Things get busy this time of year at Duane's Custom Meats. Holidays mean lots of orders for fresh turkeys, double-smoked ham and seasoned...

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Things get busy this time of year at Duane’s Custom Meats.

Holidays mean lots of orders for fresh turkeys, double-smoked ham and seasoned prime rib. It’s hunting season, too, which means people are hauling in deer, elk — even bear. In the days before Christmas, customers may even line up outside the door.

During the holidays, when many other workers are relaxing, 15-hour days aren’t uncommon for butchers like Duane Young, owner of the Auburn butcher shop.

“You don’t want to turn anything down,” said Young, 44. “It’s the time of year we make money.”

Six years ago, Young took the plunge and started his own business. Many small businesses don’t make it through the first year. Young struggled, but he made it.

He built his Auburn business from scratch. Initially, he said, he put a $3,500 ad in the phone book, but not much came from it.

Now, though, most of his customers are regulars — some from as far away as California — and word-of-mouth is his most profitable advertisement.

“The first year, nobody trusts you,” Young said. “It’s a testing period. The first year, we cut three beef. Now it’s a couple hundred.”

Young figures he got into the business like many butchers do — through a family connection.

Growing up, Young worked with his grandfather in a Maple Valley butcher shop, then spent 15 years on commercial fishing boats.

Young runs a traditional butcher shop, but butchers can work in a variety of settings and pay can vary widely, depending on such things as location and experience.

The median pay across the nation for the 132,000 butchers and meatcutters was $25,500 and the range was roughly about $15,000 to $42,000 a year in 2002, according to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Butchers learn the job through formal and informal training programs.

Simple cutting operations may take only a few days to learn, while it may take up to two years to become a highly skilled butcher.

Young still fishes once in a while, but now he does more cutting than catching.

“We cut deer, elk, beef, bears and cougars,” Young said.

His shop also makes its own sausage, jerky, pepperoni and salami; stuffs chicken breasts; seasons beef; and smokes ham, bacon, salmon and even doggy bones in the shop’s smokehouse.

The meat case displays everything from gigantic rump roasts to vacuum-packed jerky.

In the cooler, deer and elk carcasses dangle from every hook.

Slabs of bacon hang in the smokehouse, which fills the shop with the smell of a good backyard barbecue.

A walk-in freezer is piled high with labeled baskets of cut game, wrapped first in plastic and then in butcher paper, so they’ll last longer in the freezer.

“We’re just a little shop, but it does quite a bit,” Young said.

In fact, the shop makes, smokes or cuts nearly everything it sells (except the knockwurst and hot dogs), buying its meat from local distributors and cutting it to each customer’s specifications.

That’s one thing that sets it apart from its competition — grocery chains, said meat-wrapper Theresa Titus, who met Young years ago when they both worked for his grandfather.

“We offer customization — and our personalities,” laughed Titus.

“Sometimes we have them all rolling in here.”

But hazards lurk, even in a lighthearted atmosphere. Young recently fell and broke his leg while lugging a deer carcass.

The same week, his smokehouse caught fire. His hand once got sliced by a knife.

“It’s not easy work, but it is rewarding,” said Titus. “The job you can do for the person — at the holidays, it makes you feel really good.”