By Shweta Mishra
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
Carrboro’s pre-eminent butcher Clifton Collins is so familiar with animal anatomy that he can identify even the most obscure cuts of meat via photo.
“I never thought I would do this,” Collins says, recalling his childhood on a tobacco, corn and soybean farm in rural Chatham County. But in 1967, as Collins was finishing high school, he took a job as a grocery store meat specialist, and “way led on to way.”
“Back then, if you found a job, you stuck with it, and I paid attention to what I was doing,” Collins says.
That led Collins to open Cliff’s Meat Market in 1973 when he was only 25. Fast forward to the present: on August 11, 2011, the Better Business Bureau gave the market an A+ rating as an accredited business.
Located prominently at 100 W. Main Street in Carrboro, Cliff’s anchors a cluster of local stores that include Neal’s Deli and Open Eye Cafe.
Aside from a red awning, the market is inconspicuous, a stuccoed, concrete-block building sprayed with tan pebbles. A clay tile-covered parapet borders the flat roof, and the gravel parking lot next to the market’s vinyl-sided storage seems barely big enough for five cars. Age has given the exterior character, eroding a chunk of stucco off the right wall. Above this wall, matte, block-lettered banners recall a simpler time in advertisement. One banner proclaims: “It’s the local favorite. -Cliff”
At first, the interior looks like any small-town gas station. A shelf of cigarettes stands in the middle, behind the worn, green cashier’s counter. Two wings flank the counter, the right filled with chips, hot sauces and wine; the left Hallmark cards and vending machines.
Closer observation reveals Cliff’s signature qualities. Instead of standard convenience store fare such as Cheetos and Doritos, the snacks are Hispanic, a result of Collins’ interest in serving Carrboro’s growing Latino population. In a small freezer where one might expect ice cream, one sees vacuum-packed alligator fillet from Eunice, Louisiana. “Certified Cajun,” the package says. “Country Boy Gator.”
Indeed, variety in meat cuts and species is Cliff’s claim to local fame.
Jerri Roberson, Collins’ 44-year-old niece, says the market has “a little bit of everything.”
“And if we don’t have it we can get it,” Roberson says. “We can make special orders of rattlesnake, veal kidneys, pheasants and other game birds, and goose liver.”
Beef, pork, chicken, lamb, veal, goat, alligator, venison, buffalo, and frog legs are always in stock.
Where do the products come from? Roberson says Collins regularly buys local sausages and fatback from Farmhand Foods and larger vendors such as Schuler Meats, out of Thomasville, N.C. He also orders from Institutional Foodhouse, out of Hickory; and Orrells Food Distributors, out of Linwood, she says. The pork comes from North Carolina’s Smithfield Packing Company.
Not all of the meat is local, though, as it is hard to find good local beef, Collins says.
“I get a lot of Montana-raised beef because it’s all-natural,” he says. “Everything I get has to be inspected,” he adds.
The market sells wholesale as well as custom cuts for individuals.
Collins’ staff of only 11 is a dedicated team, says Maria Camargo, a 24-year-old cashier of six years from Michoacan, Mexico. Roberson started helping Collins when she was 14 and resumed the job to support herself through Alamance Community College.
Camargo came to the market because she needed money. Now she says she can’t leave it. “I actually love it. I tried to take off two months, but I couldn’t do it. I missed it too much. You meet a lot of people here, the weirdest to the coolest,” she says. “But we know all of them.”
“Sometimes I want to kill my coworkers, but we all get along.”