Written by Laura Staugaitis
Interview with Kate Kavanaugh
Images by Lauren DeFilipo
Along a tree-lined street in Denver, your eye will first catch simple neon lettering: Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe. Then, a pun-filled sandwich board, and finally gold foil stenciling gilding the windows. This layering of urban modernism, relaxed humor and a proud dedication to tradition continues to unfold as you walk through the door. Your eyes meet the floor hand-tiled by Kate, the rich wood cases that Josh designed and built, the cheeky product descriptions, and the lively, professional staff serving and chit-chatting with regular customers. One customer barely contains his excitement at the hand-off of his smoked brisket, wrapped in traditional peach paper and served with Casey’s house sauce. Another, a dog owner, waits as Janice retrieves the “odd bits” from the back cooler for her lucky dog. Honky Tonk tunes waft through the bright space, warming the pristine white subway tile walls. Suspended tumbleweeds dangle and drift among the front windows.
Both of you come from backgrounds other than the butchering and retail business. What brought you on this path, together and/or separately?
From the moment I met Josh we’ve been flying by the seats of our pants. Our rule in life is that if you think about anything for too long, any plan, any change, you’ll find the thousand ways it can go wrong and you won’t do it. And so we never think too long about any new venture, which isn’t to say that we aren’t prepared and thorough. That’s kind of how we got here. Josh is a master carpenter, jack-of-all-trades, man’s man, and I’m an almost-biologist, prairie enthusiast, food photographer, and former vegetarian. When we met I fell in love with him and with the idea of eating meat again shortly thereafter. Like most things for us, the idea of becoming butchers was a whirlwind idea. We were swept up and suddenly found ourselves in a butcher shop in New York working alongside two of the best people in the business, Bryan Mayer and Shiloh Partin.
I suppose it was love at first cut; infatuation at the least. We both took to it quickly and everything snowballed toward opening our own shop and heading west again.
You've been open for just about a year. What's been surprising?
Everything about owning a business is surprising. Our notions as business owners are constantly being tested and it is a constant exercise in adaptation. I think we’re surprised by what Denver was and wasn’t ready for.
You're situated in an area of Denver that's developing rapidly. How does Western Daughters fit into that growth (or not)?
We love being a part of a burgeoning city. I’ve watched Denver change continuously since I was a teenager running around a downtown that was really rough around the edges. A lot of that has smoothed out, for better or worse. Denver is now a place I want to visit and explore. I think right now, though, Denver is kind of an awkward teenager. It’s trying new things, new styles, testing the limits and I’m not sure any of us know exactly what it’s going to grow into. We’re excited to be a part of that, to ride a wave that hasn’t even begun to crest.
I’m looking forward to Denver developing neighborhood-driven pockets and we want to be at the core of that; a place that is both a destination and neighborhood staple. I think a big part of us growing into Denver and Denver growing with us is that we need to stop thinking about convenience as being king. Just because there is a place that houses bread, meat, cheese and flowers doesn’t mean that these can’t be shopped for individually. So much of changing the way our current food system works is about changing our habits as consumers. Putting our money where our mouths are, literally and figuratively. We have a lot of power as a group that is being under-utilized.
The business you're in is a direct link between urban and rural communities and economies. Where do you see this relationship going (for better or worse) and how does WD fit into that picture?
Bridging the gap between rural and urban economies is always an incredible and sometimes harrowing experience, but we feel that in Colorado it is especially unique. We always think of this state in three vertical planes: the mountains and the Western Slope, the Front Range, and the plains. During the last 50 years, as the middle of the country has emptied out, places like Eastern Colorado have lost people and with them have gone businesses and also culture. There aren’t enough people to support these towns and we want to highlight how incredible the people, land, and agriculture are here. I realize I just used the word people three times, but the beating heart of agriculture is the people who work together, with each other, and with the land and animals to cultivate something that wasn’t there before.
Native prairie has the capacity to sequester more carbon than the rainforest. That’s crazy. And it’s in our backyard, but we don’t even think to go there. We want to make the plains, the prairie, the flatlands a place you want to visit, or maybe even live some day. In between here and there is a lot of learning how to communicate with different people and learning about what it takes to live on this land.
For us, the root of being a meat eater is being a steward of the land. We think about soil first when we eat our steak. Everything you’re consuming is a direct product of your environment and the ecosystems that surround you. When we think about land I don’t think we always think of how much that encompasses.
A steak, as we think of it, is rich prairie soil and extensive root systems. It is complicated water rights and how much it rained or didn’t that year. It’s invasive sagebrush and 50 different grasses. It’s C3 and C4 carbon sequestration. It’s a town that is 40 miles from the nearest grocery store and a man that has spent the last 20 years rehabbing 1200 acres of native prairie. And his kids. We need to think more wholly and more holistically about what we’re eating. It isn’t any one thing, it’s a thousand things, all of which are affecting our bodies and the way we live.
John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We try to live by that thought.
Butchering might not be the most glamorous or appealing profession. What about it really pulls you in and helps you to find the beauty that you're excited to share?
Coming from a biology background, the body and its capacity to grow, to function, to die is so incredible. I’m amazed every day by what healing benefits these animals are bringing to me and my body. I try to never lose track of that. From an objective standpoint of anatomy, there is also something so beautiful in the way that meat comes apart, and the idiosyncrasies of each animal. The intimate act of watching something depending on the seasons and with age, with breed, with different pastures, is humbling.
Being a butcher sometimes feels like you have the best seat in the house for watching your food system. You are the thing in between ranch and table. I don’t think there is anything more exciting and beautiful than that.
Any future vision for your interests and talents you'd like to talk about?
I think as business owners you are always a mile down your pipedream pipe. There are days when it is so hard to buckle down and be here when your mind is running rampant with ideas. Western Daughters is not the end of our vision. We want to continue to bring good food, but also the deeper roots of the West to the city of Denver.
One thing I notice about growth in Denver is its tendency to move away from the things that brought us here in the first place. Amazing ranch land, new frontiers and rich prairie soil – that sort of maverick cowboy mentality. We want to build businesses that maybe put a bit of that cow back in this former cowtown.
As for what they are, we leave that part open. I’ll say that we’d love to have a place to two-step, we’d love to spend more time on ranches and farms, and we’d love to continue our quest to change the land, one BBQ rib at a time.
Our true vision is prairie restoration. We cannot stress that enough. We really want to find a better way to utilize this land and to maximize the benefits to land, to animal, to rancher, and to rural economy – all while eating better.