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Locals set for Boulevard battle

Corrina RidgwayCountryman

There is a vitality and professionalism that welcomes at the front counter of Clark's Quality Meats butchers.

Something about this outlet of the region's produce conjures up childhood visits to once prolific and personally run small businesses that seemingly have vanished in the wake of chain store takeovers.

There is a sweet waft of not only the freshest cuts but of building a success.

Luke and Sophie Clark, butchers, owners and managers of the Esperance store, strive for consistency in quality and place strong emphasis on customer service.

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They are young bloods - now in business for four years as owner-operators - in an age-old industry.

They value traditional butchery traits, such as pride in their product and traditional skills, as well as next generation business management, drive and innovation.

Recently, Clark's has added to its local produce range. In fact, all product sold comes directly from southern WA.

This local-support-local attitude and use of quality over quantity has been a hit with their regional customers.

Starting with Avon Valley beef and Mt Barker chickens, Clark's has become tightly local-oriented, with local lamb and pork the most recent additions.

Lamb is supplied by Esperance farmer Bob Kennedy who hand picks his stock for the shop, while the Shark Lake Piggery, run by Steven and Deborah Hoffrichter, cherry picks the best animals for regional consumption.

"Customers are more wary of where meat comes from - they want to know, which definitely makes them more loyal," Luke said.

Purchasing local meat for the shop is one way to control the source and thus the quality.

"By using local, we are helping the town out as well - money is staying in Esperance," Luke said.

For a bona fide Esperance boy fronting a local team of seven, this is close to his heart.

A focus on customer response is vital to the Clark's team - they know customers aren't stupid.

In recent times there has been increased awareness of food quality.

With true butchery passion, the team is keen to explain the trade and continue customer education.

"Customer input and customer service play a very important role," Luke said.

"It is hard to keep everyone happy, yet if customers have a suggestion or want a certain thing, we will try different lines to see if we can supply what they want."

Their popular biltong came about exactly this way - South African families new to the community asked for the product they were fond of.

Now the line is a mainstay. The juicy, tender strips of dried seasoned meat are carefully tended by team member Mick.

Quality is also paramount. Animals are sent away to be slaughtered, purely to maintain quality. The halal nature of the local abattoir enforces this with pork.

"We don't really agree with the halal way of slaughter because of the adrenalin still running through the animals' blood at slaughter," Luke said.

Adrenalin has a marked effect on meat quality.

"Abattoirs are much more modern now, so they do a lot of tests," Luke said. "For example, even pH levels in the carcase are determined to ensure very good quality."

Beef is slaughtered through Hepple and Sons. Luke likes their family orientation and consistency in delivering the best carcases.

"Each order our carcases are handpicked out of 160 to our specifications," he said. "They are grain fed the last 60 days and aged exactly."

All pork is sent to PPC Linley Valley for slaughter. Although this adds to the expense, Luke and Sophie believe it is worth it.

Carcases are broken in shop ensuring quality and body efficiency right down to dog bones.

Sausages are produced from select off-cuts. Lines include pork, beef and Moroccan lamb - all made with care.

"We had a lady come in explaining how she had been too late to get her usual order of sausages and had to buy supermarket ones for tea one night," Luke said.

"Her kids wouldn't eat them so yes, definitely, customers know the difference in quality."

Due to the extra labour needed, the processing also provides employment opportunities - skilled workers are needed.

"We always have at least one apprentice on at a time," Luke said.

This also protects a vital skill of the trade.

"Just recently, the butcher's apprenticeship was shortened by a year because the industry took out the need for apprentices to learn how to split a body," Luke said.

"It's due to supermarkets shipping in cuts and putting them on shelves.

"Now the apprenticeship is missing an element. It makes it really hard to get skilled workers."

Clark's is now capitalising on its success with a youthful fervour.

New lines are added regularly and with a hand on the pulse of modern living, Clark's intends to expand ready to cook products for the ease of busy customers.

The team is enthusiastic and believes there is a lot to look forward to in the industry.

"The industry is consistently advancing, in technology and machinery. It's also more gourmet with a lot of value adding," Luke said.

Their greatest development will be the opening of a new retail outlet - right next to a goliath of the produce industry, Woolworths.

The family-owned, locally-run business with the personal touch will be hoping to catch extra foot traffic in Esperance Boulevard.

"The outlet will allow us to expand our store frontage and lines," Luke said.

"We will be trying some new things, including a bain-marie line offering cooked roasts and chickens. We will expand our popular prepared meals as well."

The business seems to be here to stay, with a flavour of traditional skills, local produce, quality and service fused with youthful innovation, business nous and passion reinventing the butcher shop of old.

"We are always playing - it's really trial and error and you have to keep a fresh mindset," Luke said. "You can't get tired of it, you have to keep having fun."

With a business that has tripled its trade in three years and received the local Customer Service and Small Business awards, Luke's words are to be taken seriously.

Particularly in a climate where local butchers are struggling due to dramatic price drops by giants Coles and Woolworths.

So Luke is keen to serve it up to the supermarkets in true David and Goliath style.

"They do bulk produce and you lose the love," he said. "We will be about pushing local meat in the Boulevard - it will be fun to see how much we can stir up the supermarket."

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