One steak at a time

Vons has a proud cutter in Angie Elsbury

Angie Elsbury is the meat-department manager at Vons on Regents Road.
  • Angie Elsbury is the meat-department manager at Vons on Regents Road.

Angie Elsbury wears a blood-smeared apron and, in her words, “like, five layers of clothes” underneath. She laughs with her mouth wide open, lifting the apron to prove she’s not exaggerating.

“I have knee-highs, two pairs of cotton [long johns], and these jeans.” She leans over to show me the various waistbands. Then there’s the black-and-gray striped sweatshirt, the long-sleeved white button-down (with polka-dot tie), a T-shirt, and an undershirt.

It’s a Monday afternoon, and we’re standing in front of the meat case at Vons on Regents Road. Elsbury has finished showing me the territories for which she is responsible as the meat-department manager. The job has her in and out of “the cooler,” a cold room kept at a temperature just above freezing, as well as the seafood and meat cases, parts of the frozen-food aisle, and the bulk of aisle five, the refrigerated section where lunch meats and hot dogs are kept. In other words, Elsbury claims responsibility for “pretty much the whole back part of the store.”

“Hi, you finding everything all right?” she says as people pass by or browse the meat case.

“Yeah, thanks for asking!” a young man responds, mirroring her cheerful tone.

A college-age woman in Ugg boots, leggings, and a flannel shirt approaches gingerly and asks what would be a good substitute for beef brisket. Elsbury walks the woman closer to the meat case and asks what she’s trying to make. The woman’s voice is so small I can’t hear her answer, but Elsbury suggests the beef chuck pot roast. She recommends adding carrots and potatoes to the slow-cooker.

She pulls two plastic-wrapped packages of meat from the refrigerated case. Either one, she says, would be about right.

“And they’re on sale,” she adds.

“Does it, like, shred?” the woman asks.

When Elsbury answers in the affirmative, the woman thanks her and drops one of the two packages into her basket.

“The second part of this job,” Elsbury tells me as the woman walks away, “is knowing how to cook.”

Again, there’s that wide-open-mouthed laugh. Elsbury crinkles her eyes and nose. The face she makes reminds me of Joan Cusack, though Elsbury has less meat on her bones than the actress. A lanky five feet, ten-and-a-half inches, her frame appears slight — even with all the clothing she wears to keep warm.

Two weeks ago, Elsbury transferred to this store from the Vons at Girard and Torrey Pines. This is the seventh Vons she’s worked at since she started at 30th and Howard in North Park as a bagger in 2007.

“They call it a ‘courtesy clerk,’” she explains. “I was 36 and didn’t really want to bag groceries. But I’d just gotten out of prison, and I was so happy to work.”

Although we’re still standing among the shoppers, she speaks without lowering her voice. More self-conscious on her behalf than she is, I look around for surprised faces.

Elsbury reaches down into the meat case, retrieves a package that needs to be rewrapped, and leads me back behind the counter.

“If it offends someone, I’m sorry,” she says of speaking frankly about her past. More often, she says, people will pull her aside and ask for advice on what to do for loved ones who need help.

By the time she was hired at Vons, Elsbury had spent a total of six and a half years incarcerated for possession of a controlled substance. Heroin was her drug of choice. She says she was born addicted to heroin because her mother is an addict, too. After trying alcohol and speed as a young girl, she discovered heroin as a sophomore in high school.

“I instantly knew that’s what I was looking for,” she says.

For 21 years, her life revolved around getting high, until one day, during her last stint in prison, she received a message that led to her recovery.

“God spoke to me. It was plain as day. I was in my cell and He said, ‘You don’t have to be a junkie anymore.’”

After she left the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla in 2007, she went into treatment at Casa de Milagros, a women’s rehabilitation center. Three months into the six-month program, she was allowed to enroll in the job-readiness training program at Second Chance on Imperial Avenue. There she learned how to shake hands, make eye contact, and explain her situation in job interviews.

“In interviews, when they asked about my convictions, I told them my past revolved around drug use, and [then I said], ‘This is what I can do for your company today. I’m a hard worker, I’m motivated, and I’m friendly.’”

The courtesy-clerk job at Vons lasted a whole three days — until the meat-department manager of that store requested her presence in his department. He promoted her to meat-and-seafood personnel (“MSP,” she calls it).

“He saw me working hard,” she says.

The new job paid ten cents more per hour, with 24 hours of work each week, in contrast to the 16 allowed to a courtesy clerk. The position included customer service, stocking, and cleaning areas overseen by the meat-department manager.

Behind the meat counter, the black rubber flooring is splattered with blood and chunks of meat. Elsbury has just pulled two 20-pound slabs of strip loin from the “cooler” and placed them on a cutting table flanked by two large garbage cans. On her left hand she wears what she calls a “shark glove” that is made of metal mesh. Grabbing a ten-inch Forschner steak knife (for which she paid approximately $40) from a knife-block at the corner of the table, she demonstrates how well the glove works by sliding the blade across her hand before I have time to squeeze my eyes shut or turn away. Elsbury laughs at my squeamishness.

“Tomorrow, I have Five Dollar Friday, and it’s boneless New Yorks.” She cuts first one and then the other of the slabs of strip loin into smaller pieces — these are New York steaks. “That’s down from $10.99 a pound,” she says.

Next, she pulls out a boning knife (also a Forschner). The thin, six-inch blade is almost scary. The fatty pieces she trims off go into the large “bone can” at her left. She places excess meat to her right, on what she calls the “trim pan.” This meat will be ground into hamburger.

“It’s like a craft. So you can always improve. I like New Yorks better than rib-eyes because they’re not as fatty. I broil them seven minutes on each side, sauté an onion and some Baby Bella mushrooms, throw that on top with salt and pepper. That’s a gourmet steak. You can use Worcestershire sauce, too.”

Although she talks quickly and constantly, Elsbury keeps her eyes on her work. She trims each piece and places it on a small black Styrofoam “boat” (four to a larger boat for “value packs”).

Elsbury held the position of meat-and-seafood professional for nine months before she decided to apply to Vons’ in-house journeyman-butchers apprenticeship program. She didn’t believe she’d get the position but was eager to prove herself in the interview.

“I wanted them to see who I am,” she says.

In the end, she landed one of seven spots in the program, but soon after she got the news, corporate decision-makers brought up her parole status, which prohibited the use of knives. The way she tells it today, it was but 15 minutes later that she received a call from her parole officer, informing her that she was officially discharged from parole.

The apprenticeship began with a four-week class at the Vons at Clairemont Square. The first week included eight hours a day of book work, studying from Best in Class Cutting, which is full of diagrams, pictures, and information about the shelf-life of different meats; the names of different cuts of meat and which part of the animal they come from; safety, rotation, ordering; weights and measurements; and so on. During the second, third, and fourth weeks, Elsbury and her classmates learned to cut. They practiced cutting, then were sent to stores around the district to continue practicing.

At the end of the four-week program, Elsbury was sent to train under three journeymen cutters at the Vons on Midway Drive.

“I got a lot of attention,” she says. “Which was good, but it was also, like, ‘Don’t do that. Do it like this. What is that? What are you doing?’”

Training under journeymen butchers can last as long as two years before an apprentice becomes a journeyman herself. At three points within the first six months of Elsbury’s training, her teacher from the classroom and the meat merchandiser for the district called upon her to perform block tests. The first came around the end of the three-month mark.

“They give you a list a week before the test, so you can order [the meat] you need, but they won’t tell you what you’ll cut out of it,” she explains. “When it’s time for the test, they’ll say, ‘I want two London broil value packs, a top round roast, cube steak, stir-fry, stew, and a top round thin.’ And then they’ll stand there and time you. They test you on time and craftsmanship.”

That first block test was for boneless meats. The second, given a month or two later, was bone-in. The final included some of everything. Elsbury still has the report her teacher wrote up and gave to the merchandiser after her final exam.

“He recommended that I was ready to run a small cutting shop. At that point, my strengths were in boneless cutting.”

And now?

“When I look at my meat, it looks really good,” she says. “I’m proud of my cutting.”

While still in the apprenticeship, Elsbury was transferred to the North Park store, where she continued to train under two journeymen. After about six months at North Park — by then she had a total of nine months in the apprenticeship — she was transferred again, this time to Hillcrest, where they made her “acting manager” of the meat department. The position was temporary but required her promotion to journeyman.

Three months later, she applied for and landed a permanent post as meat-department manager, the highest-paid in-store (union) position. She began at Tierrasanta, then transferred to Mission Gorge, and then to Girard and Torrey Pines, where she stayed for a year and a half. Currently, she makes $14 an hour more than before she entered the apprenticeship, a total of $22.08 per hour.

“It’s pretty cool to be a girl and have a man’s job,” she says. “I like it.”

When Elsbury finishes cutting and trimming the New York steaks, she places the Styrofoam trays on a cart. One of her five employees, a young man named Dominic, wheels the cart away to be wrapped and shelved for tomorrow’s sale.

“You should talk to her,” she calls after him. “You can tell her what an awesome boss I am!”

They both laugh.

“Last time it was Five Dollar Friday, I came in second place in the district,” she says. “But they had two cutters, and here it was just me, so I feel like I won.”

She explains that the district tracks and reports which meat department (of its 18 stores) cuts and sells the most meat on Five Dollar Fridays.

“It’s not a real competition,” she says. “I just make it a competition because I want to take down all the meat-department managers that have been around forever.”

After she washes her hands, Elsbury’s done for the day. She strips off the apron and sweatshirt and changes out of black shoes, the soles of which have bits of meat stuck to them, and into a pair of black Converse low-tops. Skinny jeans and curveless hips make her look like a skater boy from the waist down. Were it not for the lines around her eyes and mouth, her dress and mannerisms might cause her to be mistaken for someone 20 years her junior.

On her way outside, store employees wave and call, “Bye, Angie!”

She smiles and waves in return.

Although the joy and positivity does not disappear, her voice takes on a more melancholy tone when she opens her phone to show me a picture of her daughter, Gabby, to whom she gave birth in jail.

“The courts told me I had to quit using [drugs] to keep her,” she says. “I told them I couldn’t, because that’s where I was at the time.”

The photo is two weeks old, taken in the home of Gabby’s adoptive parents in Santee.

“We look just like each other, don’t we?”

Gabby is 12 now. For the first few years of her life, Elsbury was allowed two visits per year. Last year was the first time she was invited to the house. The visits occur more frequently now. In the past month, they’ve seen each other twice.

“We’re Facebook friends,” Elsbury says proudly.

Recently, she moved to Lakeside to be closer to Gabby. Before the move, she’d been living in Pacific Beach with her mother (now seven years clean and sober, one year longer than Elsbury).

“I have a boyfriend,” she says. “It’s time to be on my own.”

It’s just after 5:00 p.m., and the parking lot is crammed with cars. The automatic doors leading into the store hardly have time to shut before they open for someone else. The fluorescent lights inside glow brightly against the dreary winter evening. The occasional passerby strains to see what we’re looking at, huddled over Elsbury’s phone.

Again, she flips through pictures until she finds one of herself in a red dress, standing next to a man in slacks and a tie.

“His name is Jason. That was the night he took me to see Stomp,” she says. “I never went on a date like that.”

Elsbury also has photos of meat — and not just a couple. She scrolls through shot after shot of raw flank steaks and boneless New Yorks and ribeyes. She shows me pictures of a big seven-bone (shoulder of the cow), a whole hanging cow, and a boneless ribeye butterflied into the shape of a heart (which she used for a while as her Facebook profile photo).

“I skinned a whole pig once,” she says.

But why the pictures of raw meat? I ask.

“Because I love my job!” She slips the phone back into her purse.

Elsbury never finished high school, but she has a serious enthusiasm for learning. Her seat on the board of directors at Second Chance (which she’s occupied for about two and a half years) has proven fertile ground for acquiring new vocabulary.

“They say all these big words I don’t even know. At first, I would just sit there and write them all down and look them up later.” She laughs. “But at the last meeting, I think there was only one word I didn’t know.”

In her spare time, Elsbury takes cooking classes at Great News, so she can swap recipes with customers. At home, she subscribes to six cooking magazines, which she reads front to back. She cuts out pictures of food from the magazines, hangs them on her bulletin board, and then tries to recreate each dish, down to the garnishes.

In the next month or so, she’ll be spending three weeks of vacation time and $7000 to attend a course on whole-beef butchering in Beverly Hills. She’s not worried about the money or the time because she sees it as an investment in her future.

“It’s like going to college,” she says.

The evening darkness settles in and the parking-lot lights come on. We begin to part ways. But before we do, Elsbury says, “You know what I’m excited for? There are a lot of people who don’t know I’m alive. And I’m thinking maybe they’ll see this [article] and say, ‘If she can do it, then maybe I can, too.’ That’s my real job.”

Her job, she feels, is about more than the meat. The example she gives is of a woman having a bad day, but when she serves her family a great cut of steak, it makes her feel better, and then she doesn’t yell at her kids.

Elsbury laughs again.

“I always tell my guys, ‘We’re saving the world, one steak at a time.’”

For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory

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What a fantastic story! Please do more like this, Elizabeth.

I cannot think of a better example than Angie's to show how critically important these non-profit social service programs are. If it were not for programs such as Strive, people like Angie would be lost and and their lives wasted. Instead, we have a very happy, very competent professional, serving the residents of our communities and living a productive and prosperous life. You should be very proud of what you have accomplished, Angie. And all who had a hand in turning her life around should know many of us are extremely grateful for all that you do.

I hope we see more stories like this one in the future.

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