Part science, part madness, all meat
Boulevard Meats & Deli isn’t afraid to push the carnivorous boundaries — to delicious effect
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Boulevard Fine Meats & Deli bills itself as a traditional, full-service butcher shop with a twist.
What sort of twist, you might ask? Well, one of the most popular offerings at the Southdale locale, inconspicuously tucked inside a strip mall at 49 Vermillion Rd., is a culinary version of a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
Cara Potenza, who runs the aromatic, 2 1/2-year-old locale with her sisters Cari and Cori, credits head butcher Norm Howat for coming up with their hot-selling bacon shots, which individually consist of a thick slice of garlic sausage cloaked in bacon and topped with cream cheese. Not only do individual shots pack a punch owing to a smattering of diced jalapeño in the cream cheese, they’re good for you, too, Potenza says with a wink.
“I swear, Norm is more a scientist than he is a butcher, in that he’s able to reverse engineer anything, just by looking at a picture of it,” she says of Howat, who came out of retirement two years ago at age 68 to teach the sisters everything he knows, and then some.
“He enjoys watching all these southern barbecue shows in his spare time and the next thing we know, we have something unique like bacon shots on special.”
Cara, Cori and Cari — no, they aren’t triplets; their parents just weren’t overly creative when it came to naming kids, Potenza says with a laugh — were raised on a farm in the southeastern part of the province, near Piney. Growing up, they were counted on by their mom and dad to do everything from driving a tractor to feeding livestock to birthing cattle.
That is, when they weren’t exploring their entrepreneurial side by running a Kool-Aid stand serving “all four people in Piney,” Potenza says, chuckling again.
One by one, the three of them moved away from home shortly after turning 18 — Potenza lives in West St. Paul with her husband and their 14-year-old son, while both her sisters reside in Lorette — but the strong work ethic their parents instilled in them remained.
That commitment to an honest day’s work didn’t go unnoticed.
In 2015, Potenza’s father-in-law, Pasquale Potenza, who helped found the highly successful Aura Hair Group after immigrating to Canada from Italy with little but the shirt on his back, took Cara aside. He informed her if she and her sisters ever wanted to start a business of their own, he would happily back them, 100 per cent.
Pasquale didn’t live long enough to see Boulevard Fine Meats come to fruition — he died in 2017, two years before the shop opened in December 2019 — but his daughter-in-law says it was his unbridled support that gave them the confidence they needed, to leave steady, secure jobs to work for themselves.
To honour his memory, a black-and-white chalk mural on the wall directly behind the deli counter boasts a signpost labelled “Pasquale Boulevard,” among other images. (If you’re scratching your head over why it’s called Boulevard Meats despite not being situated on Lakewood Boulevard, Southdale’s main drag, it’s simply because one of the available buildings they viewed when they were shopping for a location was on a boulevard in Bridgwater. The word stuck with them when it came time to choose a name.)
The same way she heaps praise on Howat for the aforementioned bacon appetizers, Potenza cites him again as the reason their venture survived a tumultuous first year.
Their original butcher left to pursue other interests a couple months after they opened, she says, just before COVID turned the world upside down. Business remained steady, what with restaurants being closed for dine-in, which in turn caused more people to prepare meals at home, but their profit margin was “horrible,” given all their certified Angus beef was being brought in from Alberta.
“Norm had been in the biz for over 50 years and completely turned things around,” she explains. “He has connections throughout the province and immediately started bringing in local (meat) only. Plus he was doing all the butchering himself, not just cutting like we had been doing, which saved us a ton of money and, price-wise, allowed us to compete with the big guys, like Sobeys.”
Another plus was slowly transforming the shop into what Potenza refers to as a “butcher boutique” selling meat, sure, but also Manitoba-produced favourites such as Smak Dab mustard, De Luca’s pizza sauce and Utoffea chocolate. Additionally, Potenza’s mother-in-law, who is also Italian, was only too happy to share her time-tested family recipes with the sisters, for the sake of offering customers pre-made meals they could toss in the freezer and heat up at their convenience.
One problem: because Dina Potenza could prepare her lasagna and chicken parmigiana blindfolded, she had to sit down with a pen and paper to figure out exactly how much of this or that spice she used, so staff could properly replicate her technique in the on-site commercial kitchen.
Besides the usual suspects — ribs, steaks, brisket, brats — Boulevard Fine Meats is also home to something called pig wings. Years ago, Potenza and her husband Vince were holidaying in Brainerd, Minn., when they spotted a food truck advertising the oddly named delicacies, which, they soon learned, are cut from the animal’s shank, with a thin single bone attached: a pork popsicle, if you will.
The “wings,” smoked and slathered in barbecue sauce, were “the greatest thing we’d ever eaten,” she enthuses, and when they returned to Winnipeg, they searched high and low for something similar, without success.
Last summer she asked Howat if he knew what she was talking about. He didn’t, but after watching a few YouTube videos, he was able to render the pig wings exactly as described.
“We started offering them as a special a couple times a month, and boom, not only were people driving here from all over town, but other butcher shops in the city began making pig wings, too,” Potenza says. “One of my sisters got mad but I told her, hey, when places like (Red River) Co-op are copying you, you must be doing something right.”
Going forward, Potenza and her sisters are supremely interested in discovering what a “real” year in business looks like. While an operation like theirs is largely weather-dependent — when it’s hot and dry out, they’d better have lots of pre-made patties and footlongs in the freezer; cold and gloomy means soups and stews — they remain unsure what a slow or busy week truly looks like.
“It’s probably the same for any business that got its start during COVID; you have nothing to compare last year’s sales to, because so many variables were involved,” she says, pausing to let her sister know she’ll be there in a sec to help her fill an order for a fully-dressed charcuterie board.
“Mind you, we plan on being here for a long time to come, so I guess we’ll find out soon enough, right?”
Boulevard Fine Meats and Deli is open Tuesday to Sunday; closed Mondays for the summer.
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.