YAKIMA, Wash. — When Fred Bucheli got into the butchering business, he wrote a bad check to buy his first half of beef.

After butchering the beef, he sold it to his then-wife — who ran a cafeteria in a Sears store in Yakima — and rushed to the bank to make a deposit to avoid bouncing the check.

“That’s the way I started business,” Bucheli says with a sharp Swiss accent.

That was 46 years ago.

Originally from Switzerland, Bucheli is slim and stands about 5-foot-8. He runs his butcher shop by himself, loading meat into freezers by hand and lifting beef onto tables to butcher. Coy about his exact age, he would only say he’s in his 80s.

Despite large slaughterhouses and meat packers forcing many custom meat cutters out of business over the years, Bucheli has managed to keep his small shop going, tucked behind Yakima Cinema on North 16th Avenue.

At his shop — Matterhorn Meats & Sausage — he custom cuts beef and pork, smokes ham and turkeys and makes sausages.

A meat counter filled with cold cuts and sausages lines a wall in the front of his shop. Adjacent is a counter with an old cash register. Behind the meat counter is a small office cluttered with newspapers, magazines and files filled with business records. At the rear is a meat cutting room, a closet that serves as a spice room, a walk-in freezer, a meat curing room and a smoking room.

“I come a long way,” Bucheli says from behind his shop’s counter one recent morning. “And I started with nothing.”

In a cooler, 40 beef caracasses waiting to be butchered hang from meat hooks, and turkeys headed for the smoker are stacked along one wall.

“They go out Thanksgiving morning,” he says of the turkeys. Just across the small hallway is a smoking room, where the smell of spice and meat emit from one of two large commercial smokers.

“This smokehouse I bought in 1966,” he says proudly, tapping on the door.

Bucheli walks into his office and pulls out a sheet of paper with a hand-written inventory on turkey and ham sales over the past several years.

He points to 1983, when he sold 153 hams.

“Last year I smoke 80 turkeys for Thanksgiving, and I had three left,” he said.

Recalling his humble beginnings, he displays his first business license from March 1966 and an invoice from that same year for his first pieces of equipment, including a cooking vat and a smokehouse for $2,460.63.

Clad in a white apron and ball cap, he flashes a boyish grin and says he paid the debt in two years even though he was given a three-year payment plan.

“That was the beginning, and I had no loan,” he said. “That’s even lots of money today.”

Bucheli’s butchering endeavours began at age 16 in his homeland of Switzerland, where he served a three-year apprenticeship.

After working as a butcher for a few years, he decided he wanted to travel, and headed for Canada, where he spent 10 years working different jobs. He once worked as a cook in a restaurant just to be able to eat. Finally, a job opened up for a hotel butcher.

In 1962, he was lured to Seattle by the World’s Fair, and the Olympic Hotel sponsored him.

“The World’s Fair was a flop,” he says, explaining that he wasn’t able to find work. A friend from Yakima told him about a job at the former Chinook Hotel, now the Chinook Tower, and he took it. After working there for more than two years, he started his butcher shop in a small building he leased for $100 a month on North Fourth Street.

“It was an empty store,” he says. “Then I bought the equipment.”

Bucheli started by selling lunchmeat and homemade smoked sausage. Business was slow at first.

“It was kind of slow going. No one knew me, and I had a funny accent.”

But sales began to improve once customers learned of the different sausages he had to offer.

“They could not believe that a person could do these things. I outgrew the place.”

Then in 1973, he purchased the land on North 16th Avenue, and built his shop two years later after finally securing a loan.

“And everyone said I was nuts,” he recalls. “I already had a mortgage that was $700 a month.”

He’s seen a lot change since being in business. He saw the Wholesome Meat Act enacted in 1967, which requires states to have inspection programs equal to that of the federal government.

He has also watched small farmers disappear, and large slaughterhouses and meat packers drive out independent custom butchers.

But as of late, Bucheli says he’s seen a resurgence in small farmers bringing in their own beef.

“Because of the food prices,” he says. “They think it’s cheaper (to raise their own animals), but it’s not cheaper.”

He says the cost of raising animals is outpacing the price of food.

These days he spends about 10 hours a day running his shop, far less than the hours he use to work when he butchered wild game during hunting season.

“I have worked up to 22 hours a day, rest two hours and I’m right back,” he says. “I don’t do these things anymore.”

But hard work doesn’t bother him. “I like the challenge. It’s a life. It’s a living.”

Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or pferolito@yakimaherald.com.