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Carrboro butcher shop cuts into the essence of the community

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A customer waits for their order at Cliff's Meat Market on Monday, April 15, 2024.

It's hard for Cliff’s Meat Market founder and former owner Cliff Collins to sit in peace at the local butcher shop without being recognized by a smiling customer.

The winks and hugs he receives from locals are not a rare occurrence for the well-known Collins — he said that he has known some of them since they were kids. And even if he doesn’t know someone's name, he knows their face.

This familiarity with the community goes back to the origins of the shop, which is a blend of a butcher, grocery and convenience store that sits on the corner of Main and Greensboro Streets in Carrboro.

Collins worked as the manager of the meat market for a grocery store before he decided he wanted to start something of his own. And in 1972, he purchased the building from its previous owner, a transaction that started while Collins was slicing a ham for him.

On the first day of 1973, Cliff’s Meat Market was in operation. Even all those years ago, Collins said that, as a local, everyone knew his name. 

Fast forward 47 years to 2020, Collins sold the shop to longtime employee and current owner Gerardo "Tolo’’ Martinez.

 Still, though, Collins said that he hangs around the shop just about "all day every day", keeping up with customers and their families. 

This deep care for community is a feeling shared by Collins, Martinez and manager and cashier Adrian Godinez

The store's customers come from everywhere in the world, which Godinez said is his favorite thing about the shop. He frequently asks customers questions to learn little things about their cultures.  

“All people eat, right? Some people are different than others,” Godinez said. “That's why I like learning about most of the customers that come in here. I think that's a legacy that this place has.” 

Last Friday, Godinez went to the cash register when a woman approached with a leg of lamb — one of the many kinds of meat offered by the shop.

The most popular of their cuts, Martinez said, are the ribeye and chorizo, but the shop offers a whole lot more. The usual chicken, pork and beef but also, the exotic, as Godinez likes to say. Alligator, rabbit, pheasants, quail and beyond. 

Aside from meats, Cliff’s carries just about anything you would find in a grocery store. Produce, dried Hispanic peppers, cheese, even Advil and cigarettes. They were also one of the first carriers of the local-born Cackalacky sauce products. 

Collins said that at one point he was selling to hundreds of local restaurants, such as the recently closed Franklin Street favorites Spanky’s Restaurant and Bar and Linda’s Bar and Grill.

Now those numbers are down to only a small portion of that — one of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.  

Though Godinez said that it has been rough for them since COVID-19, they appreciate the customers who continue to come and show their support, some of the most loyal have been shopping there for 20 years. 

Martinez said in the time he has been at the market, he has seen big companies like Costco Wholesale and Walmart take customers and "kill" small shops like Cliff’s.

In his description, “everything changed."

But small businesses like Cliff’s can show their appreciation for loyal customers by doing things that corporate stores just can’t. 

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“I like to talk to the customers and see what they want, like special cuts,” Martinez said. “I do all the special cuts, and I like when somebody comes and asks me for new cuts.” 

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Martinez said he is "real happy" to grant those requests. 

Some of the more surprising requests come from the UNC medical departments. The schools of dentistry, orthopedics and more buy and use animal parts like jaws and skin to practice on, Godinez said. Tattoo artists also use skins to practice.

Cliff’s Meat Market has a saying, he said: "nothing is impossible." They try their best to accomplish what the people want, and when the people are happy, “we’re happy.”

“I think that's the essence,” he said. “The good vibes that we send in here and the quality of the meat, the prices that we do and the ability to help. I think, that's the essence, the special thing about this place.”

@jacksonfromm29

@dthlifestyle| lifestyle@dailytarheel.com