August Avantaggio grew up in Damariscotta, the son of a surgeon and the grandson of a chicken farmer from Waldoboro. After graduating from Wheaton College in Massachusetts, he spent a year in Guatemala and then returned to Maine, looking for ways to stay in the state he loved and still make a living. After learning and practicing carpentry for several years, he decided to move into a whole new field: butchery. Last May he opened Riverside Butcher Co. on Main Street in Damariscotta, right next door to Fisherman’s Catch. We called Avantaggio up to talk inherited cleavers, Easter lamb and the complications behind selling local meat.
IN THE BLOOD: Avantaggio’s family moved to Maine in 1949. The Avantaggio family had owned an Italian grocery in Newton, Massachusetts, but as supermarkets started to edge them out, his grandfather made the decision to move to Waldoboro and raise chickens. (He was very on trend; Maine’s poultry industry was flourishing in those years.) They’d sold a “little bit of everything” in the grocery, including meat; Avantaggio has his great grandfather’s clever and butcher knife hanging on the wall at Riverside Butcher Co.. He doesn’t use it, but he could. “It’s a cleaver, those things don’t go bad.”
INFRASTRUCTURE: The farm is still in the family, but the chicken barns are long gone and Avantaggio didn’t grow up surrounded by farm culture. He did however spend his summers working in restaurants and says there has always been a “culinary side to me.” He’d never had any formal training as a butcher when the idea to open a shop in Damariscotta first came to him, but he was aware that Maine farmers who were raising livestock needed infrastructure for their meat, like slaughterhouses and butchers willing to take on whole animals. “It came to me one night after some wine and we were kind of spitballing and chatting and the more I thought about it, the more it didn’t seem like a crazy idea.” Damariscotta already served as something of a food hub for the region, with Rising Tide Cooperative, and there were a lot of homesteaders around, natural customers for a local butcher willing to take on their whole animals once they’d been processed. “I thought I had a finger on the pulse of the town. So far it has been true.”
HOME BUILDING: Avantaggio graduated from Wheaton in 2009 with a degree in American History and Latin American studies. He knew he was entering the job market in the height of the recession, so he figured it was a good a time as any to skip sending out resumes and just go live abroad. He’d been taking Spanish since he was a student at Lincoln Academy and wanted to put his languages skills to use. That took him to Guatemala, where he worked with the nonprofit Safe Passage, the brainchild of Yarmouth native Hanley Denning. Denning had gone to Guatemala in 1999 to study Spanish, learned about the Guatemala City Garbage Dump and the desperately poor people living around it, and started her non-governmental organization, or NGO, to help them. (Denning was killed in a car accident in 2007.) Avantaggio worked at the dump as a volunteer coordinator with before- and after-school programs for the local children. After a year, he was ready to come home. He began working as a carpenter for the Shelter Institute. “I timber-framed for them for a few years and built my own house in the process.”
LOVE STORY: He was at the point in his carpentry career where it was either “time for go out on my own” or to redirect. During that time he met, fell in love with and married another native Mainer. Although Abby Avantaggio grew up in Edgecomb, the couple never crossed paths until adulthood. At least so they thought, but during their courtship their parents made the connection that both August and Abby had been photographed at a children’s book author Barbara Cooney reading by a newspaper photographer when they were about 4 years old. Abby works at Riverside occasionally, although lately she’s been busy with their daughter Edith, who was born in August.
SLIM MARGINS: “We are as local as possible,” Avantaggio said. The slaughterhouses that Maine does have are working at capacity, but despite that there’s not enough meat to stock his shop so he’s had to bring in meat from out of state “that is raised the way we like, grass fed, grain-finished, no hormones, all that jazz. It is very difficult to get 100-percent Maine raised beef.” He can rely on a lamb every week from North Star Sheep Farm, or two in high season or if a lamb-centric holiday, say Easter, is near (call the shop to check on availability for sure, but at press time, Avantaggio was planning on having plenty of North Star’s lamb on hand. He also takes all the pig that popular Winter Hill Farm in Freeport can supply. “We have to wait in line.” It’s a challenge to keep prices reasonable, but a necessity, what with a competitor like Hannaford “a mile down the road” in Damariscotta. He wants to be affordable, but “it is a balancing act.” The margins are slim and for customers, “the reality of sticker shock after processing is tough.” Riverside is working hard at that balancing act, with the understanding that butchery is not a lucrative business. “Not yet.”
FAIR WEATHER FRIENDS: Last summer though, things were better. “In the summer, it is different because there is so much money from seasonal people. We had a great first summer and we are looking forward to this summer as well.” (Yeah, us too.) If they’ve got extra meat that isn’t selling, Avantaggio and his head butcher Ryan Tyler, a Rosemont veteran, make stocks for sale (beef, chicken and bone broth), ragu, beef and barley soups, chili – look for them in the freezer. “We utilize everything that comes in.” They also have a smoker on premises and offer ribs on Mondays and Fridays and smoked half chickens on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. (Arrive around 12:30 if you want some of those.) They make meat hand pies and sausage, too.
THE BUTCHER’S DINNER: What does Avantaggio take home for dinner? “I’ll be honest with you. I eat a lot more fish than I ever used to. I eat less meat now.” Why? “Being the owner, I am the guy that does the dishes and cleans up and by the time I get home it is either some ramen or something quick and easy.” One meat he doesn’t skimp on? “I am eating a lot more lamb than I used to.”
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: