Independence women find new careers as meatcutters

Monday, January 14, 2008
Curt's Famous Meats owner Donna Pittman tended the counter as meat cutter Leah Burton sliced meat Jan. 3 in Independence, Mo. (JULIE SCHELDEGGER ~ The Examiner)

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. -- With a short loin in hand, Leah Burton headed to an ominous machine at the back of Curt's Market.

As she flipped on the large, silver contraption, a shrill noise could be heard coming from the machine. But what made her the most nervous was when she put the slab of meat onto the cold, silver tabletop and started to run it across a thin, sharp saw.

"I think I am probably most fearful of that saw," said one of the Lady Meatcutters at Curt's Market in Independence. "It sure does cut the meat."

Burton become one of the famous "Lady Meatcutters" at Curt's Market only six months ago. After working 32 years at Hallmark Cards and then spending the last 10 years happily retired, she said she had no plans to begin working again -- especially in retail.

But a call from her friend and owner of Curt's Market, Donna Pittman, changed her mind.

Behind the counter at Curt's Famous Meats, meat cutter Erlene Pyle wraps ground beef to freeze for bundles on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008 in Independence, Mo. (AP Photo/The Examiner, Julie Scheidegger)

"She is a good friend, so when she called and asked if I wanted to work at Curt's, I said yes," Burton said. "I shopped here for more than 40 years but never thought I would be behind the counter."

Pittman said it was never her intention to have Curt's operated almost entirely by women when she bought the store in 1989. Already experienced in running businesses such as convenience and grocery stores, the opportunity to purchase the now 60-year-old Curt's was actually placed in her lap by Burton.

"I was working in Liberty at the time, and she told me that Curt's was for sale," she said. "I looked at the store Feb. 1, and by Feb. 28, we were in it. It was well-known that Curt was not thrilled to sell it to a woman, which is why I had to be quick about putting my package together. When the deal was finalized, I think Leah even sent flowers. No matter the other businesses I have owned, Curt's is heads and shoulders above the rest. I think it is all because of our customers."

Since owning the market, Pittman said she believes she has had two crews of female meat cutters. Something, she said, was "purely by accident."

"I think it does make us unique, to have a business owned and primarily operated by women." (Three men also work at the market throughout the week.) "The grocery and meat-cutting business is a male-dominated field," she said. "For the longest time, all we had was women here. Then we hired a man, and customers would be surprised to see him working behind the counter."

Erlene Pyle also began working at Curt's about six months ago. She learned of the job by simply talking with Pittman one day after coming in to purchase some meat.

A retiree herself, Pyle said she never thought she would be working behind a counter, cutting and slicing meat. However, in the short time working at Curt's, she has developed a deep love and appreciation for each of the varieties of meat she works with daily.

Pittman said customers enjoy having women behind the counter. She said many of those who frequent the business, 80 percent regulars she estimates, enjoy talking with the Lady Meatcutters and asking for their opinion on what to purchase.

"The women are all very personable. They like to nurture the customers," she said. "I really think the customers like the personal touch the ladies give them."

In addition to cutting meat, each of the women are responsible for setting up the display units each morning with the freshly cut meat, ground beef, sandwich fixings and a variety of salads. The ham salad recipe, Pittman said, is 60 years old and is an original to Curt's.

The sausage, also made fresh each day, is another favorite in the store. Burton said it is a simple process involving mixing ground pork and seasonings.

When there are few customers in the store, the ladies spend their time filling call-in orders or cutting meat to package into popular bundles.

"A lot of people come in and know they want something, but they are not sure what," Burton said. "It is nice to talk with them about what they want to do, where they plan to cook the meat, that type of thing, to find out what would work best for them. It is the people, our customers, that really make this place special."

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