Update: Kent Graham is no longer with Block & Grinder.
Before the grand opening on March 18th we were given the opportunity to talk with Jed Kampe and Kent Graham of Block & Grinder. Jed is the owner and general manager, and formerly owned the New York Butcher Shop on Selwyn Ave. Kent is the executive chef. We’re going to run this interview in multiple parts. We talked with these guys for over an hour and were blown away with their passion for what they do and their attention to detail. We think you will be too.
You can stop by Block & Grinder on Providence Rd at the intersection of Sharon Amity, and we’ll run the next part of this interview later in the week.
This interview starts in medias res. We had started talking with Kent when we realized we needed to start recording. What he was saying was just too fascinating.
(Showing us the refrigerator and the meat grinder, Kent starts to tell us how they do things.)
Kent Graham: So basically what we do is we cut everything down into a 2 x 2 cube. So that way we have a good size. That way we can also make sure that everything is going to go through the grinder properly and won’t clog up in the system. This grinder pumps out at a pretty fast rate.
We only grind once. Unlike most places, which grind twice.
Charlotte Burger Blog: It’s pretty thick, right?
Kent Graham: It makes it more of a steak-esque burger. This isn’t your typical hamburger. We cut from solid muscle meat. I mean, it’s good tasting meat that you’ll eat alone by itself, but we take it to the next level and put it in a burger. So, we’re happy about it.
Charlotte Burger Blog: What’s the different types or cuts of meat you throw in there?
Kent Graham: Not going to tell you. (laughs)
Kent: We’ve got some pastrami that just came out of the smoker today. These are Berkshire pork ribs. We’re still looking for a great local supplier on them. Right now we’re pulling this from Eden Farms out of Iowa, which is an all-natural Berkshire program. The way we do it is a little unique. When we make our bacon, which there is some bacon right here that is getting ready to go in the smoker tomorrow, what is going to happen is we take our bacon juices, mix that with ice tea, then the ribs go in it for 24 hours. And that’s how we brine our ribs. There’s other things that go in it as well, but……that’s basically the jist of how that works.
We’ve got corned beef in here that’s getting ready to be boiled off. And then back here we have all of our meats: prime grade at the top and working our way down to accommodate everything else.
Cheeses are in the back. A good bit of our cheeses come from Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Georgia. We’re trying to stay in that regional mindset of what we use.
And then, everything from more Berkshire pieces to chicken in here that has been already brined. We use chicken from Springer Mountain out of Georgia, which is a great operation. It’s the flagship of Fieldale Farms, which is a family operation. You know, these guys, have a small circle of great products. It’s unbelievable.
Our oysters come from the Rappahannock, they’re Watch House oysters, so we’re real particular about those.
And, then, I mean, even the lard we use for fat, even though it is a U.S. Foods product, it is an animal product as well as a fat soluble product, so we know that we’re getting a product that’s not really going to gunk up and not going to stick. It has gone through straining. While it is a bought product that we’re bringing in, we know that we’re getting a great product. That’s one of the big things for us.
(At this point, as we start to leave the refrigerator, Jed Kampe comes in and introduces himself.)
Charlotte Burger Blog: Last September, the law changed in regards to how rare you can cook your meat. How did that benefit an operation like this?
Kent: As far as the law goes, if you want a rare burger we’ll make a rare burger. I’ll make a rare burger all day long.
Jed Kampe: There was a misunderstanding too, where a lot of people thought if you grind your own beef on site you were exempt from the law, which technically you weren’t. However, it is much safer and people were doing it. But now, as long as you’ve got the warning label—
Kent: Which we do have! . . . If you want, I’ll give you a tour of the rest of the kitchen.
Charlotte Burger Blog: Thanks! That’d be great.
Jed Kampe: We’ve got one freezer and it’s got desserts in it. Nothing else. This over here was a freezer, but we turned it into our produce cooler. We wanted everything fresh.
Kent: When everything is brought in, instead of keeping things in a typical boxes, which we hate doing, everything goes in the Lexans, we examine every piece before it comes out. That way, it’s not like we’re digging to the bottom of a box of lemons and going, ‘oh, the whole bottom is rotted.’ We know right away. We’re able to separate the bad stuff from the good so it doesn’t crossover. We try to keep a good, watchful eye on everything that is going on.
Jed: I’ve seen what happens to the guy when the delivery is not up to spec.
Kent: Let’s just say, one delivery came in that I didn’t like the way it was stacked on the handtruck and I refused the entire order.
Charlotte Burger Blog: Was the guy pissed?
Kent: You know, it’s one of those things where you’ve got to have a standard.
Jed: Well, it was a health code violation. He had chicken and pork on the same rack. If we had that in the cooler we’d get points deducted [from our sanitation grade].
Kent: I’m not playing around. There’s a standard which I try to operate in and I try to maintain. If you notice by every clock in the kitchens they all say ‘Sense of Urgency.’ It basically means that everything we do here has to be done fast and has to be done efficiently. We’re pretty particular about it.
Charlotte Burger Blog: So, how have you guys prepared for your opening?
Kent: We’ll do mock orders. I’ll make up a mock table, I’ll put people in the line. We’ll go through it, we’ll go through it, we’ll go through it. We’ve done two friends and family events—
Jed: And we spent the summer in my kitchen. We bought a mini grinder and worked out our blend. And then, once we finally got the equipment, then we could actually, really play around with it.
Charlotte Burger Blog: That must have been fun, right?
Jed: (laughs) Yeah, it was! I went and bought a cheap commercial freezer and refrigerator for the garage and a little table-top grinder, which we now use for our sausage and we were just a couple of mad scientists. You name the cut of beef and we mixed and matched it.
Kent: We had dry erase boards and we were keeping track of percentages and everything.
Jed: We didn’t have test tubes and beakers and all that, but it was about as 8th grade science class as it could have gotten.
Charlotte Burger Blog: This place has been a long time coming.
Jed: Yes. I owned the New York Butcher Shop which was a small franchise. A couple of things about it that didn’t agree with me. One, my space was way too small. And I kind of had some vision of what this is, and I’ll explain that in a minute, but I knew I needed to be in a bigger area. I was starting to get requests from local restaurants for our grind, because they wanted to be known for their burgers and things like that, and our ground beef was really good. And it was like, ‘well, maybe I should make burgers.’ But I didn’t have any room for it.
So, long story short, I was able to sever my ties with the New York Butcher Shop guys. It was very amicable. They understood. And this space was available last January. It took just about 6 months to get the lease done. In the interim, Kent and I go way back from when we both lived in Atlanta. And we had got reacquainted when he was working with Fossil Farms, selling some specialty wild game.
Kent: Well, he called me when he was first going to go work for New York Butcher Shop and said, ‘Hey, do you know a butcher?’
Jed: That’s true! I had a lot to learn. I had a corporate background, so I went to school on that. I can cut beef, I can do that. The rest of the stuff I leave to him.
So, we got to talking and my first vision of this place was really good burgers and sandwiches. Beer and wine maybe. You know, simple. Kent and I started talking and he said, ‘hey, I’m willing to move up, with a couple of caveats.’ He wanted to have some creative control, and I was all for that, because I have had the pleasure of eating his food before.
So, he relocated up here and we still didn’t have a lease. So that’s why we were playing around in my house. And then we had some adventures with the build out. The whole thing took a lot longer than we expected. It’s almost been a year to the day. We closed the butcher shop at the beginning of March of last year. This being a former restaurant, with a lot of, at least, the kitchen side intact, we figured, ‘ah, it’s going to be a quick build out.’
Of course, that didn’t happen. But, we’ve been talking about it in the past couple of weeks how it has been a huge blessing in a number of ways. One is, to get back to your question about how we prepare, we’ve done a couple of complete menu dry runs. We’ve just came off two friends and family events, we’ve got the one tomorrow, and now we’re pretty much ready.
We’ve been playing around here, at odd hours, all along. The menu has probably changed 50 times. It’s a good menu, though. It’s different. It’s like nothing else. Obviously, you’re going to see burgers and steaks and things like that on there, but there’s some items that I don’t think you’ll find anywhere else in Charlotte. Some wild game, and we’re making our own deli meats.
At the Butcher Shop we did really well with our deli sandwiches, and we had Boar’s Head. One of the caveats on the lease was that Papi’s Bagels carries Boar’s Head and we couldn’t do it. So, we go out and buy a steam kettle and now we’re making our own corned beef, pastrami, roast beef, you name it. Brisket, pulled pork. Everything’s done here. Nothing is brought in already ready. He’s [Kent] got brines and dry rubs, and he’s got Cheerwine in one of them…
Charlotte Burger Blog: Can we say that? Is that a secret?
Kent: (laughs) It’s listed on the menu.
Jed: That kind of goes back to what we’re trying to do. But, it’s hard to stay local with beef, because really the best beef is out in the Midwest. I know there are some good ranches here, and hopefully we’ll pull some of that in.
Charlotte Burger Blog: Unfortunately, I found out about your shop on Selwyn a little too late. There’s not a lot of other butcher places in Charlotte.
Jed: The model that those guys put together, which is based off of an actual family owned shop in Brooklyn, is really the right idea, but at the wrong time. They started to grow it, but it was right when the economy went down. One, it’s a specialty shop, and two, it’s carrying a higher end product and therefore it’s more expensive. And it really depended on where you wanted to open one up.
I was a full service butcher shop and we did fine. What really was our problem was our parking, our size, and our limitations.
Charlotte Burger Blog: Especially the parking over there.
Jed: It was terrible. And I actually had the opportunity to go into one of the spaces next to me and I could have done some kind of incarnation of this model there, but they said no. If you think the parking is bad now, wait til you put a restaurant in.
Check out part 2 later this week.