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Primal Supply butcher shops reopen after a pandemic summer break

The company needed time to “regroup and reset,” said its owner Heather Thomason.

Owner and head butcher Heather Thomason at Primal Supply's Brewerytown location in October 2020.
Owner and head butcher Heather Thomason at Primal Supply's Brewerytown location in October 2020.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The butcher Primal Supply will reopen its Brewerytown shop on Thursday, Sept. 16, about a month after owner Heather Marold Thomason announced that her three retail locations would take a “summer break” to allow for “a regroup and reset.”

Thomason said Primal’s South Philadelphia location would reopen soon to customers but said the Fishtown pop-up location would not return.

The break was necessary, she said. “I don’t think that people are talking enough about the reality of the pandemic on small businesses right now.”

As a whole-animal butchery that serves retail customers and restaurants, Primal is a direct link in the food chain. “When the pandemic first hit, we closed everything and we launched a new [online] business within a week,” she said. “It was really important to us to keep giving access to the food that we worked so hard to build up a supply chain for.”

The stores quickly reopened, as they were deemed essential businesses. Home delivery was added.

But Thomason said 18 months of “running a million miles an hour” left her no time to stop and think. Employees needed to be cross-trained. “What started as a dedicated pivot started to feel like constant twists and turns,” she said.

She and her staff “kept showing up every day, even though everyone was secretly scared all the time,” she said. “In the back of everybody’s mind was, ‘could I get COVID?’” Primal’s staff, which is 100% vaccinated, had no reported cases, she said.

“I stuck my head up in July and looked around,” Thomason said. “I was like, ‘wow, we are twisted and bent and tired.’ I just needed to press pause for a second. And that was honestly a really hard decision for me to make. Everyone is counting on you and you have all these balls in the air. But I just really had to step back and look at the big picture and think that for the longevity of Primal, we just really needed to regroup and make a new business plan. Who are we now? And what do we need to be here in the long-term?”

She said she figured that late summer, when other businesses took time off and customers went on vacation, would be the right time to close the stores but still maintain online orders and the subscription service.

“I spent several weeks mapping how to responsibly slow down the train,” Thomason said. She contacted her farmers to put animal orders on hold. “I finally let all the stuff swirling around me settle for a second.” Some employees were furloughed; all but a few are returning, she said.

She and her staff spent last weekend cutting meat for the case at 1531 N. 31st St. in Brewerytown, which is Primal’s headquarters.

“What I’ve been trying to do is slowly, one step at a time, turn everything back on,” she said. “The weird thing for me is that everything’s changed so much and it’s still changing.”

Meanwhile, Thomason said the next milestone would be reopening the store at 1538 E. Passyunk Ave. “I’m going to have that place open as soon as possible,” she said. “There are a lot of people in that neighborhood that count on us, and the holiday season is coming. There’s 400 turkeys on the ground at Gobbler’s Ridge.”