How a Boy Grew Up to Realize His Shopkeeper Dream
By M Molloy Basso | Photos by Steve Thomasberger
Through his 17 long years in the corporate world, Jason Burnett counted a few accomplishments. Most notable was working his way up from middle management at Target to a store manager, responsible for 300 employees.
“Corporate life became less and less fulfilling,” he says. “I no longer felt a sense of pride in my work, but rather kind of trapped chasing corporate metrics and not having a personal connection to my team or to the customer.”
What Burnett dreamed of was a workplace like he remembered from his youth. He was 13 when his family moved to San Leandro, a few blocks away from Galvan’s Market, where Burnett recalls repeatedly asking owners Joe and Judy Galvan for a part-time job. They finally let the lad sweep and mop the linoleum floors, and by the time he was in high school, they gave the young man a chance to work behind the butcher and deli counter, where he continued throughout his college years at nearby CSU East Bay. Burnett says that Joe and Judy Galvan became like a second family.
One day in 2022, Burnett stopped in at Galvan’s to say “hi,” as he occasionally did, and he jokingly asked Joe Galvan when he was going to retire. Joe answered by offering to sell Jason the shop, and thus a little lighthearted banter turned into a life-changing business deal.
The Customer Versus the Sale
Burnett says that what he missed most throughout his years of climbing the corporate ladder was the daily contact with customers he remembered from Galvan’s and that ineffable sense of belonging to a close-knit community. While he previously managed hundreds of employees, he now works with a staff of six.
Longtime Galvan’s employee Patrick Trainer describes his own satisfaction: “Being a part of San Leandro history … working at a place that has been a cornerstone of the community for over 30 years. With Jason taking over, we’ve been able to honor the past while bringing in new ideas and approaches.”
Galvan’s workers also get a lot from knowing their customers. As patron Tom Sutter tells Trainer, “Sometimes I’ll just come in when I have no idea what to cook, and one of you is able to guide me in making a decision and creating a delicious meal.”
Customers frequently tag Galvan’s on Instagram—@galvansmarket—with photos of delicious meals they made following staff advice, and the butchers also tip off customers about what’s currently smoking on the smokers out back, as well as about availability of Dungeness crab at holiday time or other super-fresh seafood that’s just come in from local fisheries.
A Legacy Market
Three generations of loyal customers have followed this family business since its start in the 1960s, when Joe Mateo, Joe Galvan’s uncle, and his siblings opened their first butcher shop, F & B Market, in the DeCoto neighborhood of Union City. In the 1980s, Mateo went in with his nephew to lease the meat counter at Food King Market on Oakland’s E 14th Street (now International Boulevard), where Galvan’s Meats became renowned for having the longest meat counter in the East Bay. In 1993, Joe and Judy Galvan opened Galvan’s Market at the present location in San Leandro. Uncle Joe Mateo joined them to help out behind the counter.
Under Burnett, the store has enjoyed plenty of updates, but the layout still features the tidy meat case running the better part of the store with the fish display adjacent and deli opposite. Customers find dry-aged beef and cuts like beef brisket not always available elsewhere. On a busy day, the butchers grind beef multiple times and make cuts to order. To burnish the founders’ reputation for top-quality meats, Burnett has added more organic selections.
Galvan’s might be best known for its sausages, house-made from the family’s original recipes. Burnett says they typically offer six sausages, with favorites like pork with jalapeño, chicken with sun-dried tomato and basil, chicken with lime zest and tarragon, and chicken with green tomatillo sauce. The closely kept family recipe for their spicy classic Mexican-style chorizo goes back 6o years, and the Louisiana Hot Links—popularly known to its many fans as the “booty burner”—have delighted three generations of customers since the 1980s when Uncle Joe Mateo and Joe Galvan developed it.
A few times a week, an alluring aroma wafts out from the meat smokers behind the store. The smoked brisket, tri-tip, pastrami, ribs, turkey, or chicken might be used in the store’s deli sandwiches or be heading out for special orders. “On an average weekday, we sell upwards of 20 pounds of smoked meats, but on the weekend that number increases exponentially with special orders for sporting events and large family get-togethers,” says Burnett.
Hunters and farmers look to Galvan’s for a service that’s rare in the Bay Area. “The processing of wild game and farm animals is a form of butchery not necessarily being taught or handed down anymore,” Burnett says. “We have processed wild pigs, venison, and elk. Game animals that are brought in must have California tags, legally and for safety considerations, and farm-raised animals must have a paper of origin that lists the farm where the animal was raised.”
Looking to the future, Burnett weighs the advantage of a liquor license so they can suggest specific wines to pair with customers’ dinners. He also envisions cooking demos, classes, and collaborations with local businesses to expand what they already do informally with customers every day.
With the highs and lows of owning a small business, Burnett says he’s grateful to have come full circle in his career with a return to the legacy butcher shop where he learned from the bottom up and is now adding his own imprint. ♦
The Galvan’s team often shares this Argentinian-style red chimichurri recipe with customers. It can be used both as a marinade for cooking and as a condiment for the cooked meat. While typically paired with steak, chimichurri can also be used with roast beef, beef skewers, fish, or chicken.
Makes about ¾ cup
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 3–4 garlic cloves, finely chopped or minced
- 2 small red chiles (serrano or chile de árbol), deseeded and finely chopped.
- ¾ teaspoon oregano
- 1 level teaspoon coarse salt
- Black pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Allow to sit for 2 hours (or at least 10–15 minutes) to release the flavors into the oil. Store in refrigerator.
Galvan’s Market sits at 1275 MacArthur Boulevard (in the morning shadow of I-580) on the corner of Estudillo, about a mile from downtown San Leandro. 510.351.5707 | galvans.wordpress.com
San Leandro resident M Molloy Basso is a native San Franciscan and retired educator who has started or renovated many a school garden throughout the years. His paternal grandparents emigrated to San Francisco from Sicily, a background that informs his food and wine interests.
Steve Thomasberger is a photojournalist who currently focuses on the diverse people of Oakland and Berkeley. Steve retired after many years as an Oakland school principal, and he now devotes more time to practicing the art form that he loves.