Heart of our City: Michel Gauthier

Having honed his craft as a butcher for more than 50 years, Michel Gauthier takes pride in what he does and the service he provides.

Originally from a village in Quebec near Lac-Saint-Jean, adjacent to the St. Lawrence estuary, Michel was the youngest of 12 siblings landing his first job in a grocery store aged 14.

His mom always told Michel and his siblings if they didn’t want to go to school, they needed to find a job — that’s what he did.

“It was the rule in the house,” he said.

After a few months working, Michel was shuffled to customer service and the meat department, where he began to learn the foundations of his future profession.

By the time he was 19, having always been a risk-taker, chasing ever-increasing rent and needing to support his first child, he started his first business.

As a side hustle to his main job, he found an abandoned gas station, which he polished up. He balanced managing the station while also working at the grocery store. As the profits rolled in, expansion was on his mind. He sold his first station and moved on to a larger one while working his other meat dept. job.

Due to the demands of ever continually increasing life and business expenses, needing to make ends meet, he found himself working all day, every day. The decision was made to leave his foray into gas stations behind. However, Michel didn’t let go of the business lessons he learned during his ventures.

It was for him to sharpen his skills at butchering.

A member of his church connected him with a butcher shop in Morinville, Alberta. He packed his bags, threw them into his van and journeyed solo across the country. The more than 4,000-kilometre journey in three days, had him stopping to sleep at rest stops.

Coming from a small French village with only a single street, seeing such a sight as a yield sign was a new experience for him. Reading directions in English, which he did not yet know how to speak also posed a challenge.

Morinville is a town about an hour’s drive north of Edmonton, hosted more than 5,000 residents at the time. It was comparatively large to his hometown of 1,000 people. It was there in his new home where his butcher training would go into high gear.

Under his boss and new mentor, Lou, who was a Francophone himself, Michel advanced his skills to a fine point.

In Quebec, Michel had been a meat cutter which is a distinct difference from the butcher he was about to become.

“I’m the type of guy that learns just by looking. I just look at somebody doing something, and then I do it,” Michel said.

Over time he learned how to butcher whole animals from the farm, create varieties of sausages, make jerky, ham, bacon and much more.

He learned the ins and outs of the trade. From behind the scenes he tagged along with his boss to farms to pick out animals. First, he would go along voluntarily, but after proving himself more than capable, he began to be paid for his skills.

After learning all he could from his time with Lou, Michel set up his own shop which he ran for 12 years.

During those years, Michel would travel to B.C. for the summers, where would take the time to pursue his life-long pastime of fishing.

During his tenure in Morinville, the day came when a friend invited Michel on a fishing trip. The trip to a far-off seaside town in northwestern B.C. was a step to sealing his future.

“I love the ocean,” he said.

Not only did he like the sea and the fishing, but he fell in love with Prince Rupert too.

“I don’t like big cities. I like small towns where there’s potential.”

There was no butcher shop in Rupert, his friend pointed out, and the seed of business growth was planted.

After mulling the thoughts, he decided Prince Rupert was where he should be. However, back in Alberta, his wife wasn’t so keen on the big move.

Not having the family onboard, Michel continued to visit Prince Rupert over the next five years for his fishing trips.

After a half-decade of longing though, unable to resist the lure of the town, Michel brought his wife and family to the Northwest, with some reluctance. It didn’t take long for his wife to take to their new home.

“If I knew of the nice and friendly people in Prince Rupert, I would have moved here five years ago,” his wife told him soon after settling in.

“In small towns you get to know people,” Michel said. That’s the quality he loves about smaller communities and why he has always stayed away from the big cities.

Though finally settling in his ideal town, Michel had a tough couple of years setting up his new business.

“To get established in a new town, it’s really hard,” he said, adding at times he questioned if it was the right move.

However, after the first couple of years, Michel adapted his passion for fishing into his business. He took advantage of the natural resources on his doorstep during the plentiful summer months and he supplemented what he offered at the shop.

That and being able to offer customers products they couldn’t get elsewhere is what set him apart, he said.

“If you have a good product from the start, even if you’re not used to it — when you try it, you’re going to like it. You’re going to start buying it,” Michel said.

He tailor-makes products to the region’s palates. He even takes on requests to recreate nostalgic childhood foods such as South African sausage recipes for his customers.

“This is what a small butcher [shop] can do,” Michel said with a grin.

Having been firmly and happily established for more than 10 years in Prince Rupert, Michel has trained several apprentices in his trade and now looks towards the future.

Even though Michel is of retirement age, he has no plans to leave his craft behind. For Michel, retirement means still working, at least part-time, and having more free time to pursue his other passions, mainly fishing.

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