Meet Stephen Alexander. His father was a butcher and his father’s father was a butcher. Stephen is a butcher too. Born and raised in Victoria, Australia, Stephen has been around meat since birth. He came to Canada over 20 years ago, and opened up Cumbrae’s, a butcher shop on Church Street not long after. He built two more locations since then, one in Dundas, Ontario and the other at Bayview and Eglinton. The system that he uses today, is the same system that Stephen’s family used for generations. They develop close relationships with farmers and abattoirs to obtain the best raw ingredient.
Stephen describes his business as a constant evolution. What started off as one small butcher shop has slowly evolved into multiple retail shops and a wholesale division. When Stephen started his first butcher shop on Church Street he formed a close relationship with the farmer from the original Cumbrae farms who raised beef, pork and lamb. His neighbour raised chickens. The two farmers would load their trucks and come to the city, selling meat to restaurants and butchers like Stephen. As demand grew, more of the farmers’ neighbours began supplying product, as well. This eventually grew into a whole cooperative of farms that is still evolving. There are approximately 70 farms that Cumbrae uses today, and they are constantly adding new ones.
Stephen bought and took over Cumbrae farms and the wholesale division in the early 2000s. It is an operation that focuses on sourcing products from the cooperative of different farms and abattoirs to supply restaurants and Cumbrae’s retail stores with high quality meat. Over 90% of the farms are in Ontario and the rest are in Quebec.
Stephen’s approach to both the wholesale and retail business is finding a model that enables growth without compromising the high quality product or service. Over the last two decades, Stephen and his team have been working and refining a system that functions sustainably and had lots of space to grow. Stephen’s goal is that everything functions full circle. He will always find use for product when the supply end is high and conversely he has an amazing network of abattoirs and farmers who help out when demand is up. It’s a constant balancing act that Stephen and his team work hard at everyday.
In the Church Street butcher shop hangs a board with all restaurants that Cumbrae’s farms supply. Stephen is careful only to take on what the company can manage. He explains that the most difficult part of the business is keeping up with chefs’ demands for a particular cut, their changing menus and juggling supply when faced with variables like season, aging, and sourcing raw ingredient.
The retail stores are designed to utilize every cut. Stephen has noticed that retail consumers have become more adventurous. People are much more willing to buy offcuts now than ever before. Stephen is confident that he can sell almost anything with the right combination of skilled butchery, attractive displays and knowledgeable staff. Whatever does not get sold can be used in Cumbrae’s production kitchen to make pies, terrines, soups etc.
Stephen is excited by the popularity of the local food movement. People want to have the intimate experience of dealing with local farmers and small shops. Chef’s and home cooks alike are really tuned in to where their food is coming from. Giving small artisanal farmers a venue to sell their product to the urban market is something Stephen is really proud to do. He sees Cumbrae’s growth potential and looks forward to the future of the business, hopefully with his two sons alongside him.
This post is part of an ongoing GFR series on Toronto restaurant suppliers. Click here to see all the articles.
Michelle Rabin is a Toronto based recipe tester, writer and server. She loves shopping at farmer’s markets, supporting local and sustainable products and of course eating delicious food. Follow her at @michellerabin and check out her blog The Art of Eating Alone.