Basking In The Basque History Of Hottinger's Meat Market In Chino
The words "Hottinger's Family Meats" stretches above the doorway of a one-story, red-tile roofed building in an industrial corner of Chino near warehouses and railroad tracks. The business is one of the last reminders that ranches and dairies that once ruled this swath of the Inland Empire.
Founded in 1948 by Swiss immigrant Henry Hottinger, the intimate butcher shop has been owned by the same family for four generations.
"When we built this place, there wasn't anything here, it was wide open," says 79-year-old Ben Hottinger, Henry's youngest son. "My dad bought 12 acres but what we have left here is an acre. That's it."
Inside Hottinger Family Meats, it can feel like time has stopped. A long display case stocks cuts of beef, poultry, pork and marinated meats. Opposite the counter, a row of freezers groan with 30 types of sausages and game including rabbit, bison and elk. A small deli case to the right of the cash register carries lunch meats, homemade salads and European cheeses. A worn paper menu taped to the glass advertises carnitas on a French roll and roast beef with sharp cheddar, among other sandwich specials.
As much as it seems like it's been teleported from an era when people allegedly knew their butcher and their milkman by name, Hottinger's is no time capsule. For 200 years, generations of Basque, Dutch and Portuguese residents have shaped Chino — and all of their foodways converge at Hottinger's.
South Africans come for boerewors (a coiled sausage made with clove, coriander and allspice). Basques enjoy P'tit Basque cheese and lukinka (pork sausage spiced with garlic and red pepper). For the local Portuguese community, Hottinger's is their source for sweet linguiça. The last few Dutch families in the area favor Holland Gouda while Swedes flock to, of all things, potato sausage. Everyone comes for carne asada, Santa Maria tri-tip, short ribs and jalapeño cheddar bratwurst.
This culinary diversity wasn't part of some overarching design. "The only thing planned was to accommodate whoever came along," Ben says.
Over the last four decades, Hottinger's has transitioned from operating frozen food lockers for local farmers to custom meat processing and retail sales. Working with local ranchers and other customers, Hottinger's buys animal halves or quarters then breaks them down and packages them to their patrons' specifications.
"I've grown up with this place," says Jeff Cross, a regular who has patronized Hottinger's since he was nine and still comes for the Santa Maria tri-tip sandwich combo. "I would ride my bike here every week [as a kid] to get free scraps of meat for my dog."
While Hottinger's serves a diverse array of patrons, it may be most important to the area's remaining Basque residents.
"Ben helps facilitate our culture and how we celebrate our culture," says Candida Echeverria, president of the Chino Basque Club.
According to Echeverria, the majority of Chino's Basque community arrived as shepherds. In the mid-1800s, after the Gold Rush, the first wave of Basque immigrants showed up in Southern California, where boarding houses sprung up to house and feed them. Basque sheepherders were among the workers caring for 7,000 animals on the old Chino ranch in April 1892, reports the Chino Champion.
In the early 20th century, Basque immigrants started coming to Chino in large numbers. Although many had arrived as sheepherders, they soon expanded into include dairy farming, raising crops such as corn and potatoes and other trades.
Between 1930 and 1970, the Basque population contributed to Chino's growing dairy farming and sheepherding operations. What started as a concentration of small dairies with free-grazing cattle evolved into an agricultural powerhouse. By 1980, the region had become a world-class dairy center with more cows per acre and higher milk yields than anywhere else in the world. Today, Centro Basco, a restaurant founded in 1940, remains one of the few relics of the Euskaldun (Basque) settlement in Chino.
Bakersfield, almost 150 miles north, also has a strong Basque culture thanks to shepherds who arrived in the mid to late-1800s. As in Chino, that old school culture is dying out. In late April, Bakersfield's Noriega Hotel, famed for its family-style, multi-course meals and long communal tables, announced it would permanently close. Although COVID-19 dealt the final blow, the decision had been a long time coming, Rochelle Ladd, one of Noriega's owners, told the Bakersfield Californian.
Despite the dwindling number of Basque residents in the city, Echeverria says the volunteer-led Chino Basque Club preserves Basque traditions. Founded in 1968, the organization holds an inaugural picnic that draws approximately 1,000 people. In recent years, it included a parade that featured Aldudeko Klika, a 22-member band from France performing with local Basque klika bands and dance groups. Events usually begin with a mass and feature Pelota handball games. This September, the club hosted its first virtual picnic, livestreamed to keep people safe during the pandemic.
That's why places such as Hottinger's are so important. It institutionalized relations between the Basque club and the greater Chino community — and Ben Hottinger is one of the lynchpins.
"If we were to ever lose him it would be very challenging for us. Anyone who is in our inner circle of putting on our events and picnics knows that. He's been our guy since the club started, always supportive and involved — and, he's not even Basque," Echeverria says.
Ben, a towering figure with a head of snowy white hair and a voice that rings clear and deep, can be heard answering phone calls from the shop's front office. When asked why he decided to take over his father's business, back in 1967, he replies, "I grew up in it. I've been working here since the day it opened. My father's culture, like a lot of Europeans back then, kids worked. If they're able to, they help out." At some point, he started getting paid to work there and eventually, he took over.
Ben says he has worn every hat that comes with owning a butcher shop, from maintenance and electrical work to butchering and meat-cutting. "Places like this don't exist anymore and they're complicated," he says, referring to the institutional knowledge that's required to deal with different government agencies and processing regulations.
These days, Hottinger is thinking about retirement. He typically spends six day a week, taking calls and jumping in where he's needed at the shop. "I'm semi-retired," he says. "I spend quite a bit of time here but I'm working my way out of it."
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He has three children (two daughters and one son) and seven grandchildren, three of whom have worked at the butcher shop at different times in their lives. Before she had to stop due to her health, his wife managed the books for 15 years.
He doesn't have a fixed date for his official retirement — COVID has put it on hold — but whenever it happens, the business will, hopefully, remain in the family. He wants his 33-year-old grandson, Michael, to take over the shop.
"But if he doesn't, I won't hold it against him because it's his life, not mine. I'm just glad he's interested," Ben says.
Michael, sporting a camouflage Hottinger's snapback hat, can often be found behind the meat case at the store.
"I always knew I was going to work here," Michael says. He started in 2006 at age 19, cutting meat and he worked his way up to manager.
These days, in addition to handling day-to-day operations, Michael is working on growing Hottinger's social media presence, an effort that has already paid off with more online orders. He's also looking into accommodating requests for delivery and he hopes to make small cosmetic upgrades to the interior of the shop while maintaining its integrity and history.
Since March, he has been busier than ever. Hottinger's saw increased orders as people panicked at the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, the business has been operating at capacity and processing for retail clients and local farmers is backed up for months out.
"Ben has never forced this on me," Michael says. "If we have a rough day, he'll go, 'You still want it?' And I'm like, 'Hell, yeah, I still want it. You think this is it?' I want to leave this to my daughter one day and let her make her decision if she wants to keep it going."
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