Two Locals Get to the Meat of the Matter

Laguna friends Brian Smith, left, and Robert Hagopian solved their quest for prime cuts by opening the first franchise of The Meat House on the West Coast. The Costa Mesa shop also stocks beer and wine.
Laguna friends Brian Smith, left, and Robert Hagopian solved their quest for prime cuts by opening the first franchise of The Meat House on the West Coast. The Costa Mesa shop also stocks beer and wine.

South Laguna dads Brian Smith and Robert Hagopian met at the Village Green Park in South Laguna while their kids played. Later around their backyard barbecues, they discovered something else they held in common: a lament over lacking a quality meat source in the area.

Over a smoking grill, Smith told his friend about The Meat House, a butcher shop franchise near his former hometown in the Boston area. His father knew one of the founders and the Laguna friends wondered if a California franchise was a possibility. Their timing proved perfect.

“We had our finger right on the pulse,” Hagopian said. “We jumped in the plane and went out there and never stopped.”

This January, about a year after their trip, the partners opened their own Meat House in Costa Mesa. Their original dream to open a store in South Laguna was redirected by real estate logistics and a lack of lots with adequate parking. “It just wasn’t there,” said Smith. “The right spot didn’t exist for us yet in South Laguna.”

Location aside, the partners love their store, and their customers’ feedback tells them that they were not alone in wishing for a quality butcher. “People are just tickled to have us,” said Smith, adding that one woman, who ran into them in the parking lot and asked if they were the owners, actually hugged them when she learned they were.

The franchise’s draw is high-quality hormone and antibiotic free meat. The butchers can tell customers the ranch their steak came from. All of the processing is done in-house. The Meat House offers “choice” graded cuts and above. They also offer pre-marinated and oven-ready meats, and will special order for customers even if it means buying a quantity greater than the customer requires, such as a recent request for wild boar.

Both men said their emphasis on quality customer service, and staffing to avoid lines for orders or at the cash register, also sets them apart. Their customers don’t take numbers.

Though customers tend to come in for the meat, many are pleasantly surprised by the well-stocked cheese counter, with a wide variety of cut-to-order cheeses that shoppers can taste before purchasing. “We knew we wanted to do cheese,” said Smith, and they hired cheese monger Star Cornwall to do the purchasing and run the cheese counter. Cornwall was working at the Montage when Smith first met her. She also worked at Sapphire Pantry and currently offers classes at Laguna Culinary Arts. “She’s a fireball when it comes to cheese,” Smith said.

The Meat House inventory also includes wine and beer. Rather than by variety, wine selections are organized from light- to full-bodied to simplify the food-pairing process. While some of the other franchises boast a produce section, Smith and Hagopian decided against it due to their proximity to Grower’s Direct market that offers produce straight from the farm.

So far, the online foodie community has been impressed. One post at on Jan. 28 asked, “Has anyone else been to this place? I have been a few times and I love it!! Besides a ridiculous selection of meat they have a ton a great gourmet items.” This post was followed by several raves and no dissenters.

Even though neither previously worked in the food industry, Smith and Hagopian say overall opening the franchise has been a positive experience, despite the hassle to obtain various permits and a liquor license. Their lack of experience may give them an advantage in seeing the business as a consumer, Smith said. “It’s not complicated,” he said, simplifying the key ingredients to quality food at a fair price. “I’ve been eating food my whole life,” he added. “I know what tastes good.”

While both men have kept their day jobs – Smith works for DPR Construction in Newport Beach and Hagopian owns a small mortgage brokerage in South Laguna, they spend as much time as they can at the store, so that one or the other is in the shop six days a week and they both spend Saturdays there.

They are considering other possible locations in Orange County. “It’s our area of development,” said Hagopian, referring to their deal with the parent company.

And, as Smith said, “Someday the right property will show up in Laguna.”

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