By Emily J. Weitz
When Tony Lawless took over Cromer’s Country Market seven years ago, he thought about renaming it. After all, anything called “Lawless” has a certain appeal. But he knew that Cromer’s Country Market, or simply Cromer’s as the market is known to locals, carried with it a legacy that outweighed any intriguing name. Over the 100 or so years that Cromer’s has been in business, it has developed a stellar reputation with its customers and its always-experienced butchers are very much at the heart of that.
Lawless started as a butcher, working for Ed Cromer in Southampton for 17 years before he moved with the business to Noyac 22 years ago. Prior to that, Lawless had been in Ireland, where he was born and raised. He got into the butcher trade because he didn’t have a choice.
“You don’t graduate from college and decide to become a butcher,” he says. “I started at 14. It was an apprenticeship. You go through every aspect, from killing the animal to cutting it.”
Now there’s a lot of talk about farm to table dining, but in Lawless’s experience, the traditional role of a butcher is part of the essence of that culinary experience.
“There’s no such thing as a butcher anymore,” says Lawless. “There are meat cutters. But everything comes in a box, already cut and portioned. It’s a lost art.”
Lawless recalls a day when butchers were revered in the community.
“All the housewives went to see the butcher,” he says. “He was a respected part of the community.”
At Cromer’s, Lawless has made keeping the traditional role of the butcher alive and well.
Stacy Knoebel, the deli manager and head chef at Cromer’s, says that while chefs get a lot more respect these days, butchers do the hard work.
“The chef couldn’t do any of this without the butcher,” she says. “And the best part of having the butcher shop in the neighborhood is that if you see something you want to make, you ask the butcher and he can tell you everything you need to know.”
Lawless agrees, vowing that his butchers, each with several decades’ experience, could all tell you everything about any cut of meat.
“We’ve all grown up in the trade,” he says, “and that’s rare. We enjoy what we do, and we have a passion for feeding people.”
Cromer’s has grown up around the butcher shop, and its prepared meats are among the most popular items in the store. Knoebel prepares stuffed chicken breasts, rolled pork pinwheels, and of course, fried chicken.
“We’re thinking about the working mother who has two kids and has to get to soccer practice,” she says. “We make real food where you don’t have to do anything but put it in the oven.”
Cromer’s is famous for its fried chicken, mac and cheese, and other comfort food selections. But Knoebel has taken great strides in offering healthier things for families.
“I work,” says Knoebel, “and I have to get home and make dinner. What we’re known for is not actually what’s healthiest, but we have a lot of healthy options. We have customers looking for all natural product, which is part of the driving force of getting our butchers to make fresh, real food. I want a chicken breast I stuffed myself so I know what I put in it. I try to stay away from packaged. Even if the chicken isn’t organic, just a regular Perdue chicken, I know it’s fresh, real chicken stuffed with fresh, real ingredients.”
Lawless adds that at Cromer’s, they cater to the entire population.
“We have Latin chefs to cater to the Latino population,” he says. “Peoples needs change from winter to summer. We’ve fed Presidents, movie stars, and a lot of chefs.”
One of the most gratifying parts of the job is being a part of people’s lives. Food is a part of all great celebrations, said Lawless and the people at Cromer’s take pride in knowing how to prepare it.
“Even though eating is something you have to do,” says Knoebel, “it’s also one of the most important things you do. We take care of our customers by cooking good food. Whether it’s brisket on Rosh Hashana or turkey on Thanksgiving, food is very important.”
When asked about the fried chicken, Lawless smirks. He’s not going to give away all his secrets, but he hints at it.
“The breading makes it,” he says. “We have our own secret recipe. And it’s about the way it’s cooked in the pressure fryer, which cooks it faster, and it doesn’t hold in the oil as much as a deep fryer.”
Lawless may not have chosen to be a butcher when he was nudged into the trade at 14, but it is a craft he has learned to love. Now, as the owner of the business, you don’t see him behind the counter as much. But he still looks very comfortable when he ties on an apron.
“I may not have become a butcher by choice,” he says, “but you get to enjoy it. You’re dealing with the public, which you have to enjoy. It can be very gratifying.”
Cromer’s Country Market is located at 3500 Noyac Road in Sag Harbor. For more information, call 725-9004.