Fostering connections between consumers and independent beef farmers is at the heart of Seattle based start-up Crowd Cow’s creative business model. John Wilkes reports.
Crowd Cow is transforming the way beef is marketed and sold in the US.
Its website details breeds, production and finishing, and customers can buy mostly pasture raised, growth promoter-free beef through an innovative online process.
The company was founded in 2015 by tech entrepreneurs Joe Heitzeberg and Ethan Lowry.
Mr Heitzeberg says: “We came at it as beef and steak lovers and internet business people. We wanted to know where meat comes from and support farmers doing something good.
“Our customers have access to a variety of cattle finished under different systems with more transparency and convenience than anywhere else.”
Crowd Cow differs from other internet beef distribution through its online retail experience. Beef from individual cattle is crowdfunded on its website. After 85 per cent of cuts are claimed by consumers, beef from that animal is dispatched to the customer’s door.
Mr Heitzeberg says: ““We wanted to move away from the ‘mystery meats idea’ in grocery stores, where often no one is able to tell you anything about it. Fast forward two years and we are shipping all over the country.”
To accomplish this, Crowd Cow personalises the buying experience. The mission is to familiarise the consumer with the producer, their story, brand and values. Crowd Cow oversees everything else – marketing, slaughter and shipment.
The availability of a wide range of cuts is updated in real time on the website as consumers ‘buy in’ to the featured animal. Mr Heitzeberg says: “When the majority of primary cuts have been claimed the cow ‘tips’ and a consumer literally becomes a ‘steak holder’.”
There is so much demand it takes just one day for each animal to ‘tip’.
The postcode of the consumer determines the location of the farm where cattle are available. This allows multiple ‘events’ to feature across the US simultaneously.
Small independent producers, like Paul Uhlenkott of Cottonwood Ranch, Virginia, are attracted to Crowd Cow.
Mr Uhlenkott has 22 Angus suckler cows with all calves finished on-farm. An additional 50 feeder cattle were purchased from sources reflective of Cottonwood’s no-growth promoter hormone policy. In 2017, 120 cattle are expected to be taken to slaughter. Cattle graze outdoor year-round on 31 hectares (77 acres) of permanent pasture. Some 41ha (101 acres) of grassland is rented.
Though not organic, no chemicals or fertiliser is used at either location. Brewers grains from a local facility are fed each day to the finishing group and intake is around 9kg/day,
Previously Cottonwood Ranch beef was mainly sold through home delivery, but Mr Uhlnekott wants to use Crowd Cow to market most of his cattle this year. He says: “When they contacted me I was sceptical. But they have delivered and done everything they said they would in the time we have worked together.”
Crowd Cow staff visited Cottonwood on several occasions and Mr Uhlenkott provided a written background statement on management and production. He says: “They want to meet and get to know people they will be doing business with. I find this very refreshing.”
His enthusiasm stems from a desire to keep Cottonwood Ranch a family enterprise with no outside labour. “To achieve this there is no way I could grow my business, keep things scaleable and undertake all the associated tasks, particularly marketing.”
Each online sale is planned three months in advance and referred to as an event. Mr Uhlenkott explained this is necessary to ensure timely slaughter of cattle because small US processors are incredibly busy. He says: “Nowadays finding local slaughter premises able to take increasing volume is an issue. If you called my processor today, you would not be able to get animals in there for a month.”
Gore’s Meats, Edinburgh, Virginia, is a USDA licensed facility 35 minutes away from Cottonwood where four cattle are slaughtered every two weeks for Crowd Cow. Steers typically yield a 365kg carcass, heifers weigh in at 300kg. Primal cuts are transported to Crowd Cow’s East Coast Pennsylvania processor where beef is dry aged for 14 days before a variety of individual cuts are extracted. According to Mr Heitzeberg: “People can pick and choose from a wide range and down to the last ounce.”
Beef is then dispatched in boxes with company logo and packed in dry ice with the farmer’s contact details. Mr Uhlenkott enjoys feedback from customers and questions about the farm, cattle and even ideas for cooking beef.
Of importance to Crowd Cow’s business model is whole carcass utilisation. Mr Heitzberg says: “The common dilemma for a small producer has been whether they have enough people locally to sell out all the cuts all the time or do they just end up in the freezer?”
Significant online exposure afforded each animal during an ‘event’ ensures a buyer for every part. Crowd Cow has tapped into customers looking for less known cuts often hard to source in a typical supermarket. This includes tongue, kidney, heart, liver, oxtail, shank, top and bottom round.
Opportunity for growth with other protein such as lamb and pork is on the horizon. In 2016 turkey was featured with success. There is also interest in premium A5 wagyu beef from one of Japan’s most respected beef producers now available through Crowd Cow.