Late this past August, something quite extraordinary happened very quietly on White Street. Amidst the hustle and bustle of one of Key West’s busiest commercial corridors, a bright-eyed young man unlocked a glass door printed with the words “The Local,” and waited. One by one, enticed by word-of-mouth alone, wellwishers and proactive dinner planners and curious citizens crossed the gleaming threshold, admiring the meticulously laid mosaic tile and the fastidiously arranged, mouthwatering array of meats stacked in the shining new cooler.
The Local Butcher & Market had finally, quietly opened and Key West was ready for a meat feast.
After a short incubation period, The Local was hatched by husband-and-husband duo Matt Nooner and Raymond Vazquez. Vazquez, a third generation Conch, was born and raised in Key West. Like many, he left the island to go to college in Tallahassee and get his real estate broker license. Also like many, he came back home when he realized that there’s nowhere else quite like Key West.
“The inclusivity of the Key West community and wanting to be close to my friends and family brought me back to the island in 2007,” says Vazquez. “I wanted to live in paradise and be able to walk into a restaurant and feel like a regular. So after I got my license, I decided to come back here and open a real estate company in the middle of recession — probably not my smartest idea, in retrospect. I ended up owning two real estate companies, one of which I closed and the other I sold to become a fishing captain. I did that for two years, but then I went back into real estate in 2012 when I won a lawsuit against BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which gave me the financial means to get back into the property business.”
On the colder side of the geographical spectrum, Nooner hails from Chicago, where he (understandably) spent his days dreaming of warmer climates. “In 2010, I literally Googled ‘islands you can live on’ and I found a video called ‘Key West, City of Many Colors,’” Nooner says. “Immediately I knew Key West was where I wanted to move to, and two or three months later I sold everything I had and moved down here.”
Though Key West is a small island, it took Nooner and Vazquez three years to meet, when a mutual friend introduced the two on Vazquez’s birthday. It was not, however, love at first sight. “We didn’t talk for three or four years after that,” says Vazquez. “We would see each other in passing, and eventually the two of us ended up being single at the same time. On our first date, we stayed up talking on the front porch of a friend’s house until 5:30 a.m. and we’ve been inseparable ever since. In fact, we’ve only spent two nights apart since we met. We’ve been happily married for a year and a half.”
We’ve all heard of relationship puppies, but relationship butcher shops aren’t exactly your average romantic comedy plot device. Well, over nearly a decade in Key West, Nooner’s career trajectory gave him a grand tour of island office life. He worked in human resources for Lower Keys Medical Center, then transitioned to a human resources position at a marina before deviating to the insurance industry, where he quickly realized it was time for him to start working for himself.
“Truthfully, we had been talking about owning our own business for forever,” Vazquez says. “And we both really like food — good food — and eating out here can get kind of stale,” Nooner adds. “In a way, owning The Local is self-serving, I guess. We really like cooking and staying in and the more we talked to people, the more we realized a lot of our friends also prefer to cook and stay in rather than constantly eat out.”
“In fact, some clients I’ve sold homes to have actually asked me why Key West doesn’t have a butcher shop,” Vazquez continues, “so we kind of had the idea of opening one already in our head from friends of ours talking about it. We talked about it so much that, before we even had any kind of investors, I decided we needed to find a place to build the shop. We found an awesome location on White Street, signed a lease and said screw it, we’re going to make this work. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”
And so far, it definitely works.
But building a butcher shop from scratch wasn’t exactly a cakewalk for a real estate agent and a human resources specialist. “Somebody asked us yesterday how we figured this whole butcher shop thing out,” Vazquez says. “Honestly, Google.” Nooner laughs. “We winged it! We had no idea what we were doing.”
“When we were first getting the inventory together, a few clients of mine who happen to be farmers definitely helped us,” Vazquez adds. “We consulted with them along the way, and they told us what to order, how much to order and who to order from. We also met with some other butchers on the island who were very helpful in telling us how to get the whole thing started.”
When it comes to new businesses, Key West can be awfully cynical and commitment phobic. How many times have we christened our new favorite watering hole, only to show up one day for happy hour to find that it was shuttered unceremoniously overnight? Lucky for us, The Local is unlikely to suffer that same fate — at least if the enthusiastic local patronage is any indication.
“So far, the community reception has been good,” says Nooner. “We opened really quietly, without any kind of major announcement, until finally Raymond made me put an ‘OPEN’ sign in the window. Our clientele has been mostly locals, which is great. That’s kind of what we wanted.”
As befits his character, Vazquez is a little sunnier about The Local’s success so far. “The response from the community has been amazing,” he says. “It’s amazing to me because of the number of locals coming. I was born and raised here and I sit at the little café table in the shop and I see people I haven’t seen in 10 years, who think what we’re doing is amazing. We’re in a sentimental location — our shop used to be an old Cuban bakery, like Sandy’s before they were Sandy’s. Everyone went there and got their Cuban bread and coffee, so a lot of locals are drawn to it and it’s something a lot of locals wanted.”
And though they’ve only been open for a couple months, The Local has already gained a following of local regulars. “One of my favorite things so far is that people come in every day and get one little thing,” says Nooner.
“It’s really cool to get the feedback from friends on the quality,” Vazquez says. “I’m constantly getting feedback from people saying we sold them the best steaks they’ve ever had in their life. I don’t like to pretend that we’re doing anything special, I just think that we’re doing things that no one else has ever done in Key West.”
And a large part of what Nooner and Vazquez are trying to do is encourage more mindful consumerism, especially when it comes to sustainability and ethical sourcing of their top-shelf products. “The special part about us is that we’re working with small distributors and we’re also working with farms,” Vazquez explains. “We don’t advertise that, but it’s not that big of a secret.
“We order our meat from farms in Central Florida and the Panhandle and from small farms in Pennsylvania. We are doing something different from everyone else by bringing in products that aren’t widely available in Key West. It’s not 100% that way with some of our grocery items, but all of our meat comes from small farms where we deal directly with the producers. Some of the farms are owned by the people we consulted with and had dinners with before we opened up the shop who taught us how to order.”
And if you’ve been in to The Local on any given day and seen the quality of meat in the cooler, you can tell there’s something special happening behind the tiles. In addition to mouthwatering tomahawk steaks and burgers studded with bacon and cheese, The Local has also started making its own sausages, including Italian, Cuban and lamb merguez varieties. “Local chef Martha Hubbard is awesome,” Nooner says. “We hired her to consult on our sausages and we’re going to do planned meal boxes as well. She’s doing all the recipes, which is very helpful.”
True to their mission of bringing something unique to the saturated Key West food market, Nooner and Vazquez are also intent on making their product available to as many people in the community as possible, including by providing weekly specials to their local customers. Mondays are officially for locals, with 15% for all Key West residents every Monday. Tomahawk Tuesday means 15% off all tomahawk steaks and a recent Wagyu Wednesday offered 10% off everything Wagyu (and my goodness, it was delicious). The duo have also reached out to local restaurants, like Mary Ellen’s, Flaming Buoy and Little Pearl, to provide some of their high quality products to consumers who might not yet know about the shop.
Though the business just opened, Nooner and Vazquez are already talking about what’s next. “We’re trying to slowly keep adding to what we’re doing,” Nooner says. “I think we’re going to eventually possibly do something where we have an expansion,” says Vazquez. “We’ve already been asked by somebody to do a deli sandwich at a different location, so we feed off each other. In the long term, we’d love to do our own deli and café. We want to minimize waste as much as possible, so if we do something like that we can rotate more of the product. But that’s a big, long-term aspiration.”
It helps that both Nooner and Vazquez are passionate about the product they’re providing. “When I’m there I love it,” Nooner says. “It’s nice to see families come in and shop and you know that they’re all going to have a big cookout. One guy will come in and get ten steaks because his whole family is coming over and it’s fun to see that.”
“I love good food and I love the experience of enjoying food with friends and family,” Vazquez says. “With The Local, I love being able to offer a quality product for the small community that we have. Partly, I think it’s because it’s something I’ve never done or been involved in. But I’m from a Cuban family, and we’re all about cooking. The Cuban mentality is that a meal is an experience, with the whole family gathering together and making crazy good, quality food. I think I want to replicate that feeling. And I’m actually hearing that more and more in Key West now that we’re open. People say they love coming to our place and having friends and family over for tomahawk or dry-aged steaks or wagyu. For me, it all goes back to the fact that I think we’re bringing something really great to the community.”
Ultimately, Nooner and Vazquez both passionately believe that food is love, and that a love for good food just adds to that love. “The whole thing came about from our mutual love of food more than anything,” Vazquez concludes. “Before we even started, people said we were crazy. But we’re not expecting to make a million dollars off this, we’re just focused on bringing something great to the community. The moment that stops, we’re going to stop. It’s all about the love and the quality.” ¦