BOSTON — Hannah Raudsepp was born into the cattle industry. Her parents run a cattle seedstock operation in Hastings, Neb. But by trade, she is a personal trainer with a degree in exercise physiology. A career as a personal trainer in Boston took her away from the industry after college, but conversations with her clients about fitness and nutrition brought her right back into the beef family fold in a big way.
“In my conversations with my clientele on the East Coast, I understood that the chasm between the average American consumer and how their food is produced was much wider than I originally thought,” Ms. Raudsepp said. “In the sense of the beef industry and my family’s livelihood, that really got me fired up.
“I do care about the beef industry, and I care about the families who work so hard to raise it but oftentimes don’t have a seat at the table when the media decides to hijack the voice of the industry."
Ms. Raudsepp is the founder of Boston-based Honest Beef Co., an on-line business that enables consumers to buy cuts of Angus beef directly from the ranchers that raise the cattle. Currently, the cattle sourced for Honest Beef customers are raised and processed at a federally inspected facility in Nebraska, and consumers can buy shares of animals via honestbeefco.com. For example, the Butcher’s Share includes a hanger steak, a 3.5-lb round roast, three 4-oz. round steaks, two 1/4 shank cross cuts and 2 lbs of single-animal ground beef for about $150. Honest Beef Co. also offers Brisket Shares, Bone Marrow Shares and a Ribs & Steak Share, among other combinations. Honest Beef does not purchase an animal until a majority of the shares are bought.
Ms. Raudsepp said she launched Honest Beef Co. because she found herself constantly defending the beef industry. But she doesn’t blame consumers, she said, because they often have a different understanding of food production.
“I would be disconnected too if I was born and raised [in Boston],” she said. “So, it’s good for me to be in Boston right now, because it allows me to understand why people care about what they care about and how to market to them ... and what issues need to be addressed and how to build trust.”
Beef cattle education
Even with her background in the cattle industry, Ms. Raudsepp said she knew very little about the feedlot, packing, distribution and retail side of the industry before starting Honest Beef Co.
“That was eye opening,” she said. “I think the conventional supply chain is so, so efficient. But because it’s long [and] there’s so much to it, it would be hard for anybody to know a lot about every single piece of it.
“So, even though my background is in cattle – not even the commercial side; we’re at the seedstock level even before the commercial beef production – there’s been a really big learning curve. I’m appreciative of all the people that I’ve cold-called and asked if I could just talk to them for five minutes to try to learn more."
Currently, Ms. Raudsepp is the only person working at Honest Beef Co. full-time – as president, chief executive officer, janitor, marketer and any other duty that needs doing. But she said she is grateful for all of the helping hands.
“I’m a big fan of the adage ‘it takes a village,’” she said.
Ms. Raudsepp and her husband financed business expenses such as start-up costs and marketing. She also has a network of Nebraska cattle ranchers that agreed to be guinea pigs and sell their beef through Honest Beef Co.
“They’re really great to work with," Ms. Raudsepp said. "I’m really appreciative to them for helping me to take this risk.I also have great trust in my processor in Nebraska and my shipping department in Nebraska. They’re the ‘meat and potatoes’ of this whole thing.”
Spreading the message
Figuring out the logistics of the business was a challenge, Ms. Raudsepp said, but getting the word out about Honest Beef also proved to be a formidable task in the beginning. But she was able to get help in this area too.
“At first, we did a little bit of digital marketing,” she said, “and that worked OK.”
And then CNBC came calling.
“We were fortunate to have been featured on CNBC … on one of their lunchtime programs,” she said. “That was awesome for us.”
Media reports on Honest Beef became the leading marketing channel for the company with word-of-mouth recommendations coming in a close second.
“I attribute that to the fact that we’re based out of Boston and to be able to pitch to a media outlet: ‘Hey, check out what we’re doing; you can crowd source a cow and here’s the pedigree of your steak,'" Ms. Raudsepp said. "It just sounds interesting in a market that’s not used to hearing that language."
News of the Honest Beef Co. has attracted a diverse customer demographic that is much wider than Ms. Raudsepp said she would have expected.
“In talking to customers that have purchased, it ranges from city dwellers in Manhattan, New York, to people in Tennessee that maybe used to live in Nebraska and they miss the beef," she said.
Beef tenderloin shares are the most frequent purchase from Honest Beef because of the popularity of the cut itself, Ms. Raudsepp said.
“If someone orders a tenderloin package, they’re also going to get round steaks,” she said. “That’s how we can most economically utilize all of the animal. With a little bit of education and a little bit of ingenuity, there’s a lot that can be done with the outside meats.”
This is why Ms. Raudsepp also works hard to ensure that the humble skirt steak gets some love, too.
“Part of my mission is to tell people about the skirt steak and how amazing skirt steak is when it’s prepared the right way,” she said. “So, a lot of what I do is education about how to prepare certain cuts.”
Ms. Raudsepp said Honest Beef is willing to pursue relationships with other small-to-medium producers and processing facilities outside of Nebraska once the company’s existing supply is exhausted. But for now, Ms. Raudsepp and crew are focusing on perfecting core business processes. Overhead has been relatively low because of the crowd sourcing business model, she said, and so far the business is going well.
“We’re excited and sort of overwhelmed by the sales that we’ve done,” she said. “The numbers look good.”
No discouraging words
Ms. Raudsepp makes sure to emphasize that “all beef is good.” She said she has great admiration for all the stakeholders in the industry, and she hopes that consumers can come to trust the beef products they buy and feel good about eating beef. So, don’t expect to hear her bad-mouth her fellow beef producers and processors.
“All in all, all beef is good,” she said. "I just want the families who are working so hard to produce beef … to have a livelihood and be able to pass this down to the next generation. That’s the heartbeat of America, in my opinion.”