Rent Hike Only Part of the Problem at Jeffrey’s Meats

Jeffrey Ruhalter, Saturday morning, February 26, at the Essex Street Market.

Here’s the latest on the plight of Jeffrey’s Meats, a Lower East Side institution that’s fallen on hard times. Last week, news of a 29% rent increase raised new concerns that Jeffrey Ruhalter, a fourth generation butcher, wouldn’t be able to keep his store in the Essex Street Market open much longer. Today we spoke with Jeffrey as well as Danny McNeill, who’s been helping run the business for the last couple of years.

While the rent hike is a setback, it’s very clear the business is confronting far bigger problems. As McNeill suggested in a press statement released last week, Jeffrey is in search of someone to buy the meat market, which has been battered by the economic downturn and impacted by the large demographic transition the neighborhood has been undergoing in the past decade.

Jeffrey has been running the market since the year 2000, when Allen Ruhalter, his father retired. But up until about two years ago, Allen kept a hand in the business. Jeffrey has always excelled at the public aspects of operating the shop. When he first joined the family business, in the mid-1980’s, he walked door-to-door across the Lower East Side in search of new customers, helping to keep the business afloat through the LES’s bad ol’ days.  Jeffrey is a born entertainer, who schmoozes reporters, tour groups and loyal customers with great ease. His charismatic style has piqued the interest of reality show producers and book publishers.

This morning, sitting in his office in the back of the butcher shop, Jeffrey teared up as he talked about how hard the recession has been on many of his longtime customers.  Telling the story of an 11-year-old boy who asked his mother, “are we going to have dinner tonight?,” Jeffrey said he can’t possibly turn his back on the struggling families who have counted on his butcher shop for generations.  As a result, hardly a day goes by in which Jeffrey doesn’t give meat away to a customer in need.

McNeill said their landlord, the NYC Economic Development Corp.,  has always been accommodating and is “not the bad guy” in this situation.  Jeffrey may end up giving back some space to reduce his rent. Somehow, he’ll find away to cover the increased costs (about $670/month under the current proposal).  But McNeill indicated the rent hike is just the latest of many obstacles the shop faces.

Jeffrey, McNeill said, needs to be able to hand over the business to someone else, so he can focus on what he loves — being a people person and a butcher.  Since news of his predicament first surfaced, McNeill’s been fielding inquiries from people who might want to invest in Jeffrey’s Meats.  McNeill said Jeffrey’s been toying with the idea of opening a restaurant on the Lower East Side, a companion to the butcher shop, if a financial backer steps forward.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey has high hopes for a TV pilot he’s shooting next week with a well known production company. He and McNeill were also heartened by the support of City Councilmember Margaret Chin, who has demanded the city reduce the proposed rent increase.  But what’s really needed, McNeill said, is a long-term solution. Time is running out, he warned, to save one of the neighborhood’s oldest small businesses.