In mid-March, when COVID-19 forced the shutdown of pretty much everything, business was booming at V. Miller Meats in East Sacramento. The shop, which normally sells about 400 pounds of ground beef in a month, moved 380 pounds the first week of the state’s stay-at-home order. The second week, it sold 500 pounds. Owner Eric Miller and his employees jokingly dubbed it Ground Beef and Toilet Paper Week.
These days, Miller is only half-joking when he says it took five years and a universal pandemic for his artisanal butcher shop to become an essential business. While the coronavirus is pummeling the restaurant industry and highlighting weaknesses in the nation’s food chain, V. Miller Meats has thrived, attracting new customers with its locally sourced, whole-animal-butchery model.
The shop was a passion project for Miller, who had worked as a chef at Lucca, Mulvaney’s B&L and Michelin-starred Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco. When he became a dad, he gave up the restaurant life to be a cooking instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Natomas. Thrown into teaching students how to butcher, he began to toy with the idea of opening his own shop—one that would allow him to connect with local growers and participate in a transparent, sustainable farm-to-consumer system.
Miller already knew how to break down pigs, lambs, ducks and chickens, but beef, he says, was “the missing piece.” So he apprenticed at an artisanal butcher shop in Massachusetts, then worked for a bit at San Francisco’s legendary Dave the Butcher before opening V. Miller Meats in 2015.
Like gems in a high-end jewelry boutique, V. Miller’s chops, roasts and steaks are lovingly arrayed behind sparkling glass in display cases. There’s grass-fed, grass-finished beef from Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales. Pork from Rancho Llano Seco in Chico. Lamb from fourth-generation Dixon sheep rancher Martin Emigh. Pasture-raised chicken from Fogline Farm in Santa Cruz. Miller can trace the origins of every piece of meat in his shop, down to the exact animal it came from.
Shopping at a whole-animal butcher shop like V. Miller can be a bit of a crapshoot. If your heart is set on a nice, fat rib-eye steak and somebody else snags the last one, you’re out of luck: There’s no crate of rib-eyes lurking in the back of the shop. But if you’re willing to hand yourself over to Miller or one of his knowledgeable butchers, they will steer you to something just as good. It could be a bavette, an intensely flavorful cut from the cow’s belly; or a picanha, aka sirloin cap, typically served as a flaming sword of meat at Brazilian steakhouses; or even a pork rib-eye, a super-tender, well-marbled piece of top sirloin that eats like a chicken thigh. “It’s my new jam,” says Miller. They’ll even tell you precisely how to cook it—Miller’s butchers have all worked as professional chefs or at least have a personal passion for cooking.
Whole-animal butchers must be ingenious in order to sell what Miller calls “all the bits and pieces.” At V. Miller, a lot of the trim and cuts that aren’t pretty or popular enough for the meat case are turned into sausages, pates, terrines and jerky sticks. The beef bones are used to make bone broth. Offal becomes dog food. A freezer case is stocked with pork lard and beef tallow, meat-and-tomato “Sunday sauce” and pork stew, delicious chicken pot pies encased in puff pastry, and soups like chicken noodle or beef and faro. Whatever’s left goes into the nightly “dinner box,” a $25 ready-to-eat meal that feeds two generously. The boxes feature comfort foods like meatloaf and mashed potatoes—nothing too cheffy, says Miller. “Hot, brown and lots of it” is how he describes the meals.
Before the pandemic, V. Miller also sold hot breakfast sandwiches and house-made hot dogs on weekends from a grill on the sidewalk. The smell of sizzling bacon and barbecued sausages reliably brought new customers crowding into the store. With social distancing, Miller has discontinued those sales for the time being.
But COVID-19 has brought new opportunities as well as challenges for V. Miller. More people are cooking at home, which means more demand for meat. Coronavirus outbreaks at large meat processing plants have raised consumer fears about food safety and availability. “Our supply chain is really small, direct and clean,” Miller says. “I can trace an animal from pasture to processor straight to me.”
And while many of his friends in the restaurant industry are struggling, Miller is busier than ever. “I’m not giddy,” he says. “I’m exhausted. It’s like Christmas every week.” Yet he’s grateful to be part of a still-functioning local food chain. “We’re needed.”
V. Miller Meats
4801 Folsom Blvd.