Two Berkeley siblings with a wild past in the restaurant world (and a cult) are about to open The Butcher's Son, an all-vegan, East Coast-style delicatessen and butcher shop.
Photos courtesy of The Butcher's Son
If you think about it, butcher shops can be pretty gruesome affairs. Assorted animal carcasses hang in the window while gleeful humans in blood-soaked aprons hack away at their mutilated bodies. (Cue the chorus of bacon fanatics screaming "Yum, get me some!") But there's a new butcher shop coming to Berkeley that aims to radically change, or at least slightly alter, the traditional perception of butchery.
Named The Butcher's Son, the shop is planning to open this spring on the heavily-trafficked Solano Avenue area of the bougie California college town. It will be one of the nation's first all-vegan butcheries. (There's already one in Louisville, Kentucky and another pop-up in Minneapolis. I know, life is crazy.) But the one in Berkeley is more than just a place to stock up on beef-less beefaroni—it's also a family affair.
Peter Fikaris and his sister Christina Stobing have been running food businesses since birth. Well, kind of. They weren't babies sitting on each other's shoulders in a trench coat running a multi-billion dollar conglomerate. Less glamorously (and ridiculously), the siblings spent their youth slinging hash (and violating numerous labor laws? but whatever—it's family!) at their dad's restaurant Michael's American Vegetarian Diner, a 1950s-themed Berkeley institution that sadly closed in the early aughts. They worked in the kitchen, waited tables, helped run the books, and did basically anything else that was needed to be done. "It was a real family business," Peter told me. "I was super young, but I remember really liking it."
When I was growing up in Alameda, Calif., a weird little island in the San Francisco Bay Area that's the home to a retired naval air base and Skippy peanut butter, my quasi-hippie parents would occasionally drive us into Berkeley to eat at Michael's. When I told Peter and Christina this, they were enthusiastic. "I love hearing from people when they're like, 'Oh my god, I remember that,' and they [remember] stories. Like, why was everyone's head shaved? Or why were there just kids working? It was such a weird environment. We're like, 'Well, it's kind of a long story.' We grew up in a cult and everyone had to shave their heads and we were all kids and it was, yeah …" Scratch that. A cult?
"Yeah," Peter tells me. "It's like a small, organized religion. You see a lot of new age religions that have meditation, past life readings, healing, stuff like that. Our dad founded one in 1982 so that's kind of been our entire life."
At this point, I had to know more.
MUNCHIES: What were some of the tenants of the cult? Was this just hanging out in a communal hot tub and being spiritual together, or did you have to give them your first-born and stuff like that? Christina Stobing: Communal hot tub. How'd you know? It was just hippies over the age of 50.
Did you guys always get along? Peter Fikaris: Yeah, I mean we had our problems when we were little kids of course. Brother and sister, and we're only a year apart. I'd say around 12 or 13, we started getting along.
Christina: We have most of the same friends. And we still fought, especially when we owned the restaurant, we fought a lot but ...
Peter: I don't remember any fights but I guess so. I'll take your word for it.
Christina: You have a much nicer memory of our teenage years.
Peter: I think family dynamic, we've always all gotten along really well. Which is why we still continue running businesses together, and we're having family dinner tonight. We have a family dinner every Sunday.
Wow, that's so Parenthood. Christina: It is. We worked at a lot of the same places together. One of us will start working somewhere, and then one brother or one sister will come over. At one point, I think five of us were working at one place at the same time.
Peter: A lot of our family, including my dad, spent a lot of time living in Sweden. We own a house out there as well, and we've had a couple vegan restaurants out there in Luleå. But as far as the Bay Area goes, that's it. We had the diner, we currently have a hot sauce company, and now we're opening this place.
Have you guys ever worked any jobs that are not in the food business with your family? Christina: I have a little bit. I've worked in a clothing store, a video store. I was a real estate agent. I've done some bookkeeping, but it's never been able to really hold my interest for very long.
Peter: Not really. I did some sound engineering, and I worked for a sex toy company for about a year in San Francisco.
Peter: You don't remember that?
You guys say that you're a New York-style butcher/deli, what does that mean? Peter: I guess when you're on the East Coast and you walk into a delicatessen, and they've got half sour and fully sour pickles, and a selection of meats, and you can get a sandwich there and it's like, piled high. Meats with homemade sauerkraut and fresh-made mozzarella and homemade baguettes, I guess that's what that means.
Christina: Fresh bagels.
Hold up. You guys are going to have New York-style bagels in Berkeley? Peter: Our morning bagel scene is going to be pretty big, for sure. Different kinds of cream cheeses, we're working on a pickled herring right now and a smoked lox and we've got a fried egg and an egg salad that we put together. I lived on the East Coast, and I got hero sandwiches and all these well-known, East Coast-style sandwiches, and I kind of wanted to bring some of that to the West Coast a little bit. I mean, we're not trying to impersonate, but it's the kind of stuff we want to do.
Do you think your new place will legitimize vegan butchery and plant-based meats in a new way and introduce it to a new audience? Who do you see as your clientele? Peter: I think we're working hard to move into the mainstream market by making things more accessible. When you try our items, yes, they're plant-based, and they're healthier, but it doesn't taste like a frozen veggie burger or a tofu scramble. Meat products have been being developed for hundreds of years, and they're delicious and people are addicted to them. They have sewn into their minds that this is what we eat, this is our culture, and this is what my grandma used to make—and her grandmother. This isn't going to cross over as a cheap imitation. They're just as good as meat, but healthy, which is what a lot of people are looking for.
I think the word "butcher" has such strong connotations. When I hear it, I think of a guy in a white coat hacking up a dead animal. Peter: The concept is that there's the old generation of my father and grandfather—who were butchers, and they killed animal—and we're a new generation, and we don't need to do that anymore.
Christina: Most of us are children who have grown up and consciously made the choice to become vegan or vegetarian after seeing our parents eat meat. Just like the butcher's son, to grow up seeing all this death, and then decide that they didn't want that in their life. That's what we're about.
Thanks for talking with us.