A couple months ago, a friend raved to me about eating some wonderful grass-feed beef that she had cooked after buying it at Staff of Life’s new Farm to Fork meat department.
It took me a while to get there myself, as I’d received a Christmas gift subscription to local butcher El Salchichero’s CSM (monthly meat box) and was well-stocked in the meat department for three months. Last month, I finally tried Staff’s expanded meat products, and was very impressed so I decided to find out more.
Santa Cruz native Anthony Blanco purchased the Natural Meats and Seafood department at Staff of Life last November, and has been enthusiastically operating it ever since.
Many don’t realize that this is a separate business that first opened in 1997, and is run independently from the rest of the store.
Anthony has more than two decades of experience as a local butcher, including jobs at Freedom Meat Lockers, Deluxe Foods, The Fish Lady, and New Leaf Community Markets. For many years he has cooked and prepared food for his family—which includes his wife Shana, 14-year-old son Shane, and 6-year-old daughter Hazel. He even prepares food for the family dog, Grace, who appreciates the cooked ground meat/rice/puréed organic pumpkin combination.
Anthony has brought lots of improvements to the department—including greatly expanding their product line. Recently, I had the chance to catch up with him.
Q. Why did you buy Staff of Life Natural Meats and Seafood?
I saw an opportunity to serve my community by nourishing families and creating jobs for local people that want to learn about the art of real butchery. All by doing what I love! People ask me, “Are you tired? Sounds like a lot of hard work…” But the truth is, I haven’t worked a day since I started here at Staff! I enjoy it so much.
Q. What are one or two of your favorite parts about running this business?
The customers and employees. First, I get to show customers including moms and dads how to save time making a yummy dinner on a busy schedule, cause I have first-hand knowledge in everyday family operations.
Then there are my employees: I absolutely love it when I can give promotions to our staff. It’s a process of paying it forward–knowing that they feel appreciated and will have good news to tell their family when they get home.
Q. How has your past experience led you to being ready for this position?
I have been a butcher in Santa Cruz for the last 25 years. I was ready for this position early on in my career when I realized that what I’m handing over the counter to customers is not just a piece of meat. It’s someone’s dinner, it could be someone’s favorite meal, it’s someone’s fuel for life and I don’t take that lightly. I’m a people person and I treat all my vendors the way I would like to be treated. Be nice! It’s easy!
Q. Can you tell me more details about the meat you offer?
We strive for complete transparency in all our meat products. That’s why we make sausage, cold cuts and sauces in-house so you know what they are made of. We feature local pork from Chico.
In March, I had the pleasure of taking my crew to meet my friend Loren Poncia, the owner of Stemple Creek Ranch in Tomales. This is how I can bring transparency to the people that want to buy local meats. My crew and I can personally verify that the meats we sell are grass-fed and grass-finished, and have all of the standard “no’s:” no antibiotics, no hormones etc. In April, we visited the ranch where “Mary’s organic chickens” come from.
We receive most of our meats “Whole Carcass.’’ This allows us to cut down on packaging materials that may go to the landfill, and also enables us to create custom cuts while keeping the art of butchery alive (to see examples of butchery, and learn more about the department including its Farm-to-Fork philosophy, visit the Staff of Life Natural Meats Facebook page.
Author’s Note –
One day when I was shopping at Staff of Life, an employee came and asked if I needed help. It turned out to be Jodi, one of Anthony’s managers. I told her I wanted something easy-yet-delicious for dinner, and she gave me a comprehensive tour of the department’s tempting house-made offerings. These included chicken enchiladas, Mediterranean-stuffed chicken breast, and cold cuts sliced to order—customers can purchase any amount of the latter, as small as a quarter-pound, and these include prosciutto and organic house-roasted turkey breast and roast beef.
A sign on the butcher counter explains that because the Staff of Life Natural Meats Department butchers their meat products in-house, each week they save an average of 107 plastic bags from going to the recycling center or landfill, and multitudes of packing scraps and other plastic materials that are deemed non-recyclable. Customers are encouraged to bring in their own containers to receive a 50-cent discount per item at the meat counter.
Also of note: Stemple Creek Ranch has chosen Staff as their exclusive meat vendor for Santa Cruz, so no other grocer in town can offer these meats.
Q. What are some products you have that can help busy people save time when preparing a meal?
Rotisserie chickens can be used to make a variety of quick healthy meals like Asian chicken salads, enchiladas, tacos, casseroles and a whole bunch more! We offer house-made entrees like chicken cordon bleu, kabobs, Thai curry pork cutlets, take-n-bake (gluten-free) turkey meatloaf, Tandoori chicken, Moroccan lamb meat balls with currants, just to name a few—and a plethora of easy to cook, marinated items in our grab-n-go case.
We are dedicated to fast and friendly service. Sausages are also easy — we make 25 kinds in-house! We can walk you through a recipe for Shepherd’s pie or slow roast chuck roast. F.Y.I., we are the only butcher shop in Santa Cruz that can offer a grass fed, grass finished seven-bone chuck roast, and this is because we cut from whole carcasses.
Q. How about a detail or two about your seafood?
We have a permit from the Department of Fish and Wildlife that allows us to buy directly from anyone with a commercial fishing license. This helps us support locals and also guarantees the very freshest catch. We offer many different kinds of fish including whole ones.
Fresh fish, caught just hours before this photo was taken.
Author’s Note –
I browsed the department’s Facebook page and noticed they pride themselves on “having the freshest fish with the most variety in town.” I was delighted to see photos of seafood such as wild steelhead, halibut, and house-made wild salmon sausage. I decided to call seafood manager Elmer Flores to find out a little more, and he was very excited to share his perspective. He emphasized they carry a lot of whole fish, so that people can see a product from start to finish, and also mentioned the diverse selections.
“I want to offer people a great variety of seafood including things you wouldn’t find anywhere else,” he said. “We want to open people’s eyes to different types of fish.” So there are options if you want to try something new, and if you want something more traditional, they carry that too (for example: tilapia, snapper, and catfish).
The bottom line: it’s only been a few months since Anthony took over the Staff of Life Natural Meats and Seafood department, and it’s already clear that he and his staff are committed to providing top products and service to their customers.
Even Anthony’s son Shane pitches in; he has a work permit and enjoys working at the store on occasion. I’m excited to see what the future holds as the Blanco family continues bringing the freshest meat and seafood to our community.
Staff of Life Natural Meats and Seafood
1266 Soquel Ave.
Santa Cruz, CA 95062
(831) 423 8632
Hours: 8am to 9pm Mon-Sat. 9am-9pm Sun