17,000 customers. That’s a LOT of meat. While business in the shop is steady, the Internet business tends to be seasonal. Peak times are grilling season and the holidays.
Beyond the butcher shop
He’s even more unique. He raises his own Aberdeen Angus Beef and lamb and on the family’s 200 acre farm, Garrentemple Clonmel. The shop’s pork, ham and poultry come from local farmers (members of the Tipperary Food Producers, a group he helped found in 2007). To maintain control over the integrity of the product, every animal is finished on the farm. “All animals have a residency period here,” Whelan says. “When you can walk through the entire process, from raising to butchering, there’s a great sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that money can never buy.” All the meat is slaughtered and processed in their on-site abattoir.
One of his newest passions is BBQ. He recently bought one of the all-time best grills on the market, The Big Green Egg. He loves cooking on it and is spreading the BBQ word around Ireland. He offers meat cuts for BBQing and grilling both in the shop and on the website.
Whelan and New York City BBQ guru, Adam Perry Lang share a friendship in part fueled by their mutual passion for meat and cooking. The NY chef will arrive in Clonmel in October. The pair plan to butcher and cook meat together. It will undoubtedly be one of those times the Irish call “good craic”.
What’s next on the horizon for this man who never seems to stop? The farm will be raising Wagyu beef from fertilized Kobe embryos he imported from Japan. The Japanese Kobe and Aberdeen Angus share a similar genetic heritage. Wagyu raised in Japan is fed beer to enhance the penned animals’ appetites. His cattle will range freely and have plenty of appetite for the grass so plentiful in the Irish climate seven or eight months of the year. Beer won’t be in this equation. One of the reasons Japanese beef is healthier to eat is their fat fat (found in the marbling), is monounsaturated. He explains marbling is the result of what the animals are fed for the last 100 days. The important question for the Irish Kobe is how it will be finished. Whelan hasn’t yet come to a conclusion. He’s working with Teagasc, (the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland), to determine this.
What else does this man whose shop has been named Retailer of the Year in Ireland three times have up his sleeve? You’ll have to check in with him and see. He’s a man of surprises. At a time when it’s as easy to win the lottery as to make it big as an independent butcher, Pat Whelan is a whopping success.
Authors’ Note: We spoke to Pat Whelan over the phone. It was the beginning of our day and towards the end of his.
For more on food in Ireland, read our interviews with Irish culinary legend, Darina Allen. Pat Whelan called her, “”a huge inspiration for anyone in the food industry”. For more on Ireland, click here.