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Arnie’s is ready for a third summer at OC location

FOR A WHILE, Mark Madrigale wanted nothing to do with the family business.

“When I was in high school and college, I was dead set on going to school, doing my own thing and not coming back to it,” Mark said. In case there’s any question about how the story turns out, he’s standing behind the counter of the Ocean City location of Arnie’s Gourmet Butcher and Culinaria at 1212 Asbury, what he described as the first satellite location for the shop his father opened in Cherry Hill in 1985.

Mark had a couple of internships but continued to work at the family shop through college. When other students were looking forward to winter break, he was getting ready to head into the Christmas rush just after finals.

“There’s no such thing as time off in food service,” he said. “After I graduated three years ago, I started back working at the store while I was looking for jobs. I don’t know; I kind of had a change of heart,” Mark said. “We’ve always talked about opening here.”

The Asbury Avenue location opened up, he said, and it seemed like it was time. The new shop opened in July of 2019. They tried to get the doors open earlier in the season, he said, but construction delays and getting the needed permits set the timeline.

“We really only had about three months under out belts here. It was a great first year,” he said.

Now 25, Mark is the main employee at the shop, with some extra help on weekends. It remains his dad’s business, he made clear.

“That’s not going to stop me from putting as much work into it as if it was mine,” he said.

The meat business runs in the family, Mark said. His grandfather, Arnie Sr., learned the trade in Sicily before immigrating to the United States. Marked described him as a stubborn man who was dearly loved by his family.

“He had his own little shop. My dad helped him out there for a few years, but he was also working at Esposito’s in South Philly,” Mark said. He honed his craft at the Italian Market mainstay until he was ready to open his own business in Cherry Hill, with specialty meats, cheeses and prepared foods.

Most of the items at the Ocean City location can be found at the main store, but Mark said they are fine-tuned for the shore market. That includes a lot of items ready to put in the oven, and plenty of options for the barbecue.

“We do make life easy for you. A lot of the steaks that we have are seasoned up and ready to go on the grill,” he said. Those who don’t feel like cooking at all can find chicken parmesan and plenty of other options ready-made.

They also have pre-made frozen pastas and a variety of gourmet items, with an Italian flair. They even have seafood, including lobster tails and sushi-grade tuna.

“We do a marinated salmon with fresh dill and lemon juice that’s very popular,” he said.

While there are other options, Mark said meat is the core of the business, especially their specialty: Dry-aged prime beef, what he described as two steps above choice.

Arnie’s does its own aging, a time-consuming process that Mark called a labor of love. The finished piece has to be trimmed down after it ages for three or four weeks.

“What you’re left with underneath is just a beautiful, dry, super tender piece of meat with all the muscle enzymes broken down. That’s really going to affect the taste and the texture of it while it’s cooking. It’s going to make for a super, super tender piece of beef,” Mark said.

They have pork chops, chicken and a variety of homemade sausages as well. There are fewer roasts and long-cooking options, with the idea that no one is going to stay home in front of an oven on a beach day.

“If the customer wants it, they just have to give me one or two day’s notice. That’s no problem,” he said.

Mark said the Cherry Hill customers have been great, visiting the shop when they are visiting Ocean City and spreading the word among their friends. The store has customers coming in from neighboring shore towns as well, he said. The family has always had a close relationship with their customers, Mark said, but he believes the customer’s appreciation of the quality is what keeps them returning.

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There may be more convenient options, he said.

“I think when you find people who take a lot of pride in sourcing locally, and putting a lot of time and care into the quality of their product, they’re going to find a crowd that appreciates that,” he said. “People know what they want, and they want good, quality stuff.”

The first summer started to draw a following, but nothing prepared them for the summer of 2020. At one point in the late spring, with shortages of everything, they were not certain they could even open in Ocean City.

“When Covid hit in March, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” he said. “We’ve never been so busy or worked so hard in our entire lives. We weren’t even sure if we were going to be able to open here because things were so crazy back home.”

The business was busier the second year.

“In a year when Covid hurt a lot of small businesses – and I really do feel for them – people always have to eat,” he said. More people cooking at home also meant an added appreciation for the quality of ingredients, Mark said.

He said he’s learned a lot working in a family business, about meats, but also about dealing with customers, ordering and day-to-day operations, keeping the books and inventory, and everything else needed to keep good food ready on the shelves and refrigeration cases. He said he appreciates the support the business has already received.

“I have some great loyal customers,” he said.

Find this story and more in our July magazine.

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