Christine Ortega didn’t let her small size, nor the doubts of naysayers, get in her way when she decided to pursue a career as a butcher in the early 1980s.
It wasn’t easy, but her perseverance in what was then a nearly all-male field paid off. Today, Ms. Ortega helms Off the Hook Meat Shop, 14960 W. Indian School Road, Suite 380 in Goodyear, where she’s teaching her husband, Jim, and son, Zachary, the art of butchering while serving West Valley residents who want a standalone butcher shop.
The family-owned shop opened in August 2019, three months after Mrs. Ortega left her job supervising several stores in a major grocery chain, cashed in her 401K and said, “let’s do this.”
Mr. Ortega left his position as a store manager in another major grocery chain, their son left his job in the construction industry and together, they transformed a former seafood restaurant into Mrs. Ortega’s dream space. Opening a butcher shop in a state where there aren’t many standalone shops was a risk the Ortegas were willing to take.
“You don’t see many meat shops in Arizona, but you do in other states,” Mrs. Ortega said as she stood next to a sparkling display case filled with meats the trio cuts each morning before opening. “We have a lot of transplants and visitors who want shops.”
Business these last five months has been good, Mrs. Ortega said. If it continues after winter visitors have returned home for the summer, Zachary Ortega’s wife, a bank teller, will join the business and start her apprenticeship. Eventually, the younger Ortegas will run the shop while Mr. and Mrs. Ortega travel.
“Zach’s got the personality with the customers,” Mrs. Ortega said. “I thought he would just blossom in front, and I wanted someone to eventually take (the business) over.”
Earning her chops
Circa 1982, Mrs. Ortega was a 5-foot-2-inch, 130-pound teenage transplant from Southern California who weighed little more than the slabs of beef the big, burly men who dominated the field tossed around the meat department of the Pennsylvania grocery store where she worked as a cashier before becoming a meat wrapper.
She left cashiering for the meat department because wrapping paid 10 cents more an hour.
“Being independent was very important to me,” said Mrs. Ortega, who started working at age 13 at a restaurant her single waitress mother helped a customer open in Manhattan Beach, California. “I saw that meat cutters, then meat managers, made more money.”
After a year wrapping meat, she told her boss she wanted to become a butcher.
“My boss said I couldn’t do it,” she said.
Ms. Ortega disagreed, so she moved back to Southern California and got a job in Albertsons’ meat department, where she learned to sling 100-pound boxes of meat and got nowhere in her quest to become a butcher’s apprentice.
When a male new-hire was made an apprentice, she went to her union. The union intervened and Mrs. Ortega got her apprenticeship, a two-year program where she would learn everything from how to inspect and store meat, sharpen and adjust knives and other cutting equipment, cut and prepare meats for customers, and ultimately, how to cut bone, the skill that distinguishes butchers from meat cutters
“Put her in the breaking room. She won’t last a week,” the meat manager told Ms. Ortega’s supervisor. He was wrong. Watching her mother deal with difficult people and situations made Mrs. Ortega tougher than she looked. She dug in and she lasted, despite her manager’s prediction.
“About six months into my apprenticeship, they put me on the saw and I held my own,” she remembered. Ms. Ortega credits a 60-something butcher named Joe for helping her get through her apprenticeship. He was small, like Ms. Ortega, and showed her how to use the saw to cut the heavy slabs of meat into more manageable sizes.
“The key is the seam,” she said.
A year and a half after taking her first turn on the saw, Ms. Ortega completed her apprenticeship and moved to an Albertsons store in Lancaster, California, where she eventually was promoted to meat manager.
In 1998, she relocated with her mother and daughter, Marcela Gutierrez, to Scottsdale for her mother’s health, working as a meat manager for Albertsons before being promoted to supervisor overseeing several of the chain’s meat departments in the East Valley. In 2006, she joined Fry’s as a meat department supervisor, then was promoted to assistant store manager in 2010 and to manager of one of the chain’s stores in Avondale six months later. She liked the job and loved the people, but her passion for butchering and the dream of owning her own meat shop won out. The rest, as they say, is history.
Father and son learn the ropes
Five months into their new business venture, Jim and Zachary Ortega are still early in their apprenticeships, learning their new trade under the watchful eye of their teacher.
“Everything is about eye appeal and how you display it,” Mrs. Ortega said as her husband trimmed New York strips and her son stocked the display case. “I’m very high-demand.”
“You’re lucky we’re both patient people,” Zachary Ortega joked.
“Jim and Zach are meat cutters, but I don’t let them on the saw yet,” Mrs. Ortega said. “They’ve been cutting. They’re learning the names of the cuts.”
As she walked around to the front of the display case, Mrs. Ortega immediately spotted something amiss with the sirloins.
“Your petites are backward,” she said to her husband, who smiled, pulled the tray holding small sirloin steaks and returned it so they lined up with the larger, bone-in cuts displayed bone side down for maximum appeal.
He said he’s happy to learn from his wife.
“As a store manager, I never asked myself about cutting meat. You learn about what the cuts are, not how to cut them,” he said. “The most exciting thing to me this holiday was learning how to bone out a prime rib roast.”
The family that filets together...
All three Ortegas said they enjoy working together in the shop.
“I like working with family, just being able to see each other every day,” Zachary Ortega said. “I like to learn. It’s fun.”
Mr. Ortega agreed.
“Do I miss what I was doing before? No,” he said. “When I see something I know I’ve cut and people buy it, it’s rewarding.”
For Mrs. Ortega, making a longtime dream happen with the help of her family is as rewarding as building relationships with customers, and watching them go away happy and returning for their next cuts of meat.
“I’ve talked about this since I can remember,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”
Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-963-1697.