By Alan Harman
When Adam and Laura Parks were launching their northern California-based meat business in 2010, Twister Hill Ranch owner Bruce McGlochlin sold them their first load of sheep for just $5 a head.
The-way-below cost, start-up price has a story that details a 30-year family friendship.
Back in 1980, Adam’s grandfather Roy Parks, who died when Adam was 12, helped McGlochlin expand his Sonoma County ranch operation in Tomales, adding sheep to go with his Scottish Highland cattle herd.
“While Bruce and Marsha McGlochlin were deciding how to buy their first sheep, Bruce asked Grandpa Roy for advice,” Adam says. “Grandpa ended up selling him a half dozen older ewes for $5 each to get him started.”
Cut to 2010.
“I ran into Bruce after moving back to the county,” Adams says. “He asked if I was interested in buying some lambs for the meat company we had just started in Sebastopol.
“I was. And so we settled on a time for me to come out to his ranch and check them out. I selected six lambs I liked and started to ask his price.”
It was then McGlochlin told Adam the story of how Grandpa Park had helped him get started.
“He told me that he and his wife Marsha had discussed it, and they would only accept $5 per head for this group,” Adams says.
Adam & Laura have bought many more lambs at market price from Bruce for his Victorian Farmstead Meat Co. over the years, but those first six lambs remain very special.
Adam grew up in Tomales, 60 miles north of San Francisco, on an 800-acre sheep ranch.
After studying agri-business with an emphasis on marketing, he ended up in the world of professional golf as tour director for the Canadian Professional Golf Association.
When the 2008 financial crisis hit he and Laura were living in Stockton, CA, with their young children Jackson and Molly.
“I’d like to say that we were a victim of circumstance, that we lost everything (home, car, business) because of the corrupt housing lenders. But a lot of it was just poor choices by me,” he says, in a characteristically humble honesty that can win a hesitant buyer’s confidence.
Uphill Toward the Goal
He moved to a small farm owned by his other grandfather, Marvin H. Good.
To put food on the family table, he bought 25 meat chickens and a couple of piglets and fed them out to fill the freezers. Then he added a couple of sheep and a steer.
“It got me thinking about how people that didn’t have the land to raise their own meat could purchase it,” Adam says.
That’s when his marketing training from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo kicked in.
The farmers markets were a place that seemed like a natural fit.
“Meat wasn’t common at farmers markets, and we learned early on that that was a great opportunity to educate folks on where the meat came from and the way the animal was raised—and why it mattered what it ate,” Adam says.
“There were and still are so many customers we encounter who want to eat better quality meat, but don’t know who to trust: It became the mission of our company to be the most trusted, transparent source around.”
There were plenty of hoops to jump though, due to opposition from health inspectors, the Department of Food and Agriculture, farmers market managers and the competition.
“The main problem was there was no precedent for this type of setup in our area,” Parks says. “Once we got the first obstacles circumvented and had our setup in use, we were able to prove that we could do this in a safe and sustainable way that the customers leaped at.”
Victorian Farmstead became the first local meat company to offer fresh meat in clear vacuum-packs displayed on ice, rather than as a frozen white-wrapped product.
Developing a “Meat Annuity”
It’s difficult for small operations to get into a USDA-certified slaughter facility on a regular and profitable basis.
“I figured if I could have a steady flow of animals, I could solve two big problems,” Adan says.
“First, with the right volume and consistency, the local USDA facilities would be happy to have us as a customer.”
Second, the consumer problem is that buying a whole or half animal to fill their freezer is great until they realize that they have used up all their rib eyes and filets and still have to go through 200 lbs. of ground and stew meat.
“If we could harvest all four animals—lamb, beef, pork, chicken—and give consumers a variety of cuts from each, it would solve this imbalance for them.
“We called it the meat annuity.
“We decided that the best place to market our program was at local farmers markets. My wife Laura designed a booth, pulled a nice selection of cuts from the freezer and we headed out to our first market.”
They sold $19 worth of meat.
“We were devastated,” he recalls. “We had put all this time and money into our set-up and nobody wanted what we were selling.”
The next night they were scheduled for their second farmers market. With nothing to lose, they headed to the Occidental farmers market.
“We were thrilled with a sales total of over $400,” Parks says. “We did as many farmers markets as we could over the next few weeks and learned a few things very quickly.
“Everyone we talked to thought the meat annuity was a stroke of genius, but nobody wanted to sign up,” he says.
“What they wanted was to buy cuts of meat on the spot. What we were using as a talking point—the few cuts we brought to display—was what they wanted.
The other huge take-away from those first few markets was that folks wanted fresh meat.
“There were very few farmers markets that had a meat vendor at all, and those that did typically had someone with a couple of coolers packed with freezer paper wrapped cuts of an indistinguishable nature at best.
“If we could bring vacuum-sealed cuts so that people could see the product, it would be a game changer.”
Adams says they quickly realized it wasn’t feasible to raise everything and handle sales and marketing.
“We went to ranchers that I grew up with: Our families had known them for generations. We asked them to raise for us,” he says. “We had the best beef guy, the best lamb guy, and quickly became known for bringing the very best that Sonoma and Marin counties had to offer to the local farmers market.”
Sonoma County, of course, is legendary wine country, and with a nod to a well-known saying in that sector, Adam adapted a slogan that became his company’s watch word—Life’s too short to eat crappy meat.
“Truth be told, my wife and mom had to talk me down from a more vulgar word,” Adams confided to sheep!
“I came up with it after a long day of pouring concrete for what would become of our first retail store. The slab for the Chop Shop, as it is called, was completed around 8 p.m. and I wrote it out in block letters in concrete at the front.”
Red Tape Forces A New Course
They no longer sell through an on-farm retail shop.
“The original on-farm Chop Shop was kind of a ‘meat speakeasy.’ where we sold our products until we were shut down by the county in 2013, due to lack of a $14,000 ‘Use’ permit.
“Turns out you can raise agricultural products, but you can’t sell them without a use permit, because sales are not an ‘ag-related activity’” Adam says.
They worked for 18 months trying to build their own retail butcher shop and production facility in a then-new market development in Sebastopol.
“It wouldn’t pencil out. So as a last-ditch effort, I went to their anchor store, Community Market, and begged them to put in a meat counter that we could lease and run,” he says.
It opened in November 2013!
“It remains our very small, but efficient bricks-and-mortar shop. And it makes it possible for us to offer much more to our customers than our farmers market competition: House-made sausages, custom cuts, marinades and rubs, etc.”
Adam and Laura’s Victorian Farmstead Meat Co.—the name comes from the beautiful Victorian-era home on their farm—has evolved into a unique blend of community, online and store-front sales, driven by his eye-catching slogan.
About 40 percent of the business is from the retail butcher shop, 40 percent from retail sales at area farmers markets and 20 percent from community supported agriculture (CSA) sales, in which the customers sign on to receive a regular “meat box” in exchange for a discount on regular prices.
Three Great Package Deals
Their CSA offers two main types of Victorian Farmstead meat packages: The premium and family boxes. And the company selects what goes in each box.
The boxes save the customer an average of 20 to 25 percent off retail pricing and they can save an additional 10 percent by committing to six months! All Victorian Farmstead subscribers also get a 10 percent savings on anything they buy outside their box.
A third CSA deal is the custom box: The customers choose what they want with a 15 percent saving. Parks says the custom box is perfect for those that know exactly what they want in their subscription. Buyers select from the web store. It requires a six-month commitment and subscribers get 10 percent off anything else they purchase from the company.
The family box is designed for those that like larger portions—and saving money. There’s an ever-changing selection of meats in portions meant for four or more. Beef, pork, lamb and chicken are included, as well as bacon and sausages.
The premium box offers a variety of smaller cuts. It includes a selection of meats in portions meant for one or two people. Beef, pork, lamb and chicken are included, as well as the bacon and sausages.
Customers can alternate between the premium and family boxes.
The small custom box costs $50 and buyers get $57.50 worth of product. The large premium box costs $100 and buyers have $115 to spend at the web store.
Customers can cancel any time with 72 hours’ notice.
“We simply charge back any discounts they received if they cancel before their commitment is up,” Parks says. “We have never had to do that.”
Box frequencies can be monthly, bi-weekly or weekly—customers’ choice.
There’s a one-time set-up fee of $25, but Parks says he has frequent promotions offering $20 off that cost.
There are about 120 CSA customers.
“We expect to double that by the end of 2018, as we’ve spent the last six months revamping our program,” Adam says, “most of that in the tech systems area of being able to manage it efficiently and making our public site more user friendly for both retail and CSA customers.”
Still True to His Ranching Origin
The company offers a wide range of meats and meat cuts—beef, lamb, pork, chicken and eggs, duck, turkey and veal—including cured and processed meats such as bacon, ham and sausages.
But Adam admits lamb is in his blood. His mother even drove a 1978 Chevy station wagon with the license plate “EATLAM”.
“We may be biased, but we think that Northern California Coastal lamb is as good as it gets,” he says.
“My grandfather used to say that it tasted so good because the fog carries in the ocean water and seasons our pastures. I don’t know it that’s really how it works, but I sure love the idea of it.”
Adam says lamb is the most interesting meat he sells as it creates the most conversations.
“Folks that we meet for the first time generally either love lamb or won’t eat it.
Those who claim to not like lamb usually have one of two objections”, Adam says—it’s either the “cute and cuddly” thing or it’s the “greasy/gamy” thing.
“Our lamb, raised by BN Ranch in Bolinas, is fed pasture only. It has a very clean, almost sweet flavor. Even the fat has incredible lamb flavor. We have found that those who tell us they don’t like the flavor of lamb they have had in the past are quick converts if they take a chance and try ours.”
Setbacks, Perils, Triumphs: Small & Great
Lamb represents about 20 percent of total meat sales, well ahead of a typical U.S. meat market’s lamb popularity.
But, he says, “We no longer raise any animals for production: It became clear
fairly early that I could either be a rancher or sell ranch-fresh meat to the public. But doing both was not sustainable.”
“We butcher the equivalent of about 100 lambs a year. We get one or two whole carcasses a week and then supplement with cases of primal cuts, all from BN Ranch.
“Primal butchering is done by our partners at a local USDA butcher shop. And our staff and Laura and I do the final retail butchering. I’m the head butcher for our business.”
His main marketing is done though a “weekly-ish” newsletter.
“We collect e-mail addresses at all our locations and communicate through the newsletter,” Parks says.
“We are starting to use Facebook ads and Google ad-words more these days as well. We have done some radio ads, but they are much harder to track for efficiency.”
The website has gone through a few iterations, and now is at its most efficient state. Customers can establish an account and sign up for the CSA or simply place a retail order.
Customers can also create an account to store their credit card information with the site so that they don’t have to have it in hand at a farmers market.
“Our public site is WordPress-based, but it’s highly customized. And our “back room”–Point of Sale (POS) site is completely custom,” Adams says.
“One of the hurdles is that there is no “out-of-the-box” POS management software specific to meat. Given that it’s generally sold by weight, it was important to be able to account for that dynamic. Most software bundles would only handle “unit pricing.” The genesis of our custom software is a lengthy story all to itself.”
The meat cuts are listed on the website and by clicking on each cut’s link, a price per pound is shown, along with a photo of that cut.
The list of meats also has an optional function that includes sorting by popularity.
With the business growing, their progress was set back last year, when disastrous wildfire swept through the region.
The Tubbs Fire that razed Sonoma County last October (2017) consumed 37,000 acres and caused 22 deaths and at least $3 billion in losses, with almost 12,000 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed.
Adam says their business was closed or had shortened hours for several days because of a loss of electricity, but a number of their customers lost everything.
“We have certainly had our struggles,” he says.
“At the end of the day, I think that if we honor my grandfather’s legacy and make sure that our customers get what they pay for, we will be just fine.”
The Victorian Farmstead website allows searches by price and by popularity.
A wide range of lamb cuts is offered, including custom orders. The top 20, sorted by popularity at the time of our interviews appear here—with prices per pound:
Originally published in the March/April 2018 issue of sheep!.