New owners at The Natural Linkby jmaloni
It's a Tuesday afternoon at The Natural Link, and a female shopper is preparing for Thanksgiving.
"Whatever you gave us last year was perfect," she says.
After 56 years of prepping turkeys, sausage and ground beef for customers, perfection has become the norm for butcher Walt Fuller. For the past 11 years, Walt and his daughter, Tara Cassidy, have owned and operated The Natural Link in Lewiston.
"I think people are looking for healthier choices, and that makes us a destination," she says. "They want to feed their families healthy, and they want their food to be healthy. They don't want stuff that's been fed antibiotics and hormones, which is why we do what we do.
"Our sausage is made from a whole piece of pork butt. It's no gristle, no fat, like you get at some other places. It's all hand-bound."
"It's the quality," she notes. "The people come here for the quality of the meat."
That quality is expected to remain intact for years to come. What is changing, however, is that Walt and Tara have sold their business to North Tonawanda's Brian Martin, who has spent the past 25 years as a butcher and recently served as meat manager at the NT Budwey's Supermarket. Brian and his wife, Cathy, will run The Natural Link alongside their daughters, Ali, 22, and Olivia, 14.
"We love the area," Brian says. "We actually got married on Niagara-on-the-Lake, so we like this kind of setting - small town."
He had worked at American Rubber, but came to the supermarket looking for something new. He was given an opportunity to participate in a meat apprenticeship program and took it.
"I always was intrigued by the meat business," Brian says. "I felt comfortable, and that's where I've been."
Walt, ironically, didn't plan to become a butcher, either. He was searching for work after high school and landed a spot working with meat. He found butchering was something he enjoyed, and made it a career.
"I liked it," Walt says. "Meeting people and something different all the time."
He owned and operated Walt's World of Meat from 1993 until 2001 in NT. Living in Youngstown, Walt decided it would be nice if his business was closer to home. Plus, "we love the area," Tara, a Lewiston resident, says. "We know a lot of the people. We know just about everybody."
They expected to open at Center and North Fourth streets, but that didn't happen. Six months later, in 2002, Walt and Tara opened The Natural Link right behind Hibbard's Custard.
Their store soon gained a reputation for its personal attention and high-quality products.
"I think it's the person-to-person (relationship)," he says.
"You're not a number; you're a person. You got a name," Walt adds. "We usually find it out and call you that (laughs)."
In terms of the glass cases filled with beef and poultry, Walt says, "It comes from the Midwest, a lot of it. But it's aged. It's Angus - strictly Angus."
"Our chickens come from a small farm in Springville," Tara says. "They're processed right on the farm."
Tom McCormick, owner and chef at Lewiston's Town Hall Restaurant, has known Walt since the butcher's NT days.
"He's hilarious ... always had a lot of funny jokes," McCormick says.
In all seriousness, "His stuff was top-notch," McCormick notes. "Whenever we had to sub some of it, people would notice right away."
"People could tell; if we ran out of his stuff and he was closed and we had to find an alternative, it affected the quality of some of our stuff. We're definitely devoted to his product," he adds. "It's sad to see him go, but I'm sure Brian, who's going to take over, will continue in the same vein of having just really high-quality stuff."
The Martin family is aware of The Natural Link's status with customers and restaurant owners.
"That's what drew us to this business, absolutely," Cathy says.
What makes the shop special, the Martins continue, is that it's not a big box store.
"There's a high standard that is expected here in the product. We're going to try to live up to that," Brian says.
"Everything is fresh-cut here," he adds.
"And he's cut it," Cathy notes.
"You're getting everything hand-cut," Brian explains. "Not something that was on a saw or cut at a plant and shipped somewhere. Everything's right here. That's big."
While Walt and Tara have sold the business, they plan to stick around a little longer to help Brian and Cathy start off on the right foot.
"It's been a great transition," Cathy says. "They've really gone out of their way to help us transition into this."
"It wouldn't have been possible without them," Brian adds.
Cathy says it's been nice having Walt around "because of how well (he) does know his clients.
"They come in and he knows what to get them. All those little bits of information have helped."
The Natural Link is located at the corner of Center and Portage Roads, just behind Hibbard's Custard. Store hours are Saturday, 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., and 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.