Thursday, April 8, 2004

Mel Inman’s customers wait like concert-goers as the maestro of poultry strides into the Eastern Market in Southeast, wraps himself in a white apron and begins with the soothing patter that precedes each sale.

He chats up the customers, most of whom are regulars, asking about family members, offering opinions on the weather and the poultry industry and any other topic that presents itself.

All the while, Mr. Inman, the 52-year-old owner and head butcher of Market Poultry, is looking ahead to the heavier crowds expected to pass by his poultry counter in the enclosed market today and tomorrow as customers get last-minute Easter orders.

On this day, after dealing with the first crush of business, Mr. Inman talks with his son and co-worker, Mel Jr., about orders that have come in and how much the business has in stock for the rest of the week.

Mr. Inman’s son brings him up to speed on the current orders and then Mr. Inman is in his element; slicing up and de-boning birds for consumption, weighing orders and waiting on customers.

He started his stand in the market in 1976 after working for two years at the same poultry stand under another owner, Eleman Queen.

Mr. Inman had studied to be an architect but chose running a business instead because “I like not just what I’m selling but the people I’m selling it to here,” he says.

He talks with four employees who are de-boning chickens or preparing requested cuts of meat like turkey steak cubes, boneless leg roasts or turkey chops.

Boneless chicken breasts are the most popular order, but Mr. Inman says he gets frequent calls for specialized poultry cuts.

Poultry Market sells on average 10,000 pounds of meat each week, with most of the chicken coming from Allen Family Foods Inc., a Seaford, Del., chicken-processing company. Mr. Inman also buys an organically grown products from Eberly Poultry Inc., a Stevens, Pa., poultry and bird company.

In addition to the staples of chicken, turkey and duck, Mr. Inman also sells quail, pheasant, squab, elk, wild boar, buffalo, turtle and even alligator meat.

“You’d be surprised, but we get enough orders for this to keep it in stock,” he says pointing to a upright freezer that holds varied cuts of meat.

Besides being a salesman and butcher, Mr. Inman is an amateur psychologist and business consultant at times.

He cracks jokes with people waiting in line, asks other market workers passing by about business decisions and gives a sympathetic nod while listening to a middle-aged woman inform him that her son recently died.

“That’s the tragic thing about this is that you hear this kind of bad news a lot,” Mr. Inman says after the woman leaves. “But on the upside, you also hear about positive things like news about neighbors’ children having their own families.”

Peggie Darden keeps coming from across town to the poultry shop regularly despite living in Silver Spring. She buys a full, $25 capon, or neutered rooster, for the holiday weekend. The 70-year-old customer says she grew up near the market and has been coming since Mr. Inman’s shop opened.

“The poultry is really wonderful and Mel’s a good businessman,” Mrs. Darden says.

Mr. Inman also does damage control, especially after a mild outbreak of avian influenza was found in a Delaware poultry farm in February. For the next few weeks after reports of the bird flu arising in Maryland, Delaware and Texas, Mr. Inman says he was inundated with people making sure their chicken was healthy to eat.

“They just needed me to say it was OK because they know I care more about the consistency than anything else. In fact, I prefer smaller birds that have better meat on them,” he says.

The current price for boneless chicken is 30 to 40 cents per pound higher than the usual price, Mr. Inman says, because of the bird flu scare, mad cow disease scare and popularity of low-carb diets that use egg products.

Boneless chicken breast at the shop is priced at $3.19 per pound.

While the price has gone up, Mr. Inman says his steady stream of customers has not subsided. “Chicken is still relatively inexpensive and it’s a main component of the American diet nowadays,” he says.

Mr. Inman plans to run his business for at least 10 more years before retiring. He says he has stayed at the market because of the community.

“This market is so quaint, it’s the closest thing you can get to a Main Street on Capitol Hill,” he says behind the counter.

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