Community Kitchen Pittsburgh hopes to meet need for trained butchers

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Instructor Chris Ward shows Tiffany Johnson how to cut against the grain on a piece of meat during a basic butchering class at Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

HAZELWOOD, Pa. — On the countertop in front of Ben Buchanan sits a beef round. He flips it over to show his two students where and how it used to connect to the rest of a beef carcass. Then, he starts slicing.

The master butcher cuts easily through seams of fat, piecing apart the giant section of meat into smaller roasts, explaining as he goes about the different cuts he’s revealing.

“You just find a seam, get your knife in and it’s like cutting through butter,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan leads the introduction to butchery course that’s part of nonprofit Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s culinary training program. The intensive 12-week diploma program expanded last fall to include the butchery course. It’s gone so well that the nonprofit recently sought out and received a grant to expand the butchery course into a full apprenticeship program.

“It’s a good deal for employers, it reduces their turnover and invests in future employees,” said Jennifer Flanagan, executive director of Community Kitchen Pittsburgh. “For the apprentices, it’s guaranteed training. They know they’re not just going to get a job. They will get training for a higher wage position.”

The kitchen

Community Kitchen Pittsburgh was founded in 2013 by Flanagan. The nonprofit has two main focuses. The first is the culinary arts training and employment program.

Flanagan said they tend to serve people with barriers to employment or who are stuck in low wage employment.

This could be a formerly incarcerated person, a homeless person, someone who dropped out of high school, people who want to switch careers but can’t afford to pay for whole semesters of school to retrain. Maybe it’s someone who had to leave the workforce to care for family and needs a place to start.

“We are free for them,” Flanagan said. “We pay them while they’re here … If you have a low wage job and you don’t have any money, you can’t quit to go to school.”

Students start at $12 an hour and go up to $13 or $14. It’s more than minimum age, but purposefully below the rate at which culinary jobs start outside.

“We have to make sure people can and want to leave,” she said.

In addition to the 12-week diploma program, Community Kitchen Pittsburgh also provides a transitional employment program and 2,000-hour apprenticeship program.

The other focus is to make meals for low income, food insecure folks. Flanagan said they make about 2,000 meals each day. That’s tied in with the culinary program, as the students and transitional employees are the ones preparing the meals.

Making the cut

Corranda “CeeCee” Cain contemplated applying to Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s culinary training program, but the timing was never right.

She couldn’t figure out how to make time to work a full time job during the day and attend the intensive 12-week program that required her to be there from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then, she lost her job. She figured it was time to make the call.

Cain loves to cook. She wants to own her own restaurant and food truck one day. 

“This is my dream,” she said. “This is what I want to do.”

She and fellow student, Tiffany Johnson, watched Buchanan piece apart the beef round. Then, it was their turn. They carefully cut roasts into small strips for stir-fry that would be used for meals in the kitchen.

“This is really eye opening,” Cain said, of the butchery class. It’s one thing to cook with meat at home. It’s another to see where all the cuts come from and how they fit together

Johnson is attending the culinary arts program during the day and hair school at night. Her only regret is not starting this program sooner. 

“I want to start a private chef business,” she said. “I’m tired of working for other people.”

Buchanan said culinary and food is a field that lends well to self-employment. It’s where he ended up after years of working for butchers and slaughterhouses around the greater Pittsburgh area.

Buchanan started Unified Fields, a diversified meat processing company, in 2020 to promote small-scale butchering and farming. He and his business partner, Chris Ward, run a mobile slaughter rig, educate and train in butchering skills and consult in facility design.

Flanagan connected with Buchanan last year through a Zoom call for the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council. She heard him talking about his experience in butchering and messaged him to ask for his help. She’d seen the need for labor in meat processing that was highlighted during the beginning months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every single grocery store is hiring meat cutters now,” Buchanan said. “While they’re cutting boxed meat, they still are good union jobs with benefits.”

They started teaching the butcher class as part of the 12-week culinary arts program at Community Kitchen  and offering butchery classes to the public. It’s a crash course into both the world of butchering and the meat industry.

“It really opens peoples eyes to where and how we got to where we are today in the meat industry,” Buchanan said. “And people just love learning about how to break down animals, how to keep a knife sharp.”

Grant to expand

The new butchery education was so well received by students that the nonprofit applied for a grant to expand. Community Kitchen Pittsburgh received a $391,657 PAsmart grant in April from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Flanagan said the plan is to expand their three existing apprenticeship programs in culinary, baking and inventory control, and create a new one in butchery.

Community Kitchen can host three apprentices on-site for its current apprenticeships, but they need more employer partners to be able to take on more. 

The butchery apprenticeship will be even more comprehensive. Buchanan has been tasked with writing the curriculum and bringing on employer partners. He wants it to be 4,000 hours, double what the school’s other apprenticeships are.

“We will give people the muscle memory to jump in and do anything,” he said.

The apprenticeship Buchanan is designing still has to be approved by the state department of labor. He wants it to become a standardized model that can be easily replicated since industry badly needs highly-skilled and trained workers.

Flanagan said in the future they’d also like to expand their meat processing facilities, to train more people in butchery skills in house and to potentially bring in more revenue. About 60% of the budget comes from earned revenue, she said. If they could train people and then sell the meat they’re cutting and processing, it’d be a win-win for the facility.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 800-837-3419.)

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1 COMMENT

  1. So great to see more effort to get more butchers into the workforce. Make fresh local meats available and affordable again!

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