James Jackson Leach’s family has been working in the meat business in some way or another since the late 1800s, but it was never his plan to be part of it.
The baggy pants-wearing, skateboarding kid growing up in South Austin is now a 32-year-old entrepreneur who recently took over Longhorn Meat Market, a retail and wholesale meat business that has been at 2411 E. Martin Luther King Blvd. for 50 years.
“I played here as a kid, but it never occurred to me to get into it,” he says.
The family's roots in the meat industry date back to at least 1892, when they were part of a local butchery association. In the 1920s, James Leach's great-grandparents opened a butcher shop downtown called University Meat Market. Located on Lavaca Street just south of where the AT&T Education and Conference Center is now, the business eventually ended up on East Avenue, and when plans for Interstate 35 became clear in the 1960s, eminent domain forced the family to move the shop yet again.
That's where the story of the shop that still exists today begins. In 1969, his great-uncle William Leach built a 4,000-square-foot processing facility and retail shop at what was then East 19th St., later Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
William's kids, Bill Leach and then his sister, Janet, were the ones running it while James was finding his way in the world.
At age 13, James moved in with his grandfather Herbert Jackson, who owned Austin’s first cable company. That’s where he says he learned about empathy, patience and what it takes to nurture a business into life and life into a family. "I took care of him in the years before he died. He was my full-time job, but on the side, I was doing other stuff that prepared me to do what I'm doing now." He dropped out of high school, earned an alternative high school degree and was already well into work in marketing and e-commerce.
Jackson died when Leach was 24, and two years later, he opened Lucky's Puccia food truck with some business partners, while dabbling as a film producer. In 2016, he opened Mort Subite, a Belgian bar downtown.
Janet Leach had been running the business without Bill since he died in 2013, and she was ready to pass the Longhorn Meat Market to another member of the family. The idea of taking over a butcher shop appealed to James Leach in part because of the family legacy. He'd also gained a sense that the city was changing and that there was a way to change with it without erasing the history of what came before.
When Janet wanted to retire, Leach decided he was up for the challenge of taking an old school meat shop into the modern era.
When her son announced he was taking ownership of the business, Jane Leach says she thought it was great, but her husband was more wary. “He told me the truth: The meat business is a hard business,” James Leach says. “And I was like, ‘I’ve built all these other things, I can do it.'”
He hired his mom to be the office manager and brother John as an assistant. Several of the long-tenured employees remain; they arrive at 5:30 a.m. to start breaking down chickens, cutting pork chops and steaks and grinding beef and pork for sausage and loose meat. They fill orders for restaurants and then fill what Leach calls the “Porsche of a deli case,” a temperamental workhorse that is original to the building.
“I’m of that old-school stubborn mentality that if something is broken, I’ll keep fixing it until I have to take it out back and shoot it,” Leach says.
Handwritten signs display the prices for the meat per pound and the store's signature combo packs. There are newspaper clippings of the late Richard Overton, who lived nearby and was a customer, hanging on the wall by one of the scales. The front office is full of office relics from another era, including old-school flyers and a butcher block that’s decades older than the new owner.
A steady stream of retail customers come through the door, now seven days a week, many of them picking up quick-cooking cuts such as pork chops or 4-pound spirals of the store's signature pork and beef sausage.
In addition to deli meats and cheeses, which they also sell at the counter, Leach wants to bring back the small market in the front with everyday staples that you might need to put together a weeknight dinner.
Seventy percent of the business, however, is wholesale to local restaurants and catering companies. Because they sell wholesale, a state health regulator is there for an inspection every day.
Leach says he’s proud of the Southern hospitality that a small business can offer other small businesses. “If someone calls and needs 10 pounds, who else is going to drive over $15 of ground beef to your restaurant?”
Arturo Bobadilla, who owns Taqueria Guadalajara in Cedar Park, says that he’s bought meat from Longhorn Meat Market for more than 15 years. “All of our meat, we buy here, especially the chorizo, pork chops and bones for caldo,” he says. “I’ve been with them for so long because they give me good prices and good attention for a long time.”
They still make their own barbecue rub, which Leach is trying to get into local grocery stores. He's added online ordering, and he hopes people will figure out how good their sausage is so that they’ll seek it out. One customer recently bought more than $100 of sausage to take back to North Carolina for a family barbecue. “They told him, ‘Don’t come home without it,’” Jane Leach says.
Leach decided to keep the popular combo packs that provide a discount when you buy a variety of meats at once, but he’s also adding butchery classes so customers can learn how to break down chickens, lamb and wild boar.
People frequently ask about what kind of meat he sells, specifically for grass-fed or pasture-raised pork. He sells those items based on demand, so the selection varies depending on what sells. He wants to add environmentally minded cuts, such as grass-fed beef or antibiotic-free chicken, but not at the expense of affordability. “I’m all about sustainability, but it’s not sustainable to only have that mind frame,” he says. “If I did that, I’d push so many people away.”
In addition to traditional, conventionally raised cuts of pork, chicken, beef and lamb, Longhorn meat market sells Texas quail, chickens from Kentucky, lamb from I O Ranch Lamb and, when his wholesale customers don’t order all of it, wagyu beef. “I’m whittling away some things and adding some other things,” Leach says, but ultimately it’s up to the customers to decide what kind of business Longhorn Meat Market becomes.
Also, rabbits. “We sell the heck out of rabbits,” he says. About a decade ago, Janet Leach stopped carrying rabbits, but when they were back in stock, she changed the sign to say “Rabbits are back.”
When Leach took over the business, he brought back the rabbits and the sign. “Now it’s up there all the time."
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated where James Jackson Leach grew up. He was raised in South Austin.