McIROY email@example.com_county.toronto.toronto_star 2005-01-03 published
The King of Danforth-Woodbine
Butcher knew customers' names, gave jobs to kids
Realtors touted shop as a plus in neighbourhood
By Catherine DUNPHY, Obituary Writer
For one week last November, the neighbourhood around Danforth and Woodbine Aves. was dipped in gloom.
Many people stood on the sidewalk outside Royal Beef -- a neighbourhood mecca since 1992 -- waiting for the passage of the funeral cortege from nearby St. Brigid's Church. Close to 2,000 more had gone to the church to say goodbye.
Paul ESTRELA, 46, their butcher and their buddy, had died.
They were both ESTRELA's customers and his Friends -- there was never any differentiating. A big, handsome guy with a boom box of a voice, he'd hail them by name from behind the counter at the back of his butcher shop.
"No lawyers today. We're not serving lawyers," ESTRELA would holler at Jay JOSEFO, a regular Saturday morning customer and a lawyer. There he'd be, grinning, framed by the stuffed animal heads on the wall behind him -- all mementoes from mentors, he'd say, insisting he never picked up a gun himself.
Once ESTRELA demanded to see a note from JOSEFO's wife before selling him rib steaks cut as thick as JOSEFO wanted. And so JOSEFO's wife Wendy wrote ESTRELA a note: "Dear Paul: Jay has my permission to have Jay-sized steaks."
"He had fun and you had such fun going there," JOSEFO said, recalling ESTRELA.
Customers came from all over the city to the shop ESTRELA ran with his wife Carmen. Others came every week from Collingwood, while some trekked to Toronto once a year from Buffalo. Most Saturdays, Royal Beef seemed like a crowded and very lively social club, with customers greeting each other in between kibitzing with Paul and catching up with Carmen.
Local real-estate agents often talked up Royal Beef as a great reason to buy a house in the area. ESTRELA was hailed in Toronto Life magazine, as well as in this newspaper, as a treasure -- one of the city's best butchers, an old-fashioned, savvy professional. He refused to sell meat that hadn't been aged 30 days, and once told a reporter he could cut meat four different ways: Italian, Canadian, German and English.
ESTRELA named his store after the Royal Winter Fair, where he won a butcher contest in 1982.
"He will be so missed," said Lucie JOHNSON, who first came into the store with her kids in strollers. "My kids are Royal Beef babies. That's what all his customers called our kids. Once you came here, you couldn't buy meat at a supermarket."
ESTRELA made a point of giving jobs to kids from the neighbourhood. "They would come here from school and tell Paul they wanted to work here, always because of Paul," said Carmen, who runs the shop's deli section.
For six years, Duncan McIROY and his brother walked by the store on their way to school. "Paul would be opening up and he'd toss me an orange," he recalled. McIROY started going into the store for sandwiches -- "I wasn't a big fan of the ones my mom made and it was $2 for the best sandwich you've ever seen" -- and they started talking.
One Halloween, ESTRELA pointed to a huge pumpkin at the front of the store and told McIROY he'd give him a job if he could figure out a way to take it home. McIROY ran home, grabbed his brother and a wagon, and the pair heaved and hauled it up and took it away. ESTRELA kept his part of the deal, hiring the 13-year-old McIROY six months later.
"My main job was to clean up, fetch him his cappuccinos and let him yell at me," McIROY, now 21, said about the man he calls his best friend. "If he had been as big as his voice, he'd be 8 feet tall."
ESTRELA was also 13 when he started working at the meat counter of Darrigos, a now-defunct Italian chain of supermarkets. He had just moved to Canada from Portugal with his parents and six sisters, and he learned not only to slaughter and skin animals but to speak Italian. That came in handy when he began courting a 16-year-old Carmen, whose Italian mother was a customer at the store. They married when she was 17 and he 19.
"My parents still held hands," said their daughter Bridgette, 22. She worked with her father in the shop on Sundays -- retail down time they spent talking and just "hanging out," she said. The ESTRELAs also have a son John, 26.
ESTRELA spent 11 years as a butcher at a Dominion grocery store until he opened his own place on Valentine's Day in 1984, on Woodmount Ave., around the corner from where Royal Beef was eventually established.
"There wasn't anyone who thought he would make it there, but Paul had the determination of a young bull, a warrior," said Gord DOUCETTE, a friend and fellow butcher. Until ESTRELA opened his own store, the two used to fish every Sunday morning on the Duffins Creek in Pickering, then grab bacon and eggs at Ted's Restaurant on Old Kingston Rd.
After ESTRELA opened his own place, DOUCETTE would come by every Monday morning for coffee and some shop talk. ESTRELA used to say DOUCETTE was the older brother he never had.
A year ago, ESTRELA was featured in the Star extolling the virtues of a new cut of steak, the tri-tip. "It's going to take off once people find out about it," he predicted at the time. As usual, he was right.
A month later, ESTRELA was diagnosed with cancer. He took three days off work, and startled customers wondered where he was. When word got out, offers of help poured in.
"People were saying, 'Anything you need, drives to hospital, anything,'" Bridgette said.
When ESTRELA told DOUCETTE, his friend promised to keep the business going. He closed down his own business and now runs the Royal Beef meat counter.
A little more than a week after ESTRELA's November 7 death, the lights came back on at Royal Beef.
"I couldn't stay away," Carmen said. "All my customers, we just needed to come together."
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