Noe Valley Voice November 1998

Drewes Meat Market on Last Legs

By Mark Robinson

The sign in the front window of Drewes Meats said it all: "Temporarily Closed. We are trying to reopen."

The sudden demise of the century-old butcher shop at 1706 Church St. in mid-October sent a wave of sadness through generations of loyal customers -- and left the shop's four employees in shock.

Now two of those workers -- brothers Josh and Isaac Epple -- are hoping to revive the store, which has been serving up choice cuts of beef, chicken, lamb, and pork since about 1888.

The Epples say they are reopening the shop and will stay in business through the end of the year -- a critical period because of the rush for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts. But come January, they're worried they might have to close the neighborhood institution for good.

The brothers came up with the reopening plan after Drewes' owner, Dave McCarroll, announced on Oct. 15 that the store was going out of business. McCarroll closed the doors that night.

Channel 2's 10 O'Clock News confirmed the shutdown by showing customers streaming in to say goodbye and pay their last respects. Then on Oct. 16, the San Francisco Examiner ran a front-page story, headlined, "Drewes Meats ends 109-year-run, finally closing its Church Street doors."

But at the same time the paper was laying Drewes to rest, the employees were tacking up their "Temporarily Closed" sign in the window. Eleven days later, the Epples were skinning and pounding chicken, and declaring the shop back in business.

Still, Drewes' survival is far from assured. The market has been losing money for years, Josh Epple says. In fact, the shop started noticing a decline in business in 1991, during the filming of Sister Act at St. Paul's.

Things got worse a couple of years ago, when Muni installed ramps and median strips along the J-Church streetcar line, reducing parking in the area. Recent construction along Church Street -- of St. Paul's new elementary school, and a cafe next to Drewes -- also hurt business. The trend toward vegetarianism didn't help either. And McCarroll began suffering from tendonitis in his elbow, which made it difficult for him to work as a butcher.

To make ends meet, McCarroll struck up a partnership with Cecilia de Leon, the owner of Stellings Market, a Mom and Pop store located two doors away. In January, de Leon moved Stellings' groceries, sundries, and video sales into half of Drewes' space. It was a way to save on rent and utilities and increase foot traffic in both stores. (Stellings' vacated storefront at Church and 29th streets now houses a new restaurant, Regent Thai.)

The store owners hoped that Stellings' groceries and Drewes' famed meats -- all range-fed and free-range -- would make a perfect match. Unfortunately, the small-scale synergy never really developed, says de Leon.

But de Leon hopes to re-energize both businesses by helping to back the Epples -- who have dubbed themselves "the Drewes Brothers."

Meanwhile, McCarroll has dropped out of sight. Neither de Leon nor the Epples have talked with him. The telephone at his South San Francisco home has been changed to an unlisted number.

Though an ownership dispute may be brewing, Josh Epple, 26, still believes the butcher shop can be profitable, especially once the construction of a 36-unit condo complex in St. Paul's old high school building on 29th Street is completed.

"We hope this will be a good jump-start for the business," says Epple, who grew up in the neighborhood and began working at Drewes at 17. His brother Isaac, 24, joined the crew a few years later. "There is so much tradition here," says Josh. "The loyal customers are fantastic."

Drewes was (and is) an old-fashioned place where the butchers know you by name -- and by your order -- agrees Kevin Duffy, a Day Street resident. "It's an institution," Duffy says. "People kind of took it for granted."

Longtime customers who no longer live in the neighborhood have been known to drive two to three hours to come back to Drewes and pick up their special holiday turkey or ham.

"The holidays are huge," Epple says. "People love the Willie Bird turkeys we sell. You can't ruin them."

But the ultimate fate of the store rests with the man who owns the building, Phil Tomasello, who worked as a butcher at Drewes for 40 years and has owned the building since 1959. He sold the business to McCarroll's father in 1984. McCarroll began running it himself in 1989.

Tomasello has been flooded with inquiries about leasing the space, which sits along a street where commercial real estate has become increasingly valuable in recent years.

Tomasello, 77, says he'd like to see Drewes survive. "I think we just need to let things cool off a little," he says. "We're going to take it slow and try to do the right thing."

However, he doubts whether the ar-rangement with Stellings Market and the Epple brothers will last beyond the end of December, when the Stellings lease expires. He foresees a group of more experienced butchers taking over the space -- or perhaps selling the building altogether.

Josh Epple hopes Tomasello will allow him and his brother to stay permanently. In the meantime, he'll continue to trim the fat and do all the extras for Drewes' patrons.

During the week or so the store was shut down, Josh, who also works in the meat department of the Real Foods grocery in the Marina, delivered meat to some of his old Drewes customers.

"I still want to supply them," he says. "They've come to expect it."