At the 1-year-old Pork Chop Shop in the West Side Market, butcher Emma Beno has added personal touches to her stand. Panels of wood on the meat counter offer a more appealing backdrop. Beno picked up the butcher's block wood table (used for cracking pork ribs) at a restaurant auction in Lakewood. She slices pork with a 1938 Bird Model 22. The dark side of butchery — like bone dust and flecks of pig meat on a mechanical saw — doesn't phase her one bit.
"It was kind of gross for a little bit, but I've been here so long," says Beno. She'd been coming to the market with her dad since she was a little girl. By the time she was old enough to get a job, everyone there knew her, and Meister Foods offered her a job at the cheese stand. "I said no for a long time," she remembers with a grin. "Then I needed a job, so I took it."
She made the circuit from cheese to bakery to pork, and when she heard through the market grapevine that Foster's Meats was looking to sell one of its stands, she jumped at the chance. Today, she runs the Pork Chop Shop with her girlfriend and business partner, Alexia Rodriguez, who also works full time as the self-taught head chef at Bonbon Pastry & Cafe.
"I was doing restaurant work," Rodriguez explains, "and I was like, I have a lot of recipes, and it could be an advantage — we could do a lot of rubs."
Rodriguez incorporates Beno's chorizo into Bonbon's breakfast nachos, and the bacon into just about everything. When she was taking CrossFit classes, she paid her trainer in bacon.
Rodriguez shows up about an hour after Beno. She's the face of the Pork Chop Shop, greeting virtually everyone who walks by. The women bicker over procedures, but in the end it's clear: Rodriguez may be the star of this show, but Beno's in charge. Head across the street to Bonbon, and it's just the reverse: Rodriguez is in control of the kitchen, and Beno occasionally washes dishes in exchange for food.
Unless the two self-described "butcher babes" carried megaphones, they couldn't be more young and out and proud in a less likely location in Northeast Ohio. Amid seasoned, primarily male, third- and fourth-generation Midwestern shop owners, Beno and Rodriguez are an anomaly — and it's taken a little getting used to.
"There were people who would come, like older men, and they would see that Emma was here, and would still want meat, but not want her to cut it," says Rodriguez. "We don't have to deal with that. We can say, 'You know what? This is my stand, this is my job, this is what I do.'"
What they do is beautiful cuts of Sandusky's Daisy Field Farm pork, from bacon to sausage to chops seasoned with those spice mixtures Rodriguez dreamed up herself. And as they've settled in to the market, the market has settled down about them.
But now, it's time to go unload the truck. Themselves.
After flopping heavy boxes of pig parts onto a cart, Rodriguez heads back to man the stand, while Beno takes the freight elevator downstairs to the meat coolers.
Beno's hands tell her story. They're littered with nicks and cuts, the victims of a career spent around knives and electric saws. And right now, they're bright red and freezing, as she makes sausage in the underbelly of the market, pulling lamb intestines out of a bucket of frigid water and deftly cranking breakfast sausage.
Eventually Beno hopes to start smoking her own meats and one day wants to open a restaurant with Rodriguez.
"I'm not in a hurry — I have no problem doing this," she says. "[But] if I can build up my business enough where I [don't have to] be here every day, it'll give me a chance to go out and scout for restaurants. It'll take me to that next step."