Family affair, hoof to table

Bullock's: A Carroll County business raises, slaughters cattle, then serves the results in its restaurant. It's one of relatively few such operations remaining.

January 23, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

At Bullock's, patrons wolfing down burgers and porterhouse steaks need not wonder where their food came from. Those curious simply need to peek at a pasture outside, where cattle waiting to be tomorrow's lunch are grazing.

"We raise it, slaughter it, cut it, cook it," said Bobby Bullock, who runs the restaurant portion of the family enterprise, which includes a butchery, bakery, steakhouse, slaughterhouse and farm outside Westminster in Carroll County. "We'll even eat it for you if you want us to."

Many restaurants today are far removed from the farm, but Bullock's prides itself on staying close to the source. The restaurant's menu advertises: "Our beef is raised, processed and aged on these premises."

Bullock's Beef House (the restaurant) and Bullock's Country Meats Inc. (the butchery) are an emblem of fortitude in Carroll County, where family-run businesses have been overwhelmed by a flood of national chains along Route 140. The family operates on a 250-acre farm on Route 32, where patriarch G. W. Bullock opened a tiny meat counter in 1937.

Performing just about every segment of the meat business on-site is a vanishing ritual harking back to more agrarian times.

The Bullocks are anything but clandestine about what they do. Local school groups are encouraged to come for tours of the slaughterhouse. And according to the American Association of Meat Processors, the Bullocks have something they should be thrilled to show off.

"When you're raising your beef and slaughtering your beef, it gives you an edge," said Robert L. Bullock, Bobby's father and the owner of the butchery. "If that wasn't the case, we wouldn't have existed because we wouldn't be no different than anyone else."

The meat association's executive director, Steve Krut, said such operations, once common, are dying.

"I don't think you have 1,000 of them in the whole country," he said.

The Bullocks recognize that having a restaurant and meat counter coexisting can seem odd, at times uncomfortable. During an expansion in 1980, the family erected a wall between the two. Before that, diners ate in full view of freshly cut rump roasts and were alarmed.

"Sometimes it's not very appetizing to look at raw meat while you're eating," Bobby Bullock said.

Commercial steakhouses might work to re-create the plain charm of the Midwest, but Bullock's does so with ease and precision. Diners pick up place mats that are also their menus as they walk in, then place their order and choice of potato and vegetable. Minutes later, their number is called over a loudspeaker, breaking the staid silence of the dining room.

The decor is bland. The booths are wooden. The salad bar is in the shape of a covered wagon, and a model freight train hums along tracks that circle above diners' heads.

"We have people fighting to sit underneath that train," said Bobby Bullock. "It's something to entertain the kids when you're waiting for your meal. It was such a hit we put up a second one in the lower dining room." (The new one's a model Amtrak passenger train).

The restaurant attracts families, professionals and other workers on lunch break, and scores of retirees. Many diners said they come regularly, for the home-style food or because Bullock's is just up the street from home. A contractor said it's about the only restaurant in the county with a parking lot big enough for his dump truck.

The emphasis here is clearly meat. Lunch beef specials are about $4. Soup and salad cost more -- $4.79.

One recent afternoon, Bob Schlottenmeier, 70, was enjoying chopped sirloin alongside plastic-foam cups of cole slaw and green beans.

"Juicy. Tender. Good. Not overdone. Cooked to your order," said Schlottenmeier.

"The price is right," added his wife, Pat.

"The way it should be," said Schlottenmeier. "When you come here, you feel at home. You don't feel rushed. No surprises, no price changes, it's a stable place."

Paula Kreuzburg, a spokeswoman for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said she knew of nothing that might resemble Bullock's. Baugher's, a country restaurant in Westminster, raises the produce for its pies, she noted, and Crab Alley in Ocean City catches all of the seafood it serves.

"In terms of themselves growing a product such as cattle slaughtering it and serving it, I don't know of any other places like that," she said.

Bullock's is also a shining star of the beef industry as it follows the trend of declining agricultural industries. In the past year, 500 small meat processors have closed, Krut's numbers show. Slaughtering is concentrated in Oklahoma, Texas and the Midwest. Many small slaughterhouses are closing because federal meat inspection laws are becoming too stringent and time-consuming, small businesses say.

"It's kind of like you put a cake in the oven and go watch TV for an hour and that would be illegal," Krut said. "Some of the plants will end up processing as much paperwork as meat."

Bullock's killed 1,000 steers last year, down from 3,000 most years in the 1970s. The slaughterhouse is the domain of Sam Poole. He's a meat cutter every day but Monday, when he performs a different task: Twenty cattle are led from the barn and brought to him to begin the journey to the dinner table.

He likes his job. "I like killing, I always did," said Poole, touring a freezer full of steers. "It gets into your blood, and you want to stay with it. It's like anyone else. Everybody's got their own thing they like to do."

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