Gary’s Meats: carving out a new chapter

29th October 2021 | Alison Turner

Fourth generation Melbourne butcher Gary McBean of Gary’s Meats has built a reputation as one of the industry’s best. His innovative approach to business has seen the master butcher continually pushing the boundaries, offering the highest quality meats and a peerless level of service that has garnered a staunchly loyal customer base. Now, as Gary prepares to take his business to the next level, he’s joined by a fifth generation McBean butcher – his daughter Ashleigh, who completed her apprenticeship last year.

When Gary first started out as an apprentice butcher in Melbourne’s Richmond 51 years ago, there were 16 butcher shops on the shopping strip where he worked.

“Everybody went to the butcher, because supermarkets didn’t carry any meat back then,” he says. “But as time went on, and the supermarkets got a good grip on the business, it dwindled down until we were the last butcher shop in the whole street.”

Gary knew that if he was to overcome the threat that supermarkets posed to his profession and to his business, he would have to do things differently. When he opened Gary’s Meats at Prahran Market 37 years ago, he was one of the first butchers to offer value-added, ready-to-cook meals like stir fries and curries. But his drive to be different didn’t stop there. Gary’s Meats has also become a dry-ageing and marbled meat specialist, offering a range of premium meats, including Tasmania’s Cape Grim Beef, Yarra Valley Berkshires pork, Saltbush Livestock lamb and Wagyu from Robbins Island and Jack’s Creek.

Gary McBean: Garys Meats
Gary’s dry-aged meat brings something truly special to the table.

Keeping it old school

At a time when the lion’s share of fresh meat sales occurs in soulless supermarket aisles, Gary and Ashleigh know that they can offer something that Coles and Woolworths could never deliver: genuine, old-fashioned customer service.

“Supermarkets were our greatest threat,” Gary says. “That’s why we really try to do things old school here. We offer the kind of service that other places simply can’t provide.”

Gary’s Meats was one of the first butchers in Melbourne to install a dry-ageing cabinet on the premises. While dry-aged meat is now seen as a premium gourmet product and butchers must follow strict guidelines to produce it, back when Gary was a young apprentice, it was just a standard part of the neighbourhood butcher’s service.

“A lot of customers in the old days would come in and say, ‘Can you hang that piece of meat for me? I’ll be back into a month’,” Gary recalls. “It wasn’t called dry-ageing back then. It was more just tuck it away for a special occasion, like Christmas or a Sunday roast.”

The McBeans are sticklers for quality, and being a whole animal butchery, can offer any kind of cut that their customers desire. This includes lesser-known cuts such as hanger and flat iron steaks, rump caps and entraña steak, also known as Argentinian skirt steak.

“These types of cuts that people know nothing about, we’ve brought all those old school steaks back,” Gary says. “People come in looking for new cuts, and they just love it.”

Ashleigh McBean: Garys Meats
Before she donned a butcher’s apron, Ashleigh was pursuing a career in professional basketball.

In her father’s footsteps

For Ashleigh, who spent her childhood hanging out at her dad’s butcher shop, it’s not surprising that she’s chosen to take up the trade. Gary’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all butchers, and Ashleigh is proud to carry on the McBean tradition. Her brothers Flynn and Jordan also work for the business, in retail management and marketing.

“I’ve been involved in the business since I could walk,” she says. “Mum would drop us off at the shop so we could spend the day with Dad. When I did my apprenticeship, Dad was so good to learn from. He explains things really well. And you’ve got that father-daughter relationship where he doesn’t have to be too delicate. He can tell you off if he wants to!

“My grandfather was a massive help as well. He was showing me how to bone out legs of lamb and shoulders. So I had two very experienced, very patient teachers.”

Having such a wealth of experience at her disposal obviously had its impact. Ashleigh went on to win the Australian Meat Industry Council Victorian Apprentice of the Year in 2019. And although female butchers are still something of a rarity – less than five percent of butchers are women – Ashleigh is not fazed by working in a male-dominated industry.

“People often expect to see a man behind the counter,” she says of her work. “I’m not offended, but it’s something I’d like to change.”

Garys Meats: Ashleigh and Ken McBean
Gary’s 84-year-old dad Ken still works part-time at the shop.

Room to move

Gary’s Meats’ dedication to quality, service and innovation has seen the family butchery develop a loyal following among the residents in surrounding suburbs. Even during Melbourne’s extended lockdown, business was booming for the McBeans.

“The business has probably grown by about 30 percent since COVID, because people couldn’t go out and eat anywhere,” Gary says. “We’ve been really busy.”

Trade has been so brisk, and product offerings so diverse, Gary’s Meats has now outgrown its current store space. This is especially so on weekends, when up to 12 staff are on duty.

“We’re in a fairly small market stall,” Gary says. “And since I put the ageing room in and we’ve got so many new products on offer, we’ve outgrown the shop.”

Next year, the shop will be moving to a brand-new premises in Prahran Market under a new name: McBean Family Butcher. And the plan is to take butchering to a whole new level.

“The dry-ageing room is going to be three times the size,” Gary says. “We’ve got a kitchen and cooking facilities out the back. At the moment, we have to outsource our hams and bacon. We send them to a smallgoods operator, because we haven’t got any room here to do that. Now, we’re going to do all our cured meats in-house, with a big smoking room.”

All in the family: Jordan, Gary and Ashleigh McBean outside Gary’s Meats.

A show for the senses

McBean Family Butcher will also offer a dedicated Wagyu section and chef-prepared take-home meals. There’ll even be an area for hot food, so you can come to the butcher for a hamburger, a porchetta roll, a Reuben sandwich loaded with pastrami or a steak sandwich.

“I can’t think of anything better than getting a steak sandwich from Gary’s, where we don’t skimp on the meat and you know you’re getting really good quality steak,” Ash says. “It’s going to be the steak sandwich to end all steak sandwiches.”

The new store will also be holding special steak nights, including steak and wine matching events. Gary will also be starting up his hugely popular butchery classes again, which COVID put on hold. Here, you can learn how to do such things as break down sides of lamb.

“It’s going to be an amazing-looking shop,” Gary says. “Lots of theatre happening. You’ll be able to see and smell the meats getting smoked. It’ll be a real showpiece.”

To find out more about Gary’s Meats, head to garysqualitymeats.com.au