Choice City’s 85-year-old butcher is leaving his mark.

By Laurel Thompson

Choice City Butcher & Deli has long been a favorite in the Fort Collins restaurant scene. Nestled behind Mugs Coffee Lounge and The Armstrong Hotel on West Olive Street, the quaint eatery has been serving up a wide array of hand-cut meats and tasty dishes for over 16 years—but that’s not the only thing keeping locals coming back for more.

The man behind the counter is just as famous as Choice City itself, with a smile that brightens up the room even behind a mask. You may recognize him as Ben (“Benny”) Romero, the 85-year-old butcher who has called Choice City home since opening day in 2004.

“He was the very first person I hired,” says Russ Robinson, who owns Choice City with his wife, Anyssa Robinson. “I was looking to open this hip hangout with all kinds of meats, sandwiches and other dishes, but I needed the right butcher to make it happen. At age 68, Benny stopped by and told me he wanted to come out of retirement to be my butcher. He was the exact person I was looking for and hiring him was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Watching him cut every type of meat imaginable with absolute precision, you’d think Benny had been a butcher all his life. In reality, he is a jack of all trades with deep Colorado roots.

Born in Livermore, Colo., in 1935, Benny had many passions as a child and was always looking for the next adventure, so when he was drafted into the army at age 17, he went willingly even though it meant leaving behind his neighbor and sweetheart, Percella Barela, who he would marry in 1956.

 

When he was discharged from the military in 1961, Benny was reunited with his loved ones and went back to work on the railroad, where he had started his career as a 16-year-old before serving in the military. In true Colorado fashion, that led Benny to a job mining tunnels near Idaho Springs and Granite during his early 20s. During that time, Benny became a father to four children: Ben, Manuel, Mary and Bart.

Ready for a change of scenery, Benny decided to explore jobs in the culinary arts in the late ’60s and early ’70s—he spent a handful of years delivering for Country Boy then went on to work for Steele’s Market, a family-owned grocery store that was a staple in Old Town Fort Collins until it closed in 2000. There, Benny learned all about different meats and fancied himself a butcher by the time he applied for a position behind the meat counter at King Soopers in 1982. After a few years, he finally decided to retire—but not for long.

 

Benny had heard that a new restaurant owner was looking for a butcher to run the show, and he couldn’t help but apply. “I love working with my hands and wanted to get back to work, so I decided to take a chance here,” Romero explains. “Cutting meat has always been very interesting to me, and I like the challenges every day brings.” Needless to say, he was hired on the spot and has spent the last 16 years transforming Choice City into the meat lover’s haven it is today.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without Benny,” says Robinson. “He can eyeball just about any cut down to the nearest ounce and he never needs our help. Plus, he’s an incredibly hard worker—he had his first heart attack during our first year in business, and when I visited him in the hospital, he just smiled at me and said, ‘I’ll be back at work tomorrow.’ He said the same thing when he had another heart attack 14 years later, but of course we made him stay home and rest both times.”

Aside from being a tireless achiever, Benny’s charming personality and lust for life have made him very well-loved in the community. “Everyone adores him here,” says Robinson. “We threw him a surprise party for his 85th birthday this year and so many people showed up for him: friends, family and even a handful of former servers who left us nearly a decade ago. It was a really fun way to get everyone together and show Benny how much we all care about him.”

Even the ghost of Choice City has taken a liking to Benny, who said he has witnessed moving shadows, slamming doors and other paranormal activity in the shop. “When I started, there was always this shadow watching me cut meat,” Romero says. “Whenever I touch the butcher block, something strange happens—sometimes the doors slam or pots and pans fall on the ground. I know he likes me though, because Russ changed the keypad combo one day and I didn’t know the new code, but the ghost let me right in.”

As of now, Benny doesn’t have any plans to retire. “I told Russ I’ll be the next ghost here,” he says with a chuckle. “So far I’ve been pretty healthy, and I’m happy to keep working as long as I can.”