ST. LOUIS — Chris “Mac” McKenzie’s road to the restaurant industry was simple — he wanted to eat better meat.
Though he worked as a cook at McDonald’s in high school, he spent most of his life working in manufacturing and IT. McKenzie’s father owned a manufacturing company and he worked for the engineering director there for 10 years.
“It was good experience,” he said. “A lot of it was actually relevant to what we do today. Now, we just happen to make cheeseburgers and fries.”
After a stint for his father’s company, McKenzie worked in IT for another 10 years before beginning his research on buying whole and quality animals. McKenzie started doing meat shares on a food forum — called STL Bites. After six years, this turned into Mac’s Local Buys, and eventually, Mac’s Local Eats, which serves up one of the region’s most popular cheeseburgers on Cherokee Street.
How did Mac’s Local Buys get started? I started doing these meat shares on a local food forum called STL Bites. It was cool because back then it was the who’s who of St. Louis chefs on this forum. A group of us would buy a pig or a cow and split it up. I was still working in IT then and I wasn’t making any money from this — it wasn’t a business at the time. I did that with family and friends for six years. The list of people just grew and grew over the years. It was a cool way to buy high-quality stuff and you get a better price. But then my IT job moved to India. I worked for a company that had a contract with AT&T and they asked if I wanted to move and I turned it down. At the encouragement of my wife, I incorporated Mac’s Local Buys. The first two products we had were food subscriptions and meat shares, both of which we still have today.
How has Mac’s Local Buys changed since then? Meat shares are pretty social. You start talking about recipes, maybe you have a beer or two. We did that for several years, but as my wife put it — “you’re selling pork chops in dark alleys” — so we needed a roof. Now we’ve got a market, kind of like a farmer’s market all under one roof with everything but produce. We sell flour, barbecue sauces, rubs ... all super high-quality stuff and mostly all local. There’s a handful of items that I carry from Louisiana.
Do you still work with local restaurants and chefs? No, meat shares are mostly for consumers now. When I first launched in 2012, I did have wholesale accounts. I worked with Gerard Craft and places such as Juniper and Blood & Sand. But eight to 10 years later, farmers have a much bigger presence. Back then, it was just starting to trend up. I did the leg work then. I went to the farms to see how they operated and what they were feeding the animals. But now, I think the farmers are becoming known and having a middle person isn’t necessary.
How did Mac’s Local Buys turn into Mac’s Local Eats? I mentioned that I was looking for a roof for Mac’s Local Buys and a guy that I knew reached out to me. He had a space in his building that would make for a good retail shop — but then he also asked if I’d be interested in taking over the kitchen and serving food. This was Tamm Avenue Bar. I talked to my wife and we decided that it was a yes. That was about three years ago. The catch was that they wanted to open in four weeks. I happened to be sitting on 300-400 pounds of dry-aged beef. It was just something we sold at the market. And so I was like okay, I guess we’re going to cook some cheeseburgers.
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