The beef market
For top quality, it’s hard to beat the family-owned Wagon Wheel
Shortly after I moved to Oroville two years ago, a neighbor told me that, if I liked beef, the best place to buy it was the Wagon Wheel Market on the Olive Highway.
A few days later I checked out the store’s expansive meat, poultry and seafood selection and ended up purchasing a couple of pounds of ground round, two New York steaks, and a pound of stew meat. My neighbor was right. The beef was the best I had tasted in years.
On my next visit I met Dick Butler, the market’s co-owner, as he was loading up the case with a large selection of seafood. When I commented that the salmon steaks looked fresh, he nodded and handed me one. I gave it a smell, and if was fresh just like I remembered when I worked in an Alaskan fish house in my youth.
The Wagon Wheel is truly a family enterprise: Dick owns the market along with his wife, Dona, and their two sons, Pat and Tom, all of whom work at the store.
They obtain their beef, Dick says, from a Midwestern company called Farmlands and purchase only what he calls “high-end” beef.
“The best way to explain it is, if you take a herd of 100 cattle, 15 of them will produce prime and choice beef,” he explained. “Most of the prime goes to fine restaurants, as it has the best [fat] marbling. There are three grades of choice, and we purchase only the top grade. Like prime, choice has excellent marbling and is tender and juicy.”
The beef is graded, for a fee, by inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Not all beef found in meat markets is graded.) The inspectors look in particular at the marbling of the rib-eye between the 12th and 13th ribs, Dick explained, adding that the complicated grading process also takes into consideration the maturity of the animal, the texture of the lean meat and the firmness and color of both the lean and the fat.
The Butlers go even further, especially with tri-tip steaks. These (and other meats) they marinate in a tumbler that Dick described as looking “something like a cement mixer.” As the meat “tumbles,” a vacuum process injects marinade deep into the meat. Also, the tumbling helps to tenderize the meat even more.
Dick took me on a tour of the processing rooms. Along with the tumbler, there’s a smoker using real wood and a chilled aging room. The store makes its own bacon, ham, corned beef, sausages, pastrami, smoked turkey and jerky. “From time to time we exhibit at the California Association of Meat Producers,” Dick said, “and we have won the Grand Champion Award on most of our processed meats.”
Sure enough, there were several plaques hanging on the walls.
The store also bakes its own bread fresh each morning and stocks many products from Butte County producers, such as Basque Norte marinade, Grey Fox and Long Creek wines, Lodestar and Sunset Olive Groves olive oils and honey from Wyandotte Apiary.
Dick told me he moved to Oroville 28 years ago and worked first as a meat cutter for his half-brother, Hoss Bernard. Three years later he purchased the Wagon Wheel Market. Dona takes care of the books and helps in the deli. Pat is in charge of the meat market, while Tom is in charge of the groceries and produce.
At a time when most people buy their food at corporate-owned supermarkets, the Butlers are running a family-owned market that succeeds by emphasizing quality and hands-on service.