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Wednesday, May 16,2012

More than mere meat

Mert's Specialty Meats has some gourmet surprises in store

by Joe Torok

With a name like Mert’s Specialty Meats, it’s hard to go wrong.

The little meat shop in Okemos isn’t getting by on name alone, though. Its high quality meats, seafood, produce and more makes Mert’s a place well worth checking out.

Mert’s began shortly after the demise of L&L Shop Rite. Co-owner Shirley Decker, who lost her job in the L&L corporate office in March last year, joined her husband, Merton Prescott, a meat cutter who had been laid off from L&L a few months prior, in the realm of the unemployed.

Despite a lack of employment, how to pay the household bills took back seat to a higher concern.

“We were eating dinner one night, and the question we had wasn’t about our next paycheck,” Decker said. “It was, ‘Where are we going to buy out meat now that L&L is gone?’”

The couple soon decided a meat shop of their own was the way to go, and, along with their son, Brandon Decker, opened Mert’s six months later.

While there is a long meat case with dozens of cuts, sausages and seafood selections, the vibe of Mert’s is something closer to a gourmet food boutique. There’s standard fare — produce like tomatoes and onions, fresh baked bread, locally sourced eggs, milk, pasta, rice, spices — but there’s much more. 

Detroit-made McLure’s gourmet pickles grace a shelf, and so do dill pickled beans and asparagus. White and black truffle oils are not easy to find, let alone avocado oil. Tea seed oil, a nice alternative to peanut oil with its high smoke temperature, is a happy find for those with allergies. 

“Customers tell us what they want, and we find it,” Shirley Decker said. “We have new items every week.”

Stocking local producers is a point of concern for Mert’s. El Azteco chips and salsa are as popular here as they are in the restaurant, but if you want a different tortilla chip experience, try the La Fiesta chips, made by a company on the west side of the state in Hart. Other local start-ups have found a home in Mert’s, like Okemos’ Muffin Mom and East Lansing’s Red Cedar Café. 

The meat case, though, is the store’s centerpiece. There’s locally grown lamb and goat, fresh beef and pork; both frozen and fresh seafood, including delicious gulf-coast shrimp (if you’re used to frozen shrimp, watch out — this stuff actually tastes like something); and fresh kabobs wait for hungry customers, as do ready-to-cook stuffed chickens and salmon and turkey patties.

Various sausages are made onsite, and that’s the kind of thing that makes Mert’s a unique place. But that’s not the coolest thing about this little gem of a store. 

“We had a customer come in and ask us to make English bangers,” Shirley Decker said. “She brought us the recipe and we made them. We’ve made Cumberland sausage according to a customer recipe, and we’ll be making Portuguese sausage soon.” 

Mert’s is a throwback without the throwaway nostalgia. If you want only great meat, Mert’s has you covered. But with owners on hand every day of the week, it’s more like a gathering place for some folks.

“We laugh and we cry with our customers,” Shirley Decker said. “We cry with those who have had a death in the family, and we see newborns that we’ll watch grow over the years.”

One of those local vendors at Mert’s, Gellocake, now has its own display case at the market.

“Things are going really, really well,” said Gellocake owner Lilian Chavira. Starting up a gourmet gelatin, cake and sweets business without a commercial kitchen is not an easy task. But after a few initial obstacles, Chavira has seen fairly smooth sailing for close to four years now.

With a background in graphic design, Chavira brings more than tasty frosting and airy cupcakes.

“It’s not just the treats, but the image behind it matters, too,” Chavira said. She’s catered corporate events — complete with edible logos — team banquets and anniversaries and has been increasingly busy with dessert tables for weddings.

Chavira says high-quality ingredients are a focus in her kitchen, and gluten-free gelatin desserts help fill a void for those with celiac disease or wheat allergies. 

Chavira considered her own retail storefront, but decided a more patient approach was called for. She soon found a home in Mert’s.

“You can get cakes everywhere, but I want my cakes to be unique, fresh and high quality,” Chavira said, explaining what makes Gellocake different. “Making something that is going to sit for a week goes against my mission.”

Call (517) 381-5054 or (517) 402-1462, or visit www.gellocake.com.


Mert’s Specialty Meats

1870 W. Grand River Ave., Okemos

9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday

(517) 574-5014

www.mertsspecialtymeats.com

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