David Samiljan said that if his grandpa Harry Kosofsky knew his grandson had decided to become a butcher, “Papa Harry” would be spinning in his grave.
“Papa Harry hated being a butcher. All he wanted to do was work in an office and wear a shirt and tie,” Samiljan explained.
Samiljan’s great-grandfather, David Baron, opened Baron’s Meat & Poultry, a kosher butcher shop, in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, around 1915. Harry inherited the shop by marrying into the Baron family.
Before the family sold the business, sometime between 1969 and 1971 when Samiljan was about 5 years old, it “was central to the family,” he said. “All the male members of that generation cycled through the shop, though their children all went on to do something else.”
One relative who was a cantor worked there for a while plucking the feathers from chickens after slaughter, even though he felt it was beneath him.
Samiljan, too, went on to do other things. While working as a stagehand for the Big Apple Circus, he met his wife. He never would have predicted he would resurrect the family butcher shop on the opposite coast, but that’s exactly what he’s done.
Samiljan, 58, is the owner of Baron’s Quality Meats & Seafood, an homage to the original. “I’m named after my great-grandfather, so there was no reason not to [keep the name]. I thought it would be fun,” he said. There are now three Bay Area locations: the original in the Alameda Marketplace; in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood; and the newcomer, in the Castro Valley Marketplace.
While the new Baron’s isn’t kosher, Samiljan said he “looks and speaks Jewish.” Raised on Staten Island, he calls Brooklyn “the Old Country.” Though he’s been working the floor more recently because of employees being out with Covid, his Jewish customers know they can ask him about the tub of schmaltz he kept in the back in the early days, or about first-cut brisket.
Samiljan worked a catering job after he left the circus, and the owner of the company suggested he apply to the Culinary Institute of America. He was accepted and found he was particularly adept at cutting meat.
“I don’t know if it had anything to do with my family lineage or if I was just a natural at cutting, but I picked it up quickly,” he said.
Even so, after graduating and arriving in San Francisco with his wife, he was unsure which direction his culinary degree would take him.
One day, he went to the old location of Oakland Kosher for a bagel, and while perusing the meat counter, he told his daughter, “Daddy’s grandpa was a kosher butcher, too.” The owner turned around and said, “Do you know how to cut meat? Do you need a job?”
That was his first butcher job. Unlike Papa Harry, who was known to chase demanding customers out of his store, Samiljan has a knack for customer service.
“I like talking food and [BSing] with people,” he said. “I’m chatty and I like the sound of my own voice.”
From Oakland Kosher, Samiljan moved to Woodland Meats, a high-end butcher in Kentfield (Marin County), and from there landed at Niman Ranch, which raises livestock sustainably. There he learned every aspect of the meat business.
Unlike Papa Harry, who was known to chase demanding customers out of his store, David has a knack for customer service.
From butchering to packing to driving a truck, he did it all, until he ended up in the office, “where I sat next to Bill Niman, listening to him talk about meat all day,” Samiljan said. “I learned a ton. I made a lot of contacts and got to talk to anyone who was anyone in the restaurant or meat business. It was a tremendous learning experience.”
So, when Samiljan got a call in 2004 from the owner of the Alameda Marketplace asking if he’d want to open a butcher shop there, he didn’t have to think hard about it.
“I went home to my wife and asked her, do you mind if I mortgage the house and invest everything we have in this shop, even though if it goes under, we’re going to lose the house? And she said, ‘Sure, go ahead,’ and that’s how I ended up there, just like that,” he recalled.
Samiljan said that from Niman he learned the ins and outs of all-natural, organic and grass-fed meat. He noted that he was the first artisanal butcher to offer sustainably produced meat, before the whole animal butchery movement came into fashion, and added that he can taste what a cow has been fed by eating a single bite of a steak (though his health has led him to adopt a vegan diet at times).
It was long hours in the beginning, he said, so long that he often didn’t see his kids, as he left the house before they got up and returned after they’d gone to sleep.
“I kind of had to make it work, or not,” he said. “It’s not really a choice. Anyone who owns their own business understands that if you don’t do it, it don’t get done.”
Eighteen years later, his three shops are doing brisk business.
Samiljan has raised his three kids in Benicia, and feels grateful that he’s had a career doing what he loves. His is one of the businesses that has done well during Covid. The fact that his shops started accepting tips recently means his employees are making a living wage, something he takes pride in.
Unlike Papa Harry, he said, “I really like what I do a lot. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”