It’s a Wednesday morning. SmokeHouse of the Catskills is closed for business, but all the lights are on and the radio’s blasting as Heidi Ferraro and her small staff move around behind the broad refrigerated display case. The meat trays are empty, and her husband Mike is hard at work at one end of the shop, trimming and cutting a massive chunk of beef.
“I’m cutting meat for rouladen, jerky, special orders, some production – a little bit of everything,” he says. I questioned whether hunters can still bring in fresh-killed meat to be made into jerky. “No. We do take ‘farmer meat’ for people who raise pigs; they’ll bring in a leg, and we do all the smoking for them: hams and bacon. We used to do a lot of outside processing, but don’t anymore. We’re too busy.”
“Processing” refers to making up to 70 prepared-meat products on the premises. Mike tips his head towards a door indicating where his sons, Peter and Michael, are working in the back of the shop. “We do our own production for the store. Our sons started working with us almost from the beginning. They make all the products; some are seasonal. We don’t sell any name brands.”
The Ferraros also don’t use any fillers or preservatives to produce their knockwurst, bratwurst, liverwurst, salami, sausage, bologna, hot dogs and a huge variety of other specialties and cold cuts – just high-quality pork, beef, veal, lamb, poultry and spices, made with authentic German recipes.
Mike and Heidi took over the famous Deutsche Metzgerei in 2001 when the former owners, Austrian-born brothers Bill and Peter Muellner, hung up their aprons after more than 50 years of butchering and smoking for the local clientele. They’d established the business in 1945, along with their father, and had built a strong reputation as a traditional German butcher shop with shelves full of European goodies.
Mike says, “We figured they were going to sell it, and if they couldn’t find anybody to buy it, they’d close it. They had a daughter, an only child, but she wanted no part of it. We were customers and didn’t want to see it close. You’d never have anything like this around here again. I started working here a year before we bought the place, and after that, they stayed another year to make sure it was going smooth. Bill and Peter moved to Missouri. They must be in their 80s now.”
“Before this, I was sitting at a desk doing secretarial work, and Mike was in construction,” says Heidi, who remembers coming here as a child. “The shop has such a history. Our customer base has increased. We carry a lot more than they used to carry; there was only the two of them. And if something doesn’t sell, or you can get it in the regular grocery store, I won’t keep it.” The imported stock includes jars and cans of condiments, pickles, noodles, baked goods and pretzels, kraut and other canned veggies, candies and chocolates: an intriguing plethora of non-perishable products.
She claims a German heritage, but doesn’t speak the language, which some customers expect when they walk in the door and behold the Old-World atmosphere. “My grandfather was from the north. He never spoke German; he was very proud to be American. We’ve been there a few times, and I’d like to go back someday.”
A trip in 2004 did take them to Reichenau in Baden-Württemberg, where they purchased two new energy-efficient smokehouses from Maurer-Atmos Middleby GmbH. “It’s down by the Swiss border,” Mike says. “It’s gorgeous there.” Company representatives from the world-renowned supplier for thermal food processing actually came to Saugerties to set up the smokehouses and train the Ferraros in how to use them. The process entails brining slabs of meat in salt water, then eight to 18 hours of natural smoking. It’s a traditional German method that sets this operation apart from other area meat markets – of which there are few, in the first place.
Customers come from all around the region and beyond for Ferraro’s hand-cut premium meats and fine cheeses. “We do custom cuts for whoever walks in the door, within reason. We’ll cut to order: prime ribs and roasts, butterflied, pounded out, whatever,” he says, casually waving his butchering knife around in the air. “We’re here every day, all day long. You don’t stop. You just keep making stuff.”
Both Mike and Heidi were born and raised in the area, and they live only three miles up the road. They feel a strong connection to the community – his dad was a cobbler in Saugerties for 40 years and her dad ran a sawmill – and they’re aware of the privilege they enjoy to have a family business. I ask if they have dreams of doing anything differently, and the answer is no: not as long as they can continue to provide quality service.
Then I ask about the staff. “We have five people year-round, so there are nine of us behind the counter. Sometimes, like holidays, we’re short-staffed. It’s tough; it’s a hands-on job. It’s hard to find younger people who want to work.”
“And it’s a weekend job,” Heidi adds. “There’s a lot going on for younger people on the weekends. The store has to come first, and we’ve been so busy. People think we have three days a week off. We don’t. We just like to make people happy.”
They seem to be getting the job done successfully; a visit on any Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday will attest to how well. Take a number and plan to spend some time wandering around the store while you’re waiting your turn. And bring a cooler, as many customers recommend. You might want to stock up.
SmokeHouse of the Catskills is located at 724 Route 212, outside Saugerties. The hours are Thursday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call (845) 246-8767 .