Wagyu panel shares marketing success
Quality, consistency, customer relations are the key
Given Wagyu beef’s unique flavor and marbling, Wagyu breeders were perhaps the first in the cattle business to fully embrace the farm-to-table marketing concept. And as demand for Wagyu beef continues to gain greater momentum, it’s that direct relationship with consumers that will continue to pave the way.
That’s the message a panel of successful Wagyu breeders and beef marketers gave to attendees at the American Wagyu Association “Shaping the Future” annual convention in Charleston, S.C. However, the panelists emphasized that a successful producer-consumer relationship hinges on
maintaining the quality and consistency of Wagyu beef.
“If it doesn’t hit a certain IMF (intramuscular fat or marbling) it doesn’t go in our box, it doesn’t get our brand,” said Ryan Cade, co-founder of R-C Wagyu Beef located in Brazoria County, Texas. “We want to be really careful, make sure we’re using the right genetics to do it the right way, so we can win at the rail as often as possible.”
Cade grew up in a ranching family. “We dropped our calves off at the sale barn twice a year. We had no idea what happened to our product after it left the ranch. I didn’t know anybody who was a grower, I didn’t know anybody who was a feeder.”
Then he had a Wagyu steak at a Houston restaurant. “I said ‘Wow, this is really different. I’ve got to figure this out. This is going to make ranching even more fun than it is.’”
That thought led him to wonder if he could make ranching about food as well. And that thought led to a successful and growing Wagyu beef business.
CHANGING COURSE DURING COVID
Initially, they were harvesting between four and eight head a week and selling the beef to Houston-area restaurants. Then came COVID. That prompted a pivot in their marketing and the company invested heavily in eCommerce but stayed connected to the restaurant business. That led to a
steakhouse inviting them to become the restaurant’s butcher.
Now the outfit sells beef to consumers through social media and its website, as well as a retail butcher shop in an upscale part of Houston. “What it does for us is it helps us build a brand. People show up, find out about us.”
Pictures of the ranch as well as the interior decorating give the shop a ranch-like feel. He said many customers have never seen a cow before. “To come to that place and feel like they’re on the ranch — we created that along with marketing.”
Reid Martin, COO of Lone Mountain Wagyu, Golden, N.M., said they have followed a similar business model. “We’re involved in both parts of the business. I think it really speaks to the authenticity of what we do. We’re not just throwing buzz words out there; we’re actually living what we believe.”
Lone Mountain sells to both consumers and restaurants. “Our operation is probably 55 percent direct to consumer and about 45 percent wholesale,” he said. “I see that shifting more toward wholesale. The restaurant business has really picked up.” The ranch sells Wagyu beef both to wholesale distributors and directly to restaurants.
However, eCommerce is necessary for balance, he told Wagyu breeders. “We have a healthy eCommerce business, and they work together and make us a stronger brand, a stronger business that’s more resilient in different times.”
And he’s optimistic for the future of Wagyu beef. “The consumer has never been as excited as they are right now.”
Jim DiMeo, Sr., grew up in dairy country in California and quickly decided there must be an easier way to make a living. So, he went into the car dealership business, turning struggling dealerships into profitable businesses.
But, like many, his first experience with Wagyu beef changed his direction. Leaning on his years of experience in finding the right people to share a vision and think differently, he and his partners established Iron Table Wagyu.
Starting with a few full-blood Wagyu, the operation has become an explosive company, lifestyle brand and sense of community.
As part of that, “We sell a tremendous amount of clothing,” he told Wagyu attendees. “Our biggest success story is our engagement. It has been unheard of. Conversation on the website has been unbelievable.”
BUILDING A BRAND
That helps build the brand and brand identity. “What I’m trying to do is build a lifestyle business that could be a family business that we can enjoy and share with the public,” he said.
He’s working toward explosive growth in Wagyu beef sales by partnering with other Wagyu breeders across the nation. Currently, they have a small retail business with most of their product going into restaurants in the Austin, Texas area.
For Dave Dreiling of Manhattan, Kan., his entrance into the Wagyu world came from the outside. Since Wagyu genetics have been in the United States for around 20 years, everyone is new to Wagyu, even though many Wagyu breeders have long been ranchers. Dreiling, a highly successful entrepreneur grew up helping his parents in their clothing stores in several Kansas towns.
“I’ve only been in this thing two years,” he told Wagyu breeders at the convention. “I have a lot to learn.”
However, he applied his acute business and entrepreneurial skill to his new Wagyu venture, Booth Creek Wagyu. “We refer to ourselves as a vertical Wagyu beef company,” he said. “I’ve heard the industry described as there’s four legs to a cow. We have seedstock and genetics, you have the actual ranching, you have processing, and you have sales and distribution.”
He looks at the industry and most entities are involved in one, maybe two of those four legs. “The reason for that is you grab any one of those four and it’s complicated.” That multiplies exponentially when building a vertical beef marketing business across all four legs. For building a ranch to retail beef business, processing is the key, he learned.
That’s because you must sell the entire carcass, not just the steaks. With Wagyu, that’s easier. “At your full-blood, that whole carcass is a steak,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out where to get it, where and how to cut it, and then how to educate the consumer.”
To that end, he opened a retail meat market in Manhattan, Kan., where they sell their product based on the amount of marbling it has. For comparison, a USDA Prime steak has about 12 percent IMF or marbling. “Our Silver Label runs between 10 and 15 percent marbling, our Gold is 16-25 percent and Platinum is north of 26 percent.”
His aim is to produce as much Gold Label beef as he can. “We want to hit a minimum of 16 percent IMF, our target is 20 percent, and we hope they hit 22-24 percent,” he said. “If you want to build a consistent brand, you’ve got to have that consistent quality.”
Being an entrepreneur and building successful businesses means you’re going to make mistakes; he told Wagyu breeders. Looking back on his business life, he said while he was very successful, he wasn’t really happy.
“The only universal answer I would give you to mistakes I’ve made and continue to make is we better be enjoying the process. It’s OK to be dissatisfied with things we need work on,” he said. But he urged Wagyu breeders to remember that “Every day is a gift. I coach myself and my team, let’s enjoy this run. It really is about the journey.”