OLIVER HAGEN

Hagen’s Organic Meats was established by Royce Hagen in 1999, as one of Victoria’s original organic butcheries. Drawing on almost two decades of organic food experience, Royce and his wife Susan strived to become Melbourne’s premier purveyor of fine meats. The desire had always been to provide a healthier, more environmentally friendly way of eating. In 2015, Royce Hagen passed away unexpectedly. The Hagen’s family re-grouped, and made a commitment to continue and grow the Hagen’s legacy. Helmed by son Oliver, Hagen’s is now one the
leading organic butchers in the country.

POI: The shop photographs beautifully. Do you like pink?

O: I’ve developed a bit of a love affair for the pastel pink now.

POI:  So maybe let’s start from the beginning. Who you are and what you do? 

O: That’s a very loaded question. And a very big one. Well Hagen’s has been in the organic produce industry for years. My father started an Australian herb supply business in the eighties that supplied most of the big restaurants in Melbourne. When he was diagnosed with diabetes he felt that he could do better, so he opened a fruit and vegetable store at the Prahran market. 

People kept hassling him about meat, so he thought “I’ve gotta’ give this a go.” In 1999 he opened a butcher shop with no butchery experience whatsoever. We ran both businesses for a while but then the meat was doing much better than the fruit and veg, so the fruit and veg store disappeared. After a while the Queen Victoria Market approached him to open a store there and just like that the business started to grow.

From day one it’s been about marrying quality and organic but sometimes it’s difficult to get those two things to work together. Some consumers expect that if it says ‘organic’ it is going to be better than anything they’ve ever eaten, but that’s not always the case. So in terms of Hagen’s approach, we work with local farmers and find a quality product, but it has to be sustainable as well. That’s where my fathers approach differed; he was of the view that if it was organic it must be certified through the right channels. I find myself leaning towards a more sustainable approach and dealing with people who are employing better practices than some of the certified organic suppliers. For me, it’s about finding those interesting people and those interesting farmers who are doing an amazing job and bringing that to consumers.

POI:  So what does organic within the meat industry mean?

O: So ‘certified organic’ has to be endorsed by a governing body that monitor certain things relating to animal husbandry and food products. To be certified there can’t be any chemicals on the land, no pesticides, no growth hormones, no antibiotics, and there are certain restrictions for how many animals you can have on a piece of land. The abattoir must be certified, the butcher must be certified, the transport must be certified. The supply chain from the farm to a consumers hands must be tracked. ‘Organic’ in a broader sense is a holistic way of approaching farming and the way you do things. It’s about caring for the land, caring for the animals, and not just constantly taking from the land. I constantly see this disconnect between constant consumption and knowledge of an items provenance. Farming European stock animals like cows and sheep is not natural for the Australia landscape and is leading to serious degradation of the environment. So wherever possible it’s important for us to use the animals to help cultivate the land.

POI: Who are you working with that is really practicing that? 

O: The Milking Yard Farm where we get our chicken and the McIvor Farm who supply us with pork are really doing an amazing job using a poly-farming method. Poly-farming allows you to rotate stock to help rejuvenate the land. The idea is that you don’t just have pigs, you run sheep behind them and other animals behind them. The pigs will turn and oxygenate the soil, then another animal behind them plays their role.

POI:  So it’s a cyclical process to help rejuvenate the land? 

O: Yeah exactly. Our beef farmer Neville was saying the other day that when his neighbours look at his land they ask “Why is yours so green and mine isn’t?” Years ago they were laughing at him, but now everyone is seeing the long term benefits of farming organically.

For me it’s about finding people like Nev, who are so passionate and driven by the idea of providing organic food for that one person out of a thousand who can’t eat conventional meat. People who are ill and need meat that is free from added hormones and chemicals. He does it for that one person.

POI:  How do you think the grey areas in the organics industry are effecting the consumer?

O: It confuses them. Australian Certified Organic is growing, and that’s great, we want them to get bigger. But when there’s so many certifying bodies it confuses a lot of people. How are they meant to know what the differences are?

POI:  Does it impact upon your profits or engagement? 

O: Not really. There’s five things a consumer looks for when buying meat; animal welfare? Is it local? How good does it taste? Is it chemical free? Is it certified organic? Certification is the bottom rung on the ladder. Taste is far more important. Sometimes you can buy certified organic stuff but it tastes like an old boot. Price is another factor that has always been perceived as higher for organic meat. This used to be true but now conventional meat is catching up, organic isn’t as expensive as it used to be.

POI:  So your prices are going down? Or are organic meats becoming more accessible? 

O: My prices are staying about the same, it’s the conventional meat that’s increasing in price. The cost of meat in Australia is going through the roof because of the export market, where people abroad are buying it in massive quantities and will pay any price for it. As a result the local market has to pay more.

POI:  So local farmers are suffering? 

O: No! Farmers are making money! It’s us, the butchers, that have to keep up. We have to pay the same prices as the international buyers but Australians still think it’s 1983 and want to pay nothing for their meat. The Australian cattle herd is at a twenty year low because of the drought and it’s going to take years for it to build back up. There’s a big cost to produce meat and only now are people actually starting to feel the real cost of it.

POI: Tell us about how you first engaged POI?

O: About five years ago, maybe more. I was sitting in my hairdresser Tina’s shop, across the road from the POI studio and she said “You should use these guys.” So I went home and had a look at the types of projects you’d done and what you were about. I decided that if I ever did another project that I would ask POI to work with us. Similar to what we do with our meat you guys have a holistic approach to design. It’s about every aspect of the project and carrying a brand across the line. I needed that to help us move forward. We’d used other designers in the past and I felt like they didn’t really understand what we are about. It was as if we were using all of these different people who weren’t talking to each other or understanding where things were going. We were an established store but if it was a new business entirely you need to know that you have a team around you.

POI: It’s also about helping the client recognise an opportunity that they might not have recognised. I think that’s the special thing about building a relationship with clients. We have a vested interest in their business. 

O: And that’s what you want! Someone who actually gives a shit. (Laughs) 

POI:  It’s a family business now, your sister is heavily involved. 

O: Yep, Ruby’s always been involved. She’s awesome and I don’t think I could be doing it without her. She’s picking up all those little details I can’t get to. It’s nice that she and my mum are part of the business, it’s what my father would have wanted. You can’t do everything by yourself and it’s important to have family around.

POI:  Did you do a butchers apprenticeship? 

O: No, I’ve just been working hands-on in the shop since I was thirteen. I studied biomedical science at university for a few years and then moved into a commerce degree part time while I was running the butcher shop. I’ve now been running it full time since I was about twenty one.

POI:  You’ve got some interesting characters working for you, like Tiny? 

O: Oh yeah, Tim. Six foot three. Tiny Tim. He jumped on-board and came from Queensland after I advertised the opening of our Bentleigh store. I advertised nationally and he and his family moved down to Victoria. Tiny is really personable with our customers and gives them tips on how to cook and store. His wife and his son work for us as well. Again, like our suppliers, it’s family working with families.

POI:  Do you run an apprenticeship program? 

O: Yeah we’ve got a couple of apprentices and we’re trying to get more. Unfortunately there’s not many butchers out there. 

POI:  Why do you think that is? 

O: Who the hell wants to get up for work at four o’clock in the morning and work for twelve hours in the freezing cold. (Laughs) A lot of shops get apprentices and use them for poor jobs and don’t teach them. The apprentice gets run into the ground, turned off butchering and leaves to find another trade. You’ve also got the two major supermarkets who have butchers but they don’t teach them anything either. They don’t know how to bone a body of beef, they don’t know how to break a lamb, they think meat comes in a box. They open the box and they cut it. That whole side of butchering is disappearing so we’re losing all these people from an industry that is one of the oldest trades in the world. It’s a dying art because people don’t care anymore. What we, and a handful of other good butchers try to do, is provide that experience and knowledge of the product, its provenance and what to do with it.  There’s a lot of negativity around being a butcher by trade, but what people don’t realise is that if you’re a butcher you can work anywhere in the world. The longest a butcher would be out of a job is two hours.

POI:  Cows look the same in all countries. 

O: They do, but it’s also because there are just not enough butchers in the world. All you need are your knives and that’s it. I think it’s a trade that in the coming years will start to garner a bit more respect.

POI:  Does the understanding and valuing of the butcher’s role come through at a consumer level?

O: Most people don’t value the butcher’s role. I often have customers buying a whole lamb and saying “I’ll pay this much for the whole lamb but can you cut it up for me?” My response is “Sure, but you’ll have to pay extra.” Shocked they say “What do you mean, I bought the whole lamb?” It would be like me going up to a builder after buying the wood and saying “Can you just knock it together for me?” It totally disrespects the skill of the tradesperson. Slowly people are coming around and appreciating the skill of the butcher, especially our customers. When they shop with people like Tiny or Dave in our Prahran Market store I have people coming back asking specifically for them. Amazing butchers encourage people to realise what’s involved and they start to recognise there’s a vast difference between a ‘butcher’ and a ‘really good butcher’. 

POI:  Do Australians eat too much meat? 

O: Definitely. Way too much meat. I’m trying to cut my meat down. Meat should be a three to four times a week type situation, not an every single day situation. In Australia we buy our meat and build our meal around it. Meat has always been so readily available to us. It’s been so cheap and so good for so long. I went to a pub the other day and every single item on the menu had meat in it. Every single item! There wasn’t even a vegetarian option.

POI:  How do you feel about other butchers putting their product into supermarkets?

O: Good on them. But I don’t think it’s a sustainable model and I don’t think it’s fair on the suppliers. They don’t treat their product, the animals, well. And it’s not just meat, it’s everything. They don’t care, they force prices down and pay farmers lower prices, which only effects us as Australians because then the farmers get to a point where they can’t afford to do it anymore. We’ll be forced to import product rather than produce it locally. It’s not sustainable. I know it’s convenient to duck down to the supermarket and pick up what you need, but people just need to be a bit more organised. Go to a market, or even just to the local shopping strip. Go to your butcher, whether it’s us or someone else. Even a conventional butcher can’t afford to throw things out. Go to someone who who is giving it a crack.

POI:  Do you think the supermarket model will continue or will it break? 

O: Oh it’s got to break. They’ll start to implode like they are overseas. They drive the prices down so much they eventually have to close. That’s when people start to realise. Instead, head down to the market or the local shops and you’ll learn about the food and where it comes from, it’s so much better than picking it off a shelf.

POI:  As a consumer who eats a conventional diet, how do I get into organics? How do I get into sustainable and thoughtful consuming? 

O: Little bit by little bit. Don’t think you have to do everything at once. It’s an option, just pick the better option. If something is made in Australia, think “Ok maybe I’ll go for that this time.” Or if it’s detergent buy the Earth brand. With meat, you don’t have to go straight from supermarkets to an organic butcher. Try a local butcher first. It’s about making small changes. Do your research as well. Find out where the product is from and get to know the people you’re buying it from. Have a chat. Ask them about it, people are so willing to give you information, as much as they can. They want to tell you about their product, especially if they care about it. 

Photography by Ben Clement