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Where's the beef? Longtime West Side Market butcher strings together impressive sellout streak

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Posted at 6:12 PM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-19 19:22:33-04

CLEVELAND — Whether it was the Indians winning 22 games straight or the Browns losing 16 games straight, Cleveland has a penchant for long streaks. At the West Side Market, however, one vendor's streak is in a class all its own.

After 26 years in business at the venerated market, Jim's Meats has cemented itself as a destination that shoppers specifically seek out.

By offering the friendly service and freshly-cut beef and pork daily, owners Mark and Minnie Zarefoss have built a loyal following.

And both of them are working harder than ever.

"Today, if I sell everything, it will be 20 days straight of selling out," Minnie Zarefoss said.

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The sell-out streak is a first for the business. Never in 26 years has a streak gone on this long, even during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, when people turned to the West Side Market after grocery stores were overrun and certain products, especially beef, were hard to come by. In some respects, Zarefoss said, the pandemic has been a boon for some West Side Market vendors.

"The ones that are flourishing are the ones that have been here and people know them," Zarefoss said. "Wednesdays are not high volume days and neither are Mondays but I sold out on Monday as well. It's really exciting that people are wanting to eat fresh."

Around noon on Wednesday, the coolers at Jim's Meats were already starting to grow empty. The entire left side of the beef coolers had already been bought and sold. A lone ribeye, a couple of chuck roasts, and a stack of short ribs are all that remained.

The limited stock is proof enough of scarcity, a key tenant in basic economics: supply is finite but demand can be infinite.

"Two weeks ago, I showed the window [fully stocked with meat]," Zarefoss said. "One minute later, the entire window sold."

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In recent years, Zarefoss has made a concerted and highly intentional effort to expand the business' social media presence on both Facebook and Instagram. At least twice daily, Zarefoss will pull out her phone, start streaming a Facebook Live and interact with her customers while also showing what Jim's Meats has in stock that day. The live content has not only allowed her to stay in touch with her longtime customers but also find new ones.

"I have been self-promoting every single day. You can guarantee that if I am here and not on vacation, I will [record] my windows so you can see what meat we've cut fresh that day," Zarefoss said. "My husband, Mark, used to tell me, 'don't do Facebook.' I told him to be quiet. Guess what? It was the best thing I could have done."

Michael Goldberg, the executive director of Entrepreneurship at Case Western Reserve University, said an active, engaging social media presence has become expected of businesses. Those that find success on social media are those that create dynamic content, including short videos and live elements. While businesses can promote their pages through paid advertising, entrepreneurs like Zarefoss and Jim's Meats can also find success strictly through organic growth.

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"I think one thing that entrepreneurs need to recognize -- and I know this very well from my students in the classroom and my own children -- is the attention span is short. It's hard to get people's attention," Goldberg said. "Just to put things on social media just for the sake of putting things on social media is not a good use of time. Frankly, if its not dynamic, you're not going to get a lot of followers or customers buying your goods or service."

Zarefoss' string of sellouts comes as a consultant hired by the City of Cleveland continues to review the market's operations, potentially laying the foundation for what the market will be for decades to come.

She hasn't given it much thought, Zarefoss said. She's blocked out the noise and, instead, has focused on what she can control.

"I'm in a contest with nobody, just myself," Zarefoss said.