The Rise of Craft Cows

Credit: Courtesy of Crowd Cow

Tapping or swiping your way to a steak that arrives on your doorstep frozen in a Cryo bag-filled foam cooler is nothing new. Neither is the idea of dealing with a rancher or butcher, chipping in on a whole cow with friends and family, then hauling home a year’s worth of beef at once. But if you want to know where your ribeye came from — down to the name of the rancher who raised it and the patch of grass it grazed on — or you don’t have the means to store your cut of 500 pounds of beef, you turn to a service like Crowd Cow.

“When you go to the grocery store, every bottle of wine or beer is from a different country or part of this country, made in a different style, and sold at a different price point,” co-founder Joe Heitzeberg says. “Then you hit the meat counter and it’s just a commodity — why is that?” Heitzeberg, who has a dot com and venture capitalist background, and his friend and co-founder Ethan Lowry, who helped launch Urbanspoon, started Crowd Cow last year with the idea of putting small, independent grass-fed beef producers one click away from buyers in other parts of the country.

The idea came to them after a conversation with a friend who mentioned an incoming order of meat he was expecting, the result of divvying up a cow. Having missed the slaughter, and without the means to store a bulk shipment of assorted beef parts, Heitzeberg and Lowry set out to make it easier for people to buy higher quality meat without the bloated poundage commitment. People have been buying meat online for years from better-for-you grass-fed animals to higher-end breeds like Wagyu and Black Angus, but tracing the cow back to a specific rancher is a relatively new concept that ties into food having a story.

The website promotes a single cow from one ranch at a time, then takes orders on the butchered cuts. During a recent visit to the site, nearly a quarter of a 100 percent grass-fed cow from Step by Step Farm in Curtis, Washington, about 100 miles southwest of Seattle, was spoken for. Users had about a week to pick up the remaining 52 shares, like a pack consisting of four filet mignons at 12 ounces each with an equal number of top sirloin steaks at 8 ounces each, all for $154 plus $13 for flat-rate shipping. If no one speaks up for the remaining cuts, Crowd Cow doesn’t buy the animal. But if all goes well, three days after the sale closes, cooler boxes full of meat are shipped out. While the company is organizing more ranchers for national distribution by the summer, right now it’s about a dozen purveyors mostly in the Pacific Northwest shipping to 15 states west of the Rocky Mountains.

“The biggest reason people don’t buy from local independent producers is the logistics,” Heitzeberg says. Crowd Cow provides that. Ranchers focus on raising cattle and work with the website to deliver the animals to slaughterhouses according to a schedule. The animals are broken down, the steaks are dry-aged for 14 days, and then packed in vacuum bags, which leave Crowd Cow’s Seattle packaging facility in foam coolers.

The homepage plays a video about the ranch the animals come from along with a mention of the rancher and the cattle breed. During the company’s vetting process, ranchers sign paperwork, agreeing to raise the cattle in the way they claim to, which is most often grass fed.

Heitzeberg says his aim is to offer higher-quality beef than you’d find at Whole Foods for less money. An order of Crowd Cow’s grass-fed ribeyes runs about a dollar less per ounce than the same kind of cut from Omaha Steaks. You can order parts like tongue, liver, and hearts, and that’s the beauty of the site, Heitzeberg says. “The only e-commerce things like us are monthly subscriptions where you get what you get — we don’t think people want a mystery box of meat,” he says.

The site features the prominent cuts you’ve heard of, like strip and flank steaks, but they also offer lesser-known versions that are harder to find like the tri-tip or the merlot steak — a lean cut from the side of the heal that takes to high-heat grilling well.