About Us

Paper: Fresno Bee, The (CA)
Title: Old shop, new start
Date: January 26, 2011

After more than 60 years, Gus' Meat Locker in Madera has a new name and is coming full circle -- thanks to a young couple with a passion for artisan meats.

Step up to the meat counter, and you'll see new items such as Calabrese and Sicilian sausage. Head to the deli, and you'll notice a greater variety of sandwiches, such as sliced turkey and a housemade avocado spread on focaccia bread from Max's Bakery in Fresno.

And a peek around the corner may reveal a group of older butchers cutting and wrapping meat. Old-timers will recognize them as local meat experts and former rivals: There's 69-year-old Clyde Polston, who owned the old Clyde's Meat Service & Lockers in Chowchilla; 61-year-old Bill McCann of Willie's Country Meats in Le Grand; 68-year-old Jim Hardesty, former owner of Madera Quality Meats; and 70-year-old Don Sambueso, a former owner of Gus'.

"I call them my little brat pack," says Melissa Chase, who recently bought Gus' with her husband, Scott Chase. "We're bringing all the old guys back together. We just want to learn from the best."

The Chases, also owners of Central Valley Irrigation Service in Madera, have big plans for Gus': They're butchering wild game for hunters; expanding Gus' sausage line; preparing to make pancetta and prosciutto; thinking of custom butchery classes for the public; and renovating Gus' to sell custom cuts of locally raised animals from its meat counter -- or provide butchering services for ranchers who want to sell their meat at farmers' markets.

(Currently, Gus' can slaughter and butcher animals only for their owners; but the shop isn't allowed to sell those cuts at retail.)

It's the latest step in their efforts to re-create the fresh food they encountered in Italy. About three years ago, they were inspired by an article in Bon Appétit magazine to visit Castello di Spannocchia, an educational center at an organic agricultural estate near Siena, Italy.

The experience changed their lives. Before they visited Castello di Spannocchia, they'd never composted or had a garden. Now, the family -- including children Hannah, 10; Justin, 14; and Jordean, 18 -- raises its own animals for meat.

"We've had our own Thanksgiving turkey and chickens," Melissa Chase says. "We've done pigs and lambs and several steers."

That's how the Chases became interested in Gus', a shop that still practices the rare art of preparing meat from the ground to the table. Founded by Augustine "Gus" and Rita Sambueso, it launched in the 1940s, when butchers were used to working with animals and cutting them to fit customers' preferences.

Twin brothers Don and Augustine "Dim" Sambueso worked with their parents, eventually taking over what was known as Gus' Food Locker. Don Sambueso says he handled the custom slaughtering. And Dim Sambueso managed the catering, deli and the meat counter.

As time went on, the meat industry grew in a different direction. McCann notes the changes on his website, willies butchery.com: "... in the early 1980s the whole structure of the meat business began to change rapidly," he writes. "By this time I was working in management, still cutting meat every day but with a difference. The meat we were processing and packaging was merely taken out of large plastic bags."

Dissatisfied, McCann started Willie's Country Meats, a custom butchery service that processes beef, pork, lamb, goats and some wild game. He says he plans to maintain Willie's and work at Gus'.

For McCann, the joy of joining Gus' is an opportunity to teach a young couple about artisan meats. "I'm concerned about the next generation," he says.

Just 10 years ago, folks didn't seem to care if specialty meat shops such as Gus' or Willie's closed, McCann adds. But the public's renewed interest in the origins and quality of its meat means newfound support for custom butchery.

"People realize that these places are treasures in a way," he says.

Now, Gus' is the kind of place where customers can pick the brain of Jim Hardesty. With his easy laughter and knowledge of meat and cooking, "Jim can lead them to a product they might not have considered before," Scott Chase says.

It's also the kind of place where the Chases' son Justin -- armed with his own knives and a white coat -- can learn from the experts. He might ask Don Sambueso about cutting lamb or aging meat.

"The fatter the beef, the longer it can hang," Don Sambueso says.

Or he can study under Polston, who has done everything from skinning hogs to cutting steak.

"You want the fat to be a white color" on a steak, says Polston, who prefers New York, rib-eyes and T-bone steaks. For those steaks, he prefers the fat to be 1/4-inch thick, while the flesh should be 1-inch to 1 1/4-inches thick.

It's also the kind of place where the old-time butchers can joke about their past rivalries -- and impress themselves with how quickly they still can break down a steer.

"We've always got along real good," Polston says. "I enjoy it. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here."

As for Don Sambueso, he's enjoyed handing over the reins to the Chases. Dim Sambueso no longer can work because of a bad back, and at 70 years old, Don Sambueso says he can't handle Gus' alone.

Custom butchery is time consuming, and the regulations stringent. As Don Sambueso says: "We were lucky to find somebody who wants to work."

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