Butcher, market owner Ted Dombrowski makes cut

Ted Dombrowski, owner of Ted’s Butcherblock, grew up in the restaurant industry, and his grandparents ran a butcher shop.

In October, Ted's Butcherblock will celebrate its sixth year in downtown Charleston.

Owner Ted Dombrowski has weathered the challenges of owning a small business by being open to change and making adjustments. At the same time, he has consistently paid it forward by supporting local charities. Most recently, Ted's raised $1,775 for Charleston Chefs Feed the Need.

We wanted to find out more about the man behind the business.

Q. Nicknames are often revealing about a person. Do you have one (or more), and if so, what's the story behind it?

A. I don't really have any nicknames now. Growing up, it was Dumbo because of my last name. Now, some people back in New Jersey like to call me Teddy the Butcher.

Q. Why did you open Ted's Butcherblock?

A. I thought the timing was right in Charleston. I've lived here for over 16 years, and during that time have seen a much greater awareness of ingredients and flavors from all over the world develop. I grew up in the restaurant business and always had a great appreciation of international food and flavors. I wanted to make that more available in Charleston. Although the model has changed throughout the years, the mission has always been to provide the best ingredients, whether you are cooking yourself or we are cooking for you.

Q. What did you do before?

A. One word: plastics. Although I have worked in many restaurants, both in the kitchen and behind the bar, immediately before this I was a partner in a plastic distribution company.

Q. Do you consider yourself more of a butcher or a restaurateur? Because your place is both a butcher shop/deli and a sit-down restaurant.

A. My role in the store is owner and primary meat cutter. The store has changed every year since I opened. Originally, I thought sandwiches and prepared food would be a smaller part of the business, but people seemed to really like our food, so we put in more seating. It now has more of a cafe/market feel. I was smart enough to hire people better than me on the prepared foods side. My chef, Eva Keilty, is amazing.

Q. Presumably you know how to take down an animal to its smallest parts, and butchering is considered a culinary art. Why were you drawn to it and how did you learn?

A. I've always said butchering is what you do if you fail out of med school, since the animal is already dead. I learned everything from watching other people in places I've worked. My grandparents opened a butcher shop after coming over from Poland. Although I never saw it, it was always part of the stories I heard growing up from my parents and aunt. I really enjoy what I do, but there's always a great deal more I can learn.

Q. Your parents had a restaurant in New Jersey called Hank's Starlight Lounge. We couldn't make up a better name! Where and what kind of restaurant was it? What role did you play there?

A. It was in Linden, N.J., in an area I call "Little Poland." It was a blue-collar town. The restaurant was huge: The upstairs had two bars, a stage and a dance floor. They also served breakfast and lunch. On the weekends, it would be more of a nightclub with music and dancing. On Sundays, they would have a polka band. It was the '70s -- a different time. There was a room downstairs for events and catering. They could do affairs for a couple hundred people.

I was the youngest of six kids. We all fought for the job of "hat checking." I couldn't believe people gave you a dollar or two just for taking their coats. If I didn't get that gig, I would be washing dishes. Saturdays my brother and I would go in and clean up from Friday night and help restock the bar. Mostly, though, I think my role was to annoy my parents' employees, who were essentially baby sitters, and to sneak into the walk-in freezer and eat parfaits.

Q. Ted's has donated more than $20,000 to local charities in its six years as a business. Why is that important to you?

A. It all comes from my parents. I grew up watching them utilize their business to help charity. It was always a big part of everything they did. They were grateful for everything we had and wanted to give back. My business comes primarily from the local community here in Charleston. My wife and I feel it's very important to give back to the community that supports you.

Q. Which ones have you chosen and why?

A. We change the charity beneficiary for the Friday Wine Tastings each quarter. I typically let a staff member pick the charity for the quarter so everyone can feel involved. I don't have any restrictions on the charity, as long as it is a real charity and local. I want the money to stay in the community. By letting employees choose, we have been able to support a great variety of causes, from food organizations, the arts, hospice, animal rescue, etc. I also like to support charities that our customers support, as a way of thanking them for their business.

This summer we held a Facebook contest to find out which charities had the strongest support from our customers. It was a close tie between East Cooper Community Outreach and East Cooper Meals on Wheels. Meals on Wheels got the most nominations, so they are currently our featured charity.

Q. The challenges of small business are many, not to mention a recession. What has been a biggie to you and how did you meet it?

A. I can track exactly when the drop hit. Looking back at the numbers, I'm not sure how we did it. It forced us to reorganize our business model. I tried to listen to what my customers wanted. I used to have much more retail product, but when the recession hit, that wasn't selling as much. People told me they would eat here more often but our seating was always full, so I expanded the seating and that has really been effective.

Q. As a country, we are one of the largest consumers of meat in the world. That alarms some people and makes others feel righteous. What do you say to that?

A. I was a vegetarian for seven years. I loved meat, but I was disgusted by the meat industry. America is great at streamlining and industry and trying to make things cheaper. That's great for my car, but I don't want that for my food. The problem is not eating meat, but eating meat that's full of things you don't want to know about.

Q. What is the public's biggest ignorance about buying meat, poultry, etc.?

A. I think labeling is a big issue. Natural, organic, free range -- they are all fairly vague and loosely defined terms. I take it upon myself to know where the meat I carry comes from, how it's raised, what it's fed, how it's processed. I tried beef that was certified organic that I wouldn't carry in my shop because of what it was fed. It's not enough to look at the label. The large commodity producers lobby for loose label interpretation. That's not a good thing.

Q. Describe your family. What is the best thing you can teach your children?

A. I have a great wife, Julie, who really has been incredibly supportive and helpful with the business. We have a 6-year-old daughter, Sophie. Julie essentially has three jobs. She is the communications director for The Daniel Island Company, helps with all the marketing and branding for Ted's and is a tireless mother. I'm very lucky.

I try to encourage Sophie to make good decisions. We all make mistakes, but learning not to repeat them and maintaining a strong work ethic are important no matter how old you are.