BRIGANTINE — Just a few blocks from the seafood and fishing bonanza that is the Atlantic Ocean, the hearty scent of meat lies heavy at the corner of 33rd Street and Brigantine Avenue.
In a world where meat comes prepackaged to supermarkets and thrown in the freezer, the Ernest and Son butcher shop is one of the few stand-alone butcher shops still in operation in the area, having served island and off-island residents since 1977.
“We’re one of the only ones left, really,” said owner Brian “Mel” Cortellessa. “It sure seems like it.”
The business originally started in Philadelphia by Ernest Storino. Cortellessa, a 39-year-old Brigantine resident, took over the shop when Sam Storino, the “Son” in Ernest and Son and a current city councilman, retired in 2007.
“I came here as a cleanup kid in 1985,” Cortellessa said. “They taught me the business and taught me the trade, and I worked my way through the ranks and ended up the owner.”
Ernest and Son is a full meat market, dealing in beef, lamb, pork, veal and chicken — “All the basics,” he said — but they can also help hunters with a hankering for venison.
“We also butcher deer for people,” he said. “That’s rare, too. We can’t sell the deer, but they pay us for our labor. Last year, we did 60, approximately. We actually do any animal — ram, moose, bear.”
One creature he hasn’t seen in his shop: alligators. But there’s still time.
It also features an Italian deli that has done “an incredible sub and sandwich business,” Cortellessa said. “Catering has also taken off recently, too.”
Cortellessa did not want to share the business’ sales numbers, but said that butcher shops’ profit margins usually run about 30 percent to 50 percent.
“But we try to make our stuff unique,” he said. “We make our own sausage and beef jerky, have our own specialty sandwiches and make all handmade food for catering. We also try to have all the basics of a small corner store.”
It’s a good thing the business is diversified, as people’s eating habits have changed since the economy went south.
“People are buying differently,” he said. “More lower-end stuff, like chicken and sausage, than higher-end stuff like filet mignon and prime rib.”
Overall, he said, fewer people stop in every day.
“There’s still people who shop day-to-day, because you get fresher meat,” Cortellessa said. But more and more, people either buy every few days and keep it frozen or just purchase bulk freezer orders.
“People can stock their freezers for close to a month with one order,” he said.
As for employees, “cutting meat takes a good six months to learn,” he said. Members of the staff, which ranges from seven to 15 employees, usually start in the deli and work their way up — much like Cortellessa himself.
“We always try to hire local kids,” he said. “It helps the economy.”
There are still a few other butcher shops in the region, although many have transitioned into grocery and produce stores such as May’s Meat Market in Pleasantville and Smokey’s Meat Market in Woodbine.
Old-time establishments such as Wagenheim’s Meat Market on North Kentucky Avenue in Atlantic City — Ernest and Son has an old 1930 Wagenheim’s ad on a wall that offers prime rib roast for 25 cents a pound — are increasingly rare. Cortellessa said Lou Wagenheim, retired owner of the since-closed shop, still stops into Ernest and Son occasionally.
“This is the only place you can go to get a decent cut of meat or sausage,” said Joe Takach, of Brigantine, while Mario Gonzalez, of Brigantine, praised the service: “If he doesn’t have it, he’ll get it,” he said.
In the end, running a business in a shore community — butcher shop or not — is a difficult prospect.
“It’s tough, super tough,” Cortellessa said. “You’ve got to save money to get through the winter months. You make your money in the summer to make it through the winter. It’s not easy in a resort town. You end up loving the locals and the summer people.”
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