A&J Meats & Seafood: Going strong after all these years
Friday, May 24, 2013 6:08 AM
Consider this: One of Queen Anne’s longest-running, most successful businesses has no website, e-mail or social-media presence.
If those facts imply old-school, they also reinforce a basic tenet for any successful business: The value of a focus on high quality, coupled with the personal touch.
A&J Meats & Seafood Inc. (2401 Queen Anne Ave. N.), owned by husband-and-wife team Rick and Julie Friar, carries on a tradition started by Rick’s dad, Jerry (the “J”) and his partner Al Ploe, (the “A”), when the pair founded the business during the Truman administration in 1951.
In those days, the parents, grandparents and great-grandparents of many of A&J’s current customers — long before the slow-food movement and “culinary intelligence” became hot topics — knew where their meat came from, just as they knew one cut from another. The local butcher was as much a part of a family’s universe as the milkman or doctor who made house calls.
The iconic small business
When A&J started out inside Quality Market (where Salon Joseph is now, at 600 W. McGraw St.), there were more than a half-dozen shops on the hill cutting meat to order. A&J’s business was so good, it moved to its current location in 1970. The original A&J sign hangs above the doorway on the south wall.
Rick and Julie, both early 1970s graduates of Queen Anne High School, took over the business in 1989. Julie, who had been a manager with First Interstate Bank, handled the books; at the time, she was not a grand hand in the kitchen.
Or, or she puts it: “I couldn’t cook.” She can now.
In fact, those handy cooking instruction sheets found at the meat counter owe their origins to Julie’s notes to herself in her early days on the job.
“We find people come in because they want to pick out their steak, or maybe they want two lamb chops,” she said. “People can buy a third of a pound of ground beef. You don’t have to buy family packs.”
A& J makes its own sausages; its smokehouse is in back.
It helps to have grown up in the business: “A good meat cutter has to know everything,” Rick said about what it takes. “You must know how to process meat, how to handle it, how to make sausage.”
Rick is the master meat cutter, maintaining longstanding relationships with regional farms. A&J’s connection with its two main beef suppliers reaches back to the 1950s.
“The suppliers know what to send us,” Rick said. “We don’t have to fight for quality.”
Wild Salmon Seafood Market occupies part of A&J’s counter space; McCarthy & Schiering wine merchants are located on the west side of the building — three iconic neighborhood businesses clustered under the one roof.
Diversity at its best
A&J’s prepared meals to-go have always been an important of the business mix, well before TV dinners hit the market: meatloaves, chicken pot pies, meatballs, the perennially popular Maui Ribs, Chicken Cordon Bleu and Bavarian Rouladen among them. A&J’s rib roasts sell out before Christmas.
Julie said about 30 percent of the business comes from outside Queen Anne; the market even draws people from Bainbridge Island who make the trek to stock up.
If the Friars plan no digital drive to expand market share, on-line review sites like Yelp do a lot of the talking for them, with customer reviews most businesses would die for.
After all these years, it’s still fun, Julie said.
“I like the interactions with our employees and our customers,” she noted. “They’re truly amazing. People like to go where people know their name.”
Culinary intelligence, like a stubborn gene, persists through the generations, despite the big-box stores that bank on convenience over quality.
“We’re very, very lucky,” Julie said. “And we’re sustained by our customers. We don’t take it for granted.”
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