EAST HAMPTON, Conn. -- A lot of small businesses say "we're like family here," but at Cichowski's Custom Cuts, it truly is relationships, not money, that bring people together to slice fat away from muscle, to saw through the spine of a suspended deer carcass and to slice chops.
On a cold day during rifle hunting season, four men and a woman were working in the unheated 20- by 24-foot shed at the end of the long drive on Paul Cichowski's 97-acre property.
They were Cichowski's nephew, two friends who were "paid" by being able to buy their guns and other hunting equipment at wholesale prices, his daughter, Erica, and his son-in-law, Shawn Sharpe. Cichowski is also a licensed gun dealer.
Erica has helped her father process deer for 30 years.
"Since I was 4," she said with a laugh. "I don't remember not doing it."
Hunters drop off a deer within hours of shooting it, and on this day, four deer lay on a table in a small shelter next to the shed.
"We skin the deer, power wash up, put 'em in the cooler," Cichowski said. "We like to leave them in there three days. Stiffens up the meat, makes it nicer to cut."
How much meat can be eaten from a deer depends on where it was hit by a bullet or arrow, but Cichowski said a doe he shot in the head, which weighed 102 pounds after her entrails were removed during field dressing, yielded 37 pounds of meat.
A typical customer receives that much meat, which comes to less than half the price of hamburger, and while a lot of the venison is ground, there are also steaks and chops.
The typical bill at Cichowski Custom Cuts is $75 to $80, for butchering a doe between 85 and 90 pounds. Bucks, which typically weigh at least 125 pounds, cost closer to $100, or more if it's a bigger animal.
Cichowski, 62, is a retired Connecticut Light and Power lineman, and the income butchering brings in was never more than a nice little supplement. When his kids were younger, it helped pay for private high school tuition. These days he uses it to help pay for a Florida trip or a hunting trip to Alaska.
Cichowski, his family and friends butcher 300 to 400 deer a year, a few other game animals, and maybe 30 pigs and a dozen cows a year.
In Connecticut, deer hunting stretches from the middle of September to the end of January, broken into bow-hunting, rifle-hunting and muzzle-loading segments. In rifle-hunting season, the busiest time, Cichowski and his daughter and son-in-law work seven days a week for four weeks, for five to six hours most days and eight hours on Sundays. During bow-hunting and muzzle-loading seasons, they put in about three hours a day. With seven helpers, the crew can process 10 deer an hour.
"We probably clear about $4,000 a year we split" three ways, Cichowski said.
Every deer that comes through his shop will have about a pound to a pound and a half set aside for donation; it's one of his rules. Some hunters donate everything but the animal's backstrap and loins.
If a hunter donates an entire deer, either to an individual or to a charity, Cichowski doesn't charge for the butchering service. Last year, the donations -- including whole deer and meat donated by the pound -- added up to nearly 1,500 pounds. The meat was distributed in Moodus, Colchester, Meriden and to food banks that called.
Cichowski also doesn't charge members of the military. His son-in-law Shawn is in the Navy, stationed at the Groton submarine base. He and Erica sometimes bring meat down to the base. "They don't get paid a lot," Cichowski said.
He estimated he butchers about 30 to 40 deer for free each year.
Cichowski said he didn't think the weak economy had persuaded more hunters to do their own butchering, but he wondered whether high gas prices have kept some customers from the Enfield area from coming down.
Shawn pointed to the blood-coated counter, and asked: "You want that on your kitchen table? Neither do most wives. We've had several deer come in half processed because the wife came home early."
Cichowski and his wife, Patricia, live in a log cabin with Erica, Shawn and their three young children, and they eat venison they've hunted three to four times a week. They also eat pork from pigs they raised on the property, and fish he caught.
"The only thing we buy is chicken," Cichowski said.
Shawn cracked, "The last time we ate beef, I dressed up. I thought somebody died."
Cichowski brushed off the question whether he doesn't get tired of eating venison. "That's like getting tired of eating ice cream!"
He also doesn't get tired of the work, which he's done in one fashion or another since 1975.
"I have a good time. They're my kind of people. I don't know how many kids I got calling me uncle," he said.
Len Iorio, 59, a bowhunter from East Hampton, said Cichowski has a passion for a job well-done.
"I started hunting eight or nine years ago. I went to him as a total greenhorn and he has taught me so much. He's a big burly guy, but he's a gentle guy," Iorio said. "He's taught me how to do a better job in field dressing my game. He's answered a zillion questions."
Cichowski refused to entertain the thought of retirement. "I'm not going to give it up," he said. "I'll never stop doing it."
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