The Conscious Carnivore

The Conscious Carnivore shop
Photo by Eric Tadsen

The Shorewood Shopping Center on University Avenue has become a destination for foodies in the Madison area. Some refer to it as the Gourmet Ghetto, with The Conscious Carnivore being the whole-animal butcher shop with some of the best meats in the region. According to Business Manager Bartlett Durand, “People call us the grass-fed guys or organic butcher. We most match the idyllic view that a person might have of a farm with the red barn, white house, and garden in the back. It’s the agriculture that one’s grandfather (or great-grandfather) would recognize.”

Why The Conscious Carnivore? Bartlett explains that it’s not “conscientious” as some would believe, even though animals butchered at the shop have been slaughtered humanely and are antibiotic free. Rather, he wants people to be mindful or conscious about their food choices. Bartlett is countering passive consumerism. “There’s so much more to food than just price. I want to make the chain from the farmer to the customer as short as possible and the connection as strong as possible,” he emphasizes.

Bartlett goes on to say, “Everything in society is designed to make us mindless consumers. Where you spend your money can be more important than casting your vote. If you go only for lowest price, you are supporting food as a commodity and buying into big agriculture and standardized quality. If instead you focus on buying local, you are not only enjoying high-quality food, you are supporting your neighbors and local farmers.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Educating customers is important to Bartlett. The Conscious Carnivore, which has been open for four years, offers a library along with knowledgeable staff who can advise customers how best to prepare the meat they purchase. “People are terrified of cooking meat and ruining it. We do everything we can to put them at ease,” Bartlett explains. “Conscious Carnivore could be described as the Apple® store meets the butcher shop.”

Bartlett grew up in Memphis when food was becoming “McDonaldized” and mom-and-pop grocery stores were turning into chains. He calls it the “commodification of food.” But because of Memphis, renowned for its World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, Bartlett knew that people took delight in the local barbecue joints. They could discern not only the recipe for the sauce offered, but knew what wood was used in the smoker and the source of the hog.

It was this background that fueled Bartlett’s passion for artisanal food. After time in Hawaii, he came to Wisconsin and worked with his father-in-law on Otter Creek Organic Farm in Avoca. There, Bartlett developed a flavorful, seasonal cheddar cheese from the milk of the pasture-raised cows. He also showed how it was possible for a small farm to be sustainable and profitable.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

He then began Black Earth Meats in Black Earth, Wisconsin, and created a niche for a regional meat-processing facility with a focus on local, grass-fed, and organic meats and humane handling of animals. However, neighbors complained about the noise and traffic surrounding the slaughtering facility. The village board decided to take legal action to stop the company’s operation. Financing was lost and Black Earth Meats closed. The Conscious Carnivore, the retail outlet in Madison that had opened earlier as a result of the popularity of Black Earth Meats, remained open.

Bartlett now sources The Conscious Carnivore meat products from Wisconsin farmers who provide whole animals: beef cattle, hogs, chickens, heritage turkeys, ducks, and lamb. He visits the farmers and works with them to ensure and improve their animal handling. Transparency is a cornerstone of the operation. Whole animal carcasses and the breakdown of them can be seen through the window in the back of The Conscious Carnivore. “Seeing the animals helps the customers make a stronger connection to the source of their food, and the kids love it!”

The Conscious Carnivore whole-animal butcher shop concept is intended to be duplicated where highly trained butchers can work with customers to utilize an animal’s offerings fully. The shop’s master butcher and shareholder, Dave Gathy, is a 20-year veteran. “He can take an animal from slaughter to retail cuts,” says Bartlett. “He was trained in the old-school way of butchery by immigrants who could utilize all parts of an animal, including its blood and fat.”

Dave passes on his knowledge to apprentices who must show, by the end of their apprenticeship, they can break down a large animal into its primal cuts and explain how to use the various cuts. An apprentice might work for two years before moving to the journeyman status, where he or she works years before attaining master butcher standing. The butcher is the “high priest of food, taking life and passing it on,” according to Bartlett. “Staff are reminded to honor the animals, for by their death, we gain life.”

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

Customers will find prices at half- or whole-dollar amounts rather than $x.99. “I’m trying to be clear about our pricing. It’s my way of not playing a psychological game to trick the customers,” Bartlett insists.

They will also find beef, for example, that’s been aged in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment where pathogens cannot survive, resulting in more flavorful meat. In the aging process, enzymes turn muscle into meat, making it more tender and giving it more intense taste and mouthfeel.

Offal Tasty is one unusual product a customer will discover at The Conscious Carnivore. It’s composed of all-natural beef liver, beef heart, and beef kidney—the parts of an animal that used to be staples but are now a rare find. It’s a great source of iron for humans and a nutritious supplement for pets. Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods America on the Travel Channel traveled to Madison a few years ago to sample this creation.

When people are looking for a real connection to their food, the place to go is The Conscious Carnivore. Not only will they be treated as valued customers rather than as faceless consumers, they’ll be able to buy other grocery items from local producers.

Photograph by M.O.D. Media Productions

Jeanne Engle is a freelance writer.