March 2020 was the month Trish Tetz, of Tetz Cattle, a fourth generation beef and grain farm located near Three Hills, AB, was set to launch her new Craft Beef Company, offering curated boxes of meat delivered straight to the consumer’s door. She had no idea the timing of their opening would coincide with a world-wide pandemic, changing how people purchased their food.
At the beginning of 2020, Matt and Addy Bolduc of Cudlobe Angus West had a goal to market 12 head of cattle as part of their new branded-beef program. They hit that goal in three months, ultimately processing nearly 40 head to sell direct to the consumer at the Lethbridge Farmer’s Market.
Brisket Case, a family-based business in Nanton, AB, was created in 2018, selling food products for team fundraising, as well as a grocery service for high-quality meat and produce. In March 2020, owner Geoff Murray realized that his small, upstart business was about to get wild, as consumers flocked to the internet to buy groceries. To help both meet and realize the demand, he expanded his business to retail space at a store in their town called The Hive.
With COVID-19 keeping people in their homes and with fewer options in treating themselves, many looked to cooking the perfect meal at home. Consumers were willing to spend a little more, and they wanted the convenience of doorstep delivery. Consumers also wanted to support their local community and purchase products that made them feel happy to cook and prepare for their families, as they faced another day inside their house.
Ranchers and consumers have long been in a direct relationship selling sides and quarters off-farm. Where the change is being seen is through the online and retail spaces devoted to selling ranch-branded cuts.
“Pre-COVID, this trend of buying direct from farm was there, but slow-growing. Everyone knew a farmer who would sell a half or a quarter; that was already there,” says Tetz. “We feel like the customer wants to go to one place and source cuts from a bunch of different local farms and have it all shipped in one box to the door.”
Tetz says that buying from local producers is something that Europe has been doing for years, and it was a trend she looked at when starting Craft Beef Co.
The company routinely shipped about 100 boxes a month since opening. Recently, they’ve seen their sales quadruple since receiving media attention.
“People are eating at home more often and they’re rediscovering traditional eating and cooking. We are seeing a resurgence of homegrown culinary skills and exploration,” says Ron Glaser, Vice President Corporate Affairs, Canada Beef. “We are seeing more meal-box delivery where consumers create a meal from scratch, using fresh ingredients.”
Tetz says that she anticipated her customer being female and 25 to 50 years of age; someone savvy with the internet and ordering food online. What surprised her was the volume of senior citizens ordering. She also says that her Wagyu products are mostly purchased by men.
Glaser says projected total beef consumption was up 3.3% in 2020. Per capita consumption was up 1.9% and retail demand up 6.8%; the second highest it’s been since the 1990s.
“This is very much due to COVID and the change in eating habits,” Glaser adds. “Our website usage is up significantly with people looking for recipes, culinary advice and how-to videos on cooking.”
Geoff Murray of Brisket Case agrees. “If there is a positive to COVID, it was that people ramped up their support of small businesses; they became more aware and were making more meals at home.”
As Murray’s business grew, he began looking at sourcing a larger variety of products from local producers. He partnered with farmers and ranchers who were able to provide cuts that sold well and were consistently high-quality.
“The trend that I see is new butcher shops popping back up,” adds Murray. “I think we are going back to those days. It’s just like micro-breweries. I think we are going to see something similar – like micro-beef.”
Addy Bolduc and her family are in the purebred Angus business near Stavely, AB. In 2020, she decided to invest in selling through the Lethbridge Farmer’s Market. Each week, she would pack up a refrigerated trailer and spend the day visiting with customers about their product, their ranch, and their cattle. It allowed her to meet new people and talk to them about how they enjoyed a certain cut they purchased the week before.
“It’s definitely more labour intensive taking two head to the butcher each week. I end up doing meat labelling in the night while the kids are sleeping. Does it fit into our life? Is it more work? Heck yes,” says Bolduc. “But I love it and I love interacting with new people and giving them a really good piece of beef.”
Bolduc does have advice for anyone looking at selling direct to the consumer.
“One of the most important things for doing this is finding a good butcher. If you’re not getting your carcass cut optimally, you’re leaving money on the table. That butcher needs to be as invested as you into cutting high-end cuts of meat,” said Bolduc. “It’s not hard to find one to cut striploin and ribeye, but they also need to be able to cut skirt steaks, picanhas, and tomahawks. They need to have your back.”
Clint Buhler of Buhler Beef sells Longhorn cuts through the Brisket Case. A large portion of his consumers are in the fitness world; athletes looking for a lean protein. But, he wanted to have a local presence and supply his community as well. He processed 50 head in 2020, selling direct to the consumer.
“This is something that I’ve dreamed of doing my entire life, and I am living it,” says Buhler, a Calgary police officer who calls Nanton home. “It’s awesome having people work together, instead of against each other. I want to build steady relationships with clients that last a long time.”
With consumers looking at modern ways to purchase food that is convenient, local and fresh, beef producers are getting creative at how they close the gap between their pasture and a kitchen table. Consumers are craving restaurant-level experiences with their food but are either unable or unwilling to dine out. They’ve turned to the internet to order food boxes with fresh ingredients to be cooked at home or are buying small batches at small retail stores stocking local meat. They are taking the time to wander their local farmer’s market to purchase weekly produce and meat. The experience has become an adventure in a world where we haven’t wandered far from home in over a year. Adventures have been in the kitchen, creating meals with family and exploring the world of cooking and flavours. Businesses like Craft Beef Company, Brisket Case, Cudlobe Angus West and Buhler Beef have all pivoted and are giving consumers what they want; a culinary experience that brings joy and comfort to their lives – another reason to celebrate our world-class Alberta beef.