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After dark, the bungalows of Brookland shine with a rainbow of holiday lights, sparkling candy canes, massive Santas, and inflatable snow globes. But following a spate of recent muggings, the streets are empty, and neighbors are unnerved by strangers at their doors.
So, on a recent Friday evening, when a salesman appeared at Barbara Burton’s home in the 1200 block of Jackson Street NE, offering to sell her some meat from a truck, she was cautious.
“He had a pad in his hand, like he was going to take an order,” she says, “It just felt a little unorthodox. I thought: Noooooo. I didn’t want to engage and be ripped off and have only myself to blame.”
Burton decided she would continue to buy her meat from Whole Foods Market. But her neighbor, Keith Robinson, says he had purchased some 30 to 40 steaks from a couple of men with a truck in the past and has no regrets about spending the money.
“It was in the summer. I was having a whole bunch of guys over,” he says. “[The steaks] were good, they were fresh.”
Several other people report seeing door-to-door meat salesmen last week and periodically in the past. One wrote to a neighborhood Listserv about seeing two men offering half-price discounts from a group called “Capital Meats.”
Responded another resident: “Not only does it sound like a scam, but a pretty bad one. Who would actually buy ‘half price meat’ from wandering strangers? As much as I love food poisoning, I think I’d have to take a pass.”
The semi-sketchy truth is just one Google search away. There is a company called Capital Meats Inc., based out of Winchester, Va., and founded in 1997. But, according to the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), its salesmen aren’t properly licensed to do business here.
Capital Meats relies on subcontractors to sell its products—everything from “Country Style Ribs” to “Extra-Large EZ Peel Shrimp.” In the morning, salesmen purchase their bounty of vacuum-sealed, frozen Capital Meats products from one of six company distribution centers in Maryland, Virginia, and Tennessee. Then they hit the streets in company-owned vehicles, leaving their personal cars behind, says company administrator Katie Chambers.
Capital Meats has roughly 125 to 150 subcontractors operating in eight states—Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky—but currently does its best business in the Baltimore area. Chambers estimates only 10 to 15 salesmen make the rounds in D.C.
“If you were to make calls closer to one of our actual distribution centers, then people would be more familiar with us,” she says.
One entity not aware of Capital Meats is the District government, says Joseph Schilling, a licensing administrator for the DCRA. To operate legally, the corporation would need to register with the city, and the salesmen would need licenses. There’s no record anywhere of Capital Meats, he says.
But talk to P.J. Weber, and he’ll tell you all you ever want to know. Weber is the sales manager for the unfortunately named Capital Meat Company, which supplies veal, lamb, and other products to restaurants offering triple-digit dining experiences. His clients include Clyde’s Restaurant Group and both CityZen and Cafe MoZU inside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel—not people shoveling through their freezer for that last five-month-old sirloin.
For the last few years, Weber’s received, on average, two calls a week—hundreds of calls total—from people complaining about products from Capital Meats Inc.
“They’ve caused us many problems,” he says. “We’ve spoken to our boss many times about why he named our company Capital Meat Company.”
Callers say the meat isn’t as many ounces as advertised, or they criticize the quality of the product. Some people demand a refund, says Weber.
“We’ve got to explain to them: We’re sorry for what they’re going through, but they’ve contacted the wrong company.”
Roughly a year ago, Weber was visiting a friend in Loudoun County when he ran into two men from Capital Meats Inc. He gave them his business card and told them to pass it on to their boss. The two men quickly disappeared in their white pickup, and he never heard from any managers.
But when the Washington City Paper contacted Capital Meats Inc., employees expressed pride in their business.
“It’s a really great concept, and it’s wonderful,” says customer service representative Norm Pedersen. “People order [repeatedly], and many say ‘Where you been?’ when you show up back at their house.”
The company is expected to take in $10 million in revenue for 2007, says administrator Chambers, and plans to open a new distribution center in the Knoxville area next month.
As for the roving half-price meat salesmen, they are the ones responsible for securing the proper licenses, according company regional manager, Raymond Shaffer.
Whether or not they do that, they may be returning to Brookland soon. Resident John Morris was at home last week when a seller knocked on his door. He listened to the man’s pitch and got a glimpse of his white pickup, which had a big icebox freezer—“like something you’d have in your basement,” says Morris—on the back.
“[The salesman] said, ‘I come here all the time, and I sell to all the neighbors.’” He also mentioned that he worked the neighborhood farmer’s market near Florida Avenue.
Morris said he wasn’t interested, since his kitchen was under construction. And with that, the salesman continued selling his steaks down the block.