For nearly 50 years Bud’s has offered custom meats and ranch slaughtering as a thriving agricultural enterprise in the North Bay’s Food Shed

By Tim Tesconi 

The holiday season is one of the busiest times of the year for Matt Gamba, the owner of Bud’s Custom Meats in Penngrove, but he loves every minute of the bustling activity. It’s during November and December that a steady stream of valued customers meander up the ranch’s long driveway off Petaluma Hill Road to pick up their turkeys, hams and prime rib for festive family dinners.

Everyone is in the holiday spirit and eager to celebrate the season with a trussed turkey or one of Gamba’s au jus infused prime ribs.  This year, Bud’s will process more than 1,000 holiday orders, keeping cash registers humming and meat saws buzzing.

“I love being a part of this community, greeting and serving people who want quality, locally sourced meats.  Our customers like to personally know their butcher and where their food comes from, it’s an honor they turn to Bud’s,” said Gamba, 63, who runs Bud’s Custom Meats with his wife Natalie. 

Some of the holiday customers have been coming to the ranch for the 50 years that Bud’s has operated as a country outpost for meats and custom ranch slaughtering. For many, it’s like a trip to grandpa’s farm for the smoked ham that will be the centerpiece of the holiday meal.  Getting there is half the fun. The pastures of beef cattle and the resident pet goats on the 50-acre Gamba ranch provide a pleasant alternative to crowded, over-chilled supermarkets.

Gamba took over Bud’s Meats in 1997 when his father Bud Gamba, the business’s namesake who started the company in 1975, retired, worn-out from a lifetime of hard work to build the business he loved. Bud Gamba had followed the path of ancestors in Italy who had been small -town butchers.

Matt Gamba, who had worked in construction for 15 years while working part-time doing the ranch slaughtering for his father, rolled up his sleeves to expand the business, modernizing buildings and developing new product lines and services.  When Gamba took the reins 30 years ago, it was just himself, one full time worker and a part time helper. Today there are 22 full-time employees, many of them professionally trained meat cutters.  In addition to the retail shop, which is open every day but Sunday, Bud’s Custom Meats are sold at farmers markets in Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

Despite the growth and upgrades, Bud’s Meas remains a traditional family-owned butcher offering custom butchery services and processing of both livestock and game animals. Bud’s also offers many exotic meats like buffalo, elk, wild boar, quail, and rabbits. 

Gamba takes the pursuit of excellence seriously in his life and business He oversees the production of more than 120 different hand made products like Bud’s signature cowboy jerky, Italian sausage and Spicy chipotle bacon sauce. Many are unique products found nowhere else and some are the original recipes developed by his father.

This is the go-to candy story for meat lovers and connoisseurs of cowboy cuisine like Santa Maria marinated trip tip and dry aged T-Bones. Gamba’s au jus infused prime ribs are a Christmas tradition for many of his customers. And it’s what he and his family prepare for their dinner on Christmas Eve, which also happens to be his daughter Jennifer’s birthday. Jennifer, 28, who was an outstanding member of the Sonoma County 4-H program, is completing her master’s degree in psychology at Boston College and works with troubled youth in the Boston area.

Gamba said quality and value are the benchmarks he strives for as a family butcher doing business in his native Sonoma County. He’s proud to say that last year his prime ribs were $1 a pound cheaper than the prices at Costco.

“My goal is putting value in everything we do. That’s something important to me in serving my customers, many who are friends and neighbors,” said Gamba, who attended Liberty School in Petaluma and graduated from Rancho Cotate High School.  “I was always taught to live within my means. I respect value and want that for my customers.”

Gamba said when he is awake at night his mind is always racing to develop a new product or plot the next improvement on the property, which continues to be a work in progress as it earns advanced certifications from the USDA.  As an approved facility, there is a USDA inspector at Bud’s every day making sure workers follow federal regulations and that the facility is in compliance for health and safety.

While Bud’s Meats feels like rustic Sonoma County, the USDA certified meat shop is all gleaming stainless steel, polished glass, and scrubbed floors.  Shoppers can see the meat being processed while browsing the cases of frozen meats, picking up custom orders or making their purchases. 

Gamba said there is nothing to hide, and he wants customers to see what’s going on in the processing area where workers break down carcasses and package meat.

“I have always believed in transparency in all I do here,’ said Gamba, who is a longtime member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.  He appreciates the work that Farm Bureau does to keep agriculture strong in Sonoma County and the help and support that Farm Bureau has provided his business. Farm Bureau wrote letters of support when Bud’s Custom Meats was in the process of expanding its facilities and seeking certification from the USDA. 

Natalie Gamba handles all the paperwork filed with the USDA for certification and works closely with administrators in the department’s district office in Alameda.

“The USDA has been really good to work with and super helpful in all we are doing here to be a USDA certified facility” said Natalie Gamba.

Meanwhile, Farm Bureau counts Bud’s Custom Meats among its valued members and one of the thriving agricultural enterprises serving the growing number of people who want their food fresh and local. 

“Bud’s Custom Meats is something of an institution in Sonoma County,” said Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “We hope that the expansion and USDA Certification at Bud’s Custom Meats will offer sustainability and longevity to the business, which is a direct benefit to our ranchers and the local community.”

Business at Bud’s has only grown since the pandemic when many people were fearful of eating what comes from the commercial meat pipeline and processed someplace far away. Then, too, the farm-to- table movement is strong and growing in the North Bay, the premiere food and wine region in California.

Gamba is active in the California Meat Processors Association, which meets once a year at colleges, like UC Davis, Chico State University and Cal Pol, San Luis Obispo, to offer meat science programs. Gamba said it’s a good way to network with other family-owned butchers while mentoring college students interested in careers in the meat industry. The association also holds quality competitions, with Bud’s Custom Meats often taking grand champion honors for its smoked hams and other products.

Gamba sees continued growth for his company in the years ahead as the food industry undergoes massive changes like the production of laboratory produced meat from animal stem cells. Billions of dollars are being invested to produce meat in laboratories instead of on farms and ranches. 

As the lines blur between farm raised and laboratory manufactured meats, Gamba believes discerning consumers who want their meat farm-raised will rely on trusted, authentic local butchers like Bud’s for their meat, particularly, the hams, turkeys, and prime ribs for special holiday meals.

Looking back, Gamba feels a sense of pride and accomplishment in what he has built over the last 30 years. He is proud to say that the improvements were made with the money the business generated and without incurring debt. That’s another lesson learned from his father Bud and mother Marcy.

Gamba has channeled his skills in construction and his love for the family butcher business to build a USDA meat facility that is sanitary and functional yet has a country feel and is genuinely Sonoma County.  A vintage flatbed truck that Gamba repurposed into a water feature offers a sense of whimsy and fun for customers who know Bud’s is a place like no other.

“For me it’s been the best of both worlds to be able to do the construction work here while being a family butcher,” said Gamba. “I feel everything has come full circle and it’s very satisfying.”