Know Your Neighbors: Erik Williams and Brad Knaub of Carnivore

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Erik Williams (left) & Brad Knaub (right), Owners of Carnivore Oak Park

Last fall I tagged along with a friend as she picked up her reward for her contribution to a Kickstarter – a pound of lox, aka “meat candy” from Carnivore, a newly opened farm-to-table butcher/fish (and more) market. The market was charming and I signed up for their email newsletter and started following their adventures on Facebook.

Located at 1042 Pleasant St. in Oak Park, Carnivore is owned by Brad Knaub and Erik Williams. As they approach the shop’s one year anniversary (August 23) they were gracious enough to let me hang out at the shop as they spouted knowledge on everything from business plans and product innovation to the best brooms.  Upon meeting them, their expertise and passion for helping people be proud of what they eat is immediately evident.  I learned a ton (which I tried to boil down to the highlights) and had a great time doing so.

They know the business inside and out.

The business partners met as chefs while working at different restaurants within the 4 Star Restaurant Group (owners of Dunlays, Wine D.O.C. bar, Frasca, Smoke Daddy, etc.) in Chicago. Geography helped them become drinking buddies. “We’ve been working in the field since the mid-1990s and because we lived out here in the near west burbs and everyone else live downtown, we became drinking buddies because we both had to commute out this way,” said Erik Williams.

Their love of making food started early. Brad Knaub said he has been “up to my elbows in grub since I was 12 years old”. He worked for friends and family and did the ‘fast food thing’ as a teenager. However, at the time he didn’t see the option of it being a career, “when I was 14, no kids were going to cook for a living. Only in the last 10-12 years has it become a thing where young people want to work in food, want to work with their hands. And other people have recognized that as a valid sentiment to have. When I was a kid, people told me, you’re a creative kid, you’re sharp, you should be an architect or an engineer. I went to college for 3 years to be an architect. The most miserable fucking thing, oh it was awful. And I cooked the whole time. That’s the most baffling thing of the whole set-up. I cooked my way through college to do something else and then quit college to cook.”

From exhaustion and focus on opportunity, an idea was born.

About 3 years ago Erik and his wife started thinking about starting a family. At the time, he was on his 4th week in a row of working 90-hour weeks at the restaurant and had had enough. At this point, he had a great deal of experience with fish from working at fish markets as well as butchering experience from working in restaurants. “I had this idea, I had been thinking about a fish market for a while. With the resurgence of interest in butchering and meat we thought let’s do both at the same time, no one else is doing this. Nobody has a small market that specializes in meat and fish. It’s either one or the other (or it’s a supermarket),” he said.

If it has to do with food, they’ll (most likely) do it for you

Less than a year after opening, Carnivore continues to evolve and is much more than just a place to pick up meat and fish. They offer classes (starting back up in the fall), locally sourced produce, dry goods, catering, private parties, prepared foods and delivery (to local businesses and may experiment with home delivery next winter).

They’ll even cook for you – for takeout or dining in. “Since we were chefs we don’t want to give up cooking for people. We can take your recipe and make it good or make it and hand it over to them and they can pretend they made it,” said Williams. Knaub chimed in, “We outright offer to cook them anything in the shop. I’ve cooked a couple dozen steaks, a chunk of salmon. When you’re sitting at your office, call us up and say we’ve got 4 for dinner tonight. Then when you walk off the train at 5:30, drop off $40 or $50 and come home and set it on top of the stove and by the time you’re ready to sit down to dinner you have a nice hot meal.”

The meat, seafood and produce that Carnivore provides is top of the line but according to Knaub, “the thing that we’re selling, more than beef and pork and fish and ham, etc. is the service, the experience of coming in here. You can come in and say “I’d like a steak” and I’ll ask “Well do you want a top shelf, middle shelf steak, what are you after? Are you trying to impress somebody” and there’s a little back and forth and rather than exactly the thing the recipe told you to get you’re going to get the thing that works best for you. If someone calls up on the phone or goes to GrubHub, it cheats them of the opportunity to have that experience of talking to someone who not only cuts meat or fish but who has cooked those things every day of their life for over 20 years.”

Oak Parkers shares their values…

While neither partner lives in Oak Park (Williams lives in Galewood and Knaub in River Grove), when deciding where to open, Oak Park definitely felt like the right fit. “We don’t sell the cheapest of the cheap products. We wanted to be in a neighborhood that is socially liberal, with people who are looking for organic, sustainable, local food,” said Williams. Knaub added, “People who care about the impact food has on the planet. And the thing is, when we were pitching the idea over beers 4 years ago, it came down to – if you have a couple extra dollars to spend on something extra nice where do you go? Oak Park is the place to go if you need shoes and you don’t want just shoes, you want nice shoes, well-made shoes, high-quality shoes.”

The village has been “fantastic to us,” said Knaub. “Maybe because we went to them first and said hey this is what we want to do, how do you feel about that? We had to make sure our store was in alignment with their vision for the village,” said Williams.

…And highly influences Carnivore’s product offerings and product development

“Our product line is greatly influenced by what people want because that’s how things sell. If someone comes in and says I really wanted to try this Hungarian sausage. We look at 40 recipes and decide what we think makes a good one, make one see if it tastes good. If it tastes good, sell. If it doesn’t taste good go back to the drawing board. That’s how we use our neighborhood to drive our product development.” said Williams.

When drawing up their original business plan they estimated that 70% of their business would be within commodity meats. While they hoped it would be less (and more of the local, all-natural, sustainable stuff), they just weren’t sure the demand would be there. “We had the supply chain in place to do the commodity stuff and we thought, for the first week let’s just fill this place up with the best we can find. So we slapped every case full of the best farmed and wild fish imaginable. Every single thing in these cases was off of Kilgus Farmstead. Beautiful meat, the best thing I could find anywhere,” said Knaub. And to their surprise, it really clicked with the community. “We expected to sell some, but we thought it would be maybe a 70/30 split or 60/40, but now it’s 100% the local, all-natural, sustainable farm stuff. That’s what the demand is,” said Williams.

They love to collaborate with other local businesses

You don’t have to be at Carnivore to enjoy their products. “It’s more fun to try to include as many people locally as we can. We buy from Turano bread, they’re right around the corner and they make a solid product. There’s a couple of businesses in town that buy stuff from us. We make terrines for one of the restaurants over here, we make bar snacks for Beer Shop now. We’ve been talking to the other couple microbreweries opening up. We’ll tell people to go over to Marion Street Cheese Market and grab a bottle of wine or go up to Beer Shop and sit down, we’ll bring you a sandwich in half an hour, hang out over there, have a nice time,” explained Knaub. “We’re delivering with no fee, no minimum to Beer Shop and that goes over great. You’ve got five or six people sitting in a room, drinking beer, telling each other jokes and then someone opens a sandwich and the whole room smells like BLT and the phone rings seven times in a row.”

There are three things you absolutely need to be successful. Plus your own broom.

Williams and Knaub feel there are three things you absolutely need to be a successful small business owner – a very clear vision, knowledge of the field and money. Getting all three can be nearly impossible. “Raising money now is not easy either. Especially raising money and keeping the vision clear. A lot of people, if they’re going to lend you any significant amount of money, they want to alter your vision. The minute you start making changes to the vision, you lose the whole thing,” Williams said. Knaub agreed, “There’s only so many times you can dilute the vision. Fortunately Erik and I have pretty similar leanings and ideas about what the space should look like, should feel like, should move and act.”

Except when it comes to brooms. “Our biggest disagreement was about synthetic brooms or all-natural brooms,” said Williams. “I like the synthetic brooms, he likes the all-natural brooms, I think his brooms are stupid,” said Knaub. So did you each get your own broom? “Yes, we each have our own broom. It’s an easy solution,” Williams said.

Carnivore gives them that freedom to make their own decisions they were looking for. While there are some differences to work through Knaub said it is “easy to work out between two people. But if it was that Erik and I had a vision and we took on five investors for $50,000 or $60,000 a piece that all wanted to say something about it, by the time we got here we’d be paralyzed. We wouldn’t be able to do anything. Anything would be decision by committee.”

Which is exactly what they want to avoid. “It’s just awful. It takes things that are truly unique and takes them down to the lowest common denominator,” said Williams. They had worked under those conditions in the past, Knaub explained “so and so would come in and say to do it this way and then the next week some other guy comes in with no one else with him and changes everything again.  So you’re just chasing your tail. I never felt like I could grab hold of anything and just do stuff.”

They had help from the community (via Kickstarter) and their partnership with a local farm to get the doors open. When construction ran three and a half months longer than expected, the extra rent and construction costs added up and they were about $15,000 short of being able to open. “We realized we didn’t have money to get a freezer, to get a sandwich cooler, to get a standup produce refrigerator. Erik wrote the whole damn thing (Kickstarater campaign) and did a great job. We made our goal just short of the time limit. A little bit later one of our farm purveyors, Kilgus with whom we spend probably 50% of the money we spend on food, gave us a week’s credit so that we could use that money on a stand up so now we carry their milk and eggs. It worked out well for us and for them. They’ve since been paid off. They lent us and gave us exactly what they were supposed to. Their product is fantastic,” said Knaub.

Finally – a warning: winter is coming

While it may be the middle of summer, Williams and Knaub are already thinking Thanksgiving…and Christmas. “Our Christmas orders have to be in by December 4th. By then we’ll probably have 8 or 10 out of 400+ special orders. I’m going to order a ton of extra stuff but there’s a finite amount of that. Order ahead and get what you want or come in and get what’s left. That’s our mantra,” warned Williams.



Check out Carnivore at 1042 Pleasant St. in Oak Park, call them at (708) 660-1100 or follow them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/carnivoreoakpark) for the latest updates (including a possible one year anniversary party)!

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