Playwright Thornton Wilder could have easily conjured up Main Street in Farmingdale. The village’s central thoroughfare retains a quaint, hometown feel even as it evolves to reflect the character of an increasingly diverse community. Casually strolling, one may discover a cigar store, a barbershop or other evidence of bygone days tucked between ethnic eateries, specialty shops and wine bars.
On Main Street’s west side, the modest wood-paneled exterior and neon signage of the Farmingdale Meat Market evokes a sense of nostalgia that belies the substantial operation within. Julius Seelig was a German immigrant and butcher by trade who had worked for Swift & Co., helping to supply meat to the Allied forces during World War II. Opened in 1946, Seelig’s Farmingdale Meat Market was very much a traditional family operation—right down to the sawdust on the floor—that catered to the post-war suburban community.
Through the ensuing decades, the Seelig family carved out their spot as a centerpiece of Main Street, adapting to change while always maintaining a relentless seven-day-a-week focus on quality, service and the customer. A classic example of the American dream, their local butcher shop expanded its footprint incrementally and today is one of the largest independently owned federally inspected wholesale meat facilities serving the tristate area.
Lee Seelig, 38, is president and overseas a retail store and wholesale operation that sells to local residents, restaurants, country clubs and food service operations within a 100-mile-radius that “reaches from West Point to Montauk Point.” The wholesale operation—known as Main Street Wholesale Meats—is responsible for nearly 95 percent of revenue. The company offers a full line of beef, pork, veal, lamb, poultry and wild game, moving nearly five million pounds of meat every year.
Seelig is an affable guy, sporting a baseball cape festooned with an embroidered bovine. In a cramped second-floor office hung with family photos of grandfather Julius and father, Kent, at work in the original store, the phone buzzes with inquiries from high-profile chefs and local restaurants. For Seelig, the business succeeds by focusing on the basics.
“We’re a family-oriented business owned by a family,” he says. “We try to treat our customers like they’re part of that family.”
The retail store hums with activity as a team of five butchers tends to customers. The retro glass butcher case literally sparkles; a mouthwatering selection of porterhouse steaks, filet mignon, ribs, plump chicken and sausage is artfully arranged inside.
“My dad tells stories how we used to have 12 butchers behind the counter and a line four-people deep,” says Seelig. But, over time, the retail business slowed as cooking habits changed. Women entered the workplace and supermarkets served up a variety of retail-oriented cuts.
Seelig’s father, Kent, who took over the business in 1979, is credited with expanding to wholesale accounts. As a favor, he analyzed the meat invoices of a local country club and thought he could offer them a better deal and still make a decent profit. Recognizing a long-term opportunity, he obtained the necessary licensing and his wholesale business took off, supplying country clubs and the region’s burgeoning restaurant scene. The majority of beef is corn-fed and sourced from Nebraska. Depending on the species, meat can be sourced from around the world, as far as Australia and New Zealand.
Behind the retail space, the wholesale business—with a staff of nearly 20—operates around the clock in a labyrinth of cutting rooms, work areas and storage freezers that, over time, have taken over several adjacent stores. It’s a complex, daily operation that demands a focus on logistics, timing and dedication to the craft. Seelig says his butchers must be willing to wake up early, perform repetitive physical labor, work in the cold and have good hands. He advises employees to “be on time, be honest and be proactive.”
Orders are taken “old school”—either on the phone or via answering machine. Every morning, beginning at 1 a.m., a manager charts the orders for the day. Thus begins the daily ritual of cutting, grinding, wrapping, packing and shipping. Product is made-to-order.
“If a restaurant in New York City orders six cases of eight-ounce burgers, those burgers were made that morning,” says Seelig. On a busy day, nearly 15 trucks may be on the road fulfilling orders, and the company will make up to 170 deliveries a day during the summer season.
A featured offering of the wholesale company is its dry-aging program. Most retail beef is “wet-aged” briefly in shrink-wrap. Dry-aged beef is desirable for its rich flavor and succulent texture. Aging can be an expensive undertaking, requiring an investment in time and product.
“Meat is muscle and contains water,” says Seelig. “You put the meat in a cooler and the water basically evaporates out of it. The moisture leaves the muscle, and it becomes much more dense, with a beefier flavor.”
Main Street Wholesale ages USDA prime, Angus and choice beef for 21 to 28 days. In the frigid aging rooms, you confront the savory, intoxicating aroma of naturally fermenting protein. Racks of beef cuts, ranging in hues from bright pink to deep burgundy, are packed on shelves in rooms controlled for temperature, relative humidity and air circulation. As the cold air moves, it wicks moisture off the beef.
Today, the business has come full circle to where Seelig’s grandfather began due to a resurgent interest in the local butcher shop.
“People have started to get back into cooking and want to get their meat from a butcher,” says Seelig. “And, people are rediscovering that we have really good product. We have all the inventory of the wholesale company so it works out great.”
But, it is likely the personal touch that keeps customers returning.
“I think the service sets us apart,” says Seelig. “What distinguishes us is the custom cutting and the ability to talk to a butcher who really knows what he’s doing.”
Seelig works hard to curate the family legacy through local charities and sponsorships. Recently he published I Love Going to the Butcher: A Children’s Book for Carnivores, a whimsical, illustrated tale of a family shopping trip to the butcher.
“I was trying to impress my kids,” Seelig admits, who is father to a four- and six-year-old, “but I thought from a global level the book could promote the industry.” Within the text, he submits that butchery is an art form.
“A butcher is a craftsman, similar to a woodworker or a sculptor. We’re fabricating steaks and chops out of larger pieces, so eye appeal is buy appeal. The art of butchery is to maximize the yield from a business perspective but also to make it look really great on a plate.”
Ultimately, it seems that family is what motivates Lee Seelig.
“We’re only as good as our last delivery,” he says. “I’m very thankful we have a nice business. What keeps me coming to work is that responsibility that I feel to my father and my grandfather and making sure that I keep it going.”