Raising the steaks: Donnie Rains is building on his father’s foundation at Don’s Meat Shop in Chattanooga

Photography by Olivia Ross / Donnie Rains of Dons Meat Shop

Donnie Rains says he and his son, Will, are undergoing that rite of passage during which the younger man begins to surpass his sire.

"He's an artist," Rains, the owner/operator of Don's Meat Shop, says of his son. "On ribeyes and strip (steaks), he's better. But on fillets, I'm better. He's got a ways to go on fillets, but he exceeds me on the others."

Rains has now been on both sides of that father/son dynamic — he recalls being trained by his late father, Don, who launched the business at the corner of Middle Valley Road and Hixson Pike in 1982.

"My father was my best friend," he says, "the person who, if I said I needed something, would do it — no questions asked. I learned so much from him, aside from cutting meat.

"He instilled a work ethic in me at a very young age," he adds, "and he believed in consistency. If you've got a problem, you make it good. Do what it takes to satisfy the customer and move on."

Rains says he worked in his family's business through the 1980s, but adds that the shop fell on hard times in 1991. His dad had to sell his business assets, but came back in 1992 with locations in Hixson and East Ridge, though he had to close the latter.

"He downsized," Rains recalls. "He had five or six (employees) in the cutting room, but he eventually scaled down to where it was just me and my mom.

"I never totally left the business. I had a day job by then, but I worked (in the shop) every Sunday," he says.

Rains says he left that day job in 2013, when his dad got sick. The elder Rains was in and out of the hospital multiple times before passing in September 2014.

"If I hadn't come back," Rains says, "the business would have gone away."

Rains says that after his father's death, "we had to make some decisions." And one of those decisions was to set aside something his father taught him.

"He was the type of person who, when he found something that worked, he'd stick with it," he says. "He didn't look for a faster, better way. But I decided that if I can find a way to streamline, I'm doing it.

"He used to hand-write labels," he says. "I'm not doing that. I put in thermal scales that print the labels. I invested a little money in equipment that makes the process faster."

Rains says the business had operated for years in a couple of modular buildings near Hixson High School. Soon after his father's death, he says, he started working on buying the parcel at 6408 Hixson Pike, the market's current location.

"I wanted to continue to grow the business," he says. "My dad sold good stuff, but I'm selling better stuff. I've got a good working knowledge of the food-service industry — distributors, lots of contacts.

"And workmanship — we put more workmanship into our products. Take our filet, which is one of our top sellers — most stores leave on the side muscle, but we remove it. When our customer eats a filet, I want that to be the best experience possible.

"I charge more," he says, "but I put in more workmanship."

It's apparently working. Rains says the business was doing about $700,000 in annual sales when he took over, but "it didn't take long to get it over $1 million a year." This year, he says, the market will post sales of about $2.6 million.

"The big differences," he says, "are high-quality products, workmanship and focus on customer service. If they want something special and I can give it to them, I'll do it."