Josh Applestone was a vegan for 17 years. Now he's a meat man, a master butcher who just wants to "get his hands on some cold muscle."
In 2004, Applestone and his wife, Jessica, opened Fleisher's Grass-fed & Organic Meats in Kingston, New York, which he describes as "an old-fashioned butcher shop offering meat free of hormones or antibiotics and full of real farm flavor." The first three years were sketchy, Applestone says, and it took a lot of convincing to get chefs and home cooks to understand what he and Jessica did.
Then something happened: people started to take notice. Fleisher's got a flurry of attention in the press. The New York Times, Gourmet, and Time wrote about Fleisher's. Martha Stewart named Fleisher's a "culinary tastemaker." Julie Powell, the author of the memoir-turned-movie "Julie & Julia", published a book called "Cleaving" about learning how to break down racks of ribs and sides of beef at Fleisher's.
Now, Fleisher's is buzzing and busy. People keep trying to buy out the Applestones, but Josh has turned down these offers.
The Applestones work six days a week. The shop is open for three days, and the other days they spend making deliveries and "cutting meat with a knife in one hand and classical music playing." But, Josh says, "I never go to work. I love what I do."
Before he became a butcher, Josh worked as a chef. Turning whole animals into sausages and steaks was about getting "closer and closer to the source," he says. Fleisher's supplies some of the best restaurants in the country, including Gramercy Tavern in New York City; Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York; and the Country Inn in Krumville, New York.
But Fleisher's was also a political act. "How our food is treated is really important to us," Josh says. He and Jessica wanted to make a difference in the way people think about food and how they make choices about what to eat. "If people pause to think about something for a moment at Walmart or even at Whole Foods, it makes my day."
Fleisher's animals are not treated with antibiotics, hormones, or fed animal by-products. The steer roam freely, and the grass they eat is organic. The animals come from farms within 100 miles of Kingston. This translates into healthy, delicious, high-quality meat, milk and eggs. The flavor is rich and complex and bears little resemblance to grocery store, feedlot beef.
Josh is proud of doing two things differently from his competitors. "One, I don't lie," he says. "Two, I really care. My 21-month-old son eats this. It is the most important thing to me."
Josh's vegan past is a product of his concern about food, where it comes from, and how it's treated. After a slow and painful recovery from a motorcycle accident, Josh was convinced by Jessica that some animal proteins might help heal his body. Slowly, Josh incorporated eggs and ice cream into his diet. And they did help, he says.
When the Applestones wanted to open a business together, they first planned a café. But, Josh says, they found there was "no good meat available," and saw an opportunity. Josh's farewell to vegetarianism coincided with the start of Fleisher's.
Josh's business is his philosophy come to life, which, he says, is "that if you take care of the product before it gets to the table, the food will be exponentially healthier and tastier." Josh says it became a cultural given at some point—and a middle-class aspiration and then reality—that "every family needs a steak." But he believes that such a reality is environmentally unsustainable.
Josh insists his customers try his hamburger meat before they invest in a steak. "It's a simple, perfect pairing of an animal." Their nose-to-tail ground beef is a full-flavored, precise balance of meat, fat, and muscle. It stands up to onions and bacon and cheese but it's best with only salt, he says.
Josh's secret to success? "We didn't try to fit in with everyone else. Everyone tries to produce products that everyone knows. Why?" The Applestones prefer to do his their own thing. Josh warns his customers, for instance, that Fleisher's kielbasa doesn't taste like any other kielbasa. "Come up with something that's right for you, play with what you have rather than try to copy everyone else. If you do what you love to do, you will be the best at it."