With decades of service providing food “from the stable to the table,” Charles Quality Meats is a proud farming tradition here in Waterloo Region.
A family-owned and operated abattoir and processing facility in St. Agatha since 1978, their bustling meat counter at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is always packed with farm fresh cuts of meat including beef, pork, goat, rabbit, turkey, goose, duck and lamb.
I’ve always had a keen interest in animal welfare science, and appreciate Charles Quality Meats’ chemical-free, hormone-free, and drug-free approach to raising livestock.
That’s why I jumped at the opportunity to take a guided tour of their farm on Wilby Road one recent sunny afternoon, curious to learn about the history and family philosophy of Charles Quality Meats.
“We’re the only vendor at the market that has a kill floor,” said Tony LoBrutto, co-owner of Charles Quality Meats with his brothers Sam and Peter, along with their father and the company namesake, Charles.
“That’s very important for what we do, which is provide the highest-quality meats. Nobody else has that. It’s the only way we can honestly say our meat is chemical free, no one else has ever touched it and it has never left the house.”
Sam chimed in: “The reason we built it in 1989 was because we were bringing our livestock to other slaughterhouses and not getting our carcasses back, they were getting switched, so we decided to build a slaughterhouse of our own, which allows us to have the highest quality control.”
Standing on the kill floor with Sam, Tony, and Peter, they shed some light on the Ministry of Agriculture and Food requirements they must strictly meet, and how meat inspectors are always present when animals are slaughtered and processed.
“We actually exceed the Ministry’s requirements,” said Sam. “For example, we use a non-rinse sanitizer, and then we go and rinse our cutting tables again with water to ensure there is absolutely no bacteria. We feed our own families the meat we process.”
Our next stop on the tour was the walk-in freezer filled with lamb and full sides of beef.
“Breaking down sides is tough, hard work, and I think most people don’t realize the extent we go to preparing meat for the market,” said Sam, who then introduced me to their 84-year-old father, Charles, who was born and raised in Sicily.
“I’m the boss,” said Charles, greeting me with a firm handshake.
“Actually, our mom’s the boss,” said Sam, which drew chuckles and nods of agreement from the rest of the family.
Peter, who is in charge of livestock and works closely with his father, told me how their father immigrated to Canada in 1962.
“He was a shepherd back in Sicily, and he had incredible skills with animals since childhood and showed the three of us how to raise them,” said Peter.
“He was on a train going from Montreal to Winnipeg and he got tired of the long train ride, so he got off in New Hamburg in the middle of the night, only able to speak Italian and German. He liked it here so he set up home, went back to Sicily and met our mom, then came back here with our mom, then all my aunts and uncles came over.”
Charles shared how proud he is to have been a part of this community for the past four decades, raising his family, building relationships with customers and making many friends along the way.
“I still work and I have a customer who has been coming to the market for 42 years,” said Charles. “They have 12 kids, and now all of the kids are coming.”
Sam, Tony and Peter all credited their father with teaching them the importance of friendly and efficient customer service at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market.
“He taught us that we’re feeding families and how important it is to make great connections with our customers and for them to trust us,” said Sam.
Charles added that, when his boys were young, he told them to never chew gum, and always greet customers with a friendly stance (no crossed arms) behind the counter.
Peter recalls when he first started working at the market, at just six years old, he was in charge of opening bags because he couldn’t see over the counter.
As we walked to the barnyard, the brothers told me about the prominent breed of cattle they process — Limousine, with a mix of Angus and Charolais.
“The thing about processing cattle is, when you move them around too much, they get a little high strung, and if they get too excited it toughens up the meat,” said Sam. “It gets really dark red and we don’t want that so we strive to make sure there is very little stress on the animals.”
Tony said, “There is no heavy pushing on cattle here because it messes everything up. There isn’t an electric cattle prod on the property and if anyone were to bring one on this farm my dad would grab it out of your hands and use it on them!”
Lamb, however, is the family’s real specialty. “It’s our claim to fame,” said Tony. “And again, all the livestock we keep at low stress, and it has taken our father 40 years to perfect the science of what to feed them, when to feed them, and how to feed certain types of animals to achieve a light colour and tender meat.”
Keeping Charles Quality Meats a small, family-run business has been key to their success, said Sam.
“We could get bigger, but we would compromise our quality control. We made a decision a long time ago that we’re not about doing volume but rather quality,” he said, taking me into the barn to show me the animal feed they developed about 35 years ago.
“It’s a scientific concoction that includes mixed greens, molasses, cracked corn, whole corn, and a touch of soy bean. The other important thing is hay. You want first cut hay, with no rain on it because the animals won’t eat it, and it’s got to have enough energy and nutrients to feed the lambs and goats so they will perform well. You are what you eat, and the same goes for animals, so you give them good feed and good hay and they become better-quality animals.”
Currently, the LoBrutto family are gearing up for Father’s Day celebrations, both at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market and their store on Weber Street in Waterloo, which they opened three years ago.
“Father’s Day is one of our heaviest meat producing weekends, because every dad wants lamb chops or pork chops,” said Tony, who manages the Weber Street store, open seven days a week.
“And of course, there’s nothing better than a nice prime rib steak on the barbecue when summer arrives. We have other great Father’s Day gift ideas at the store as well with lots of local ice cream, perogies, gluten-free pastas, cheeses, honeys, jams, and sauces. We’re butchers, right, so whatever we can put in here that will go great with your meat, we’re happy to support small local business owners.”
Tony added: “We’re lucky to live in an area with so much great food and people who want it. Working at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market since we were kids, we’ve watched our customers’ kids grow up. Our customers care about where their food is coming from, and its important to me that the families we’re feeding are getting quality food.”
I asked Tony if he enjoys the hectic pace of the Market District on a busy Saturday in the summer, working now with his own kids behind the counter.
“It’s called organized chaos,” he said with a laugh. “The St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is known around the world, it’s the biggest in Ontario and possibly in Canada, people are coming from all over. We have regular customers coming from Sudbury to Windsor and everywhere in between and we greatly appreciate those customers and the personal relationships we’ve made with them.”
As I was leaving the farm, I asked who owns the dark navy 1994 Cadillac parked at the front entrance to the property.
“When our dad came here in 1962, he saw the Cadillac for the first time and said he wanted one,” said Sam. “So, for his 60th birthday he got one.”
Charles, clearly still in love with the car, said: “That was my dream.”
Achieving that dream was the result of a strong work ethic, and an equally strong commitment to his family and community.
“Everybody who knows us knows what we stand for,” said Sam, “and how we stand behind our products. And it hasn’t been easy. At times we fought like cats and dogs but my mom and dad kept it all together. My dad’s driven, he’s driven too hard and he’ll never be satisfied, because he always wants our business to be better. That’s just the way he is.”
It takes incredible dedication to bring great food “from the stable to the table.” The LoBrutto family puts a lot of emphasis on the word “quality” in the name Charles Quality Meats, and they’re confident you’ll see it in how they run their business, and taste it in their products.