Meeting One of the Northwest's Top Sustainable Meat Vendors
No question: Americans love meat. This love affair doesn’t appear to be slowing down, no matter what delicious vegan concoction celebrities are cooking up for the splash pages of their lifestyle websites.
America’s Love Affair With Meat
Meat and poultry are the largest segment in the U.S. agriculture industry. According to the North American Meat Institute, total meat and poultry production reached more than 93 billion pounds in 2012. Through its production and distribution linkages, the meat and poultry industry impacts firms in all 509 sectors of the U.S. economy, and in every state and every congressional district in the country. The companies involved in meat production, including suppliers, distributors, retailers and ancillary production, in total employ 6.2 million people in the U.S. and these jobs equal a total of $200 billion in wages every year. In 2013 (the most recent year data is available,) meat and poultry industry sales totaled $198 billion.
With all that money on the table, why isn’t every budding entrepreneur grabbing a butcher knife?
Townsquared talked to someone who knows about the business of meat: Geoff Latham in Portland, Oregon. The founder and president of Nicky USA, Latham provides superior and hard-to-find, sustainable meat products to the top restaurants and kitchens in the Northwestern United States. Nicky USA has locations in both Portland and Seattle and is considered one of the premier wholesale butchers and purveyors of specialty game and meats in the United States.
Not bad for someone who used to sell rabbit meat out of his car.
Purveyor of Specialty Meat and Game
Latham studied agriculture at Oregon State University: “I came from a blue collar family who moved from the city of Portland to Sherwood when I was seven,” said Latham. “We raised animals on the farm as a source of sustainable income for our family. We ate lamb, beef and pork: there were no vegetarians in my family.”
When Latham was in high school, his summer job was working for the local butcher shop. He was the company’s mobile processing unit assistant, also known as the “gut boy.”
“It’s not a job for everyone, but it definitely helped me develop my work ethic and appreciation for all jobs,” said Latham. “I have great memories of raising market animals for youth auctions to raise money for college. My last steer won the Future Farmers of America Grand Champion market steer at Oregon’s Washington County Fair.”
When someone asked him to sell rabbit meat, his life took what he refers to as an “interesting turn.” This gig turned into his first official job in meat sales in 1990, exporting containers of American beef small intestine to an importer in Seoul, South Korea.
From International Sales to Local, Sustainable Meat
With rabbit and small intestine under his belt, Latham worked at night as a waiter trying to change the focus of his business from international sales to local, sustainable meat sources. Latham met a man named Noriyuki Mori, or Nicky, who was interested in a plant-based product Latham’s international business was marketing.
“I proposed starting Nicky USA and joining forces,” said Latham, “Nicky has remained my friend and associate to this day. It’s my goal to go full circle and start importing purebred wagyu directly from Japan for our customers.”
In 2003, Latham took a big risk and built his own processing facility. He wanted to bring his customers and chefs one step closer to the farm, and also have complete control of the product they put their name on. It has paid off. Today, Nicky’s works with all customers, but professional chefs or home cooks are their primary market. Their forthcoming retail product line will considerably increase their sales by opening up their product to retail shops in the Pacific Northwest.
Taking risks has paid off for Latham, but it isn’t for everyone.
“Unless your family owns a farm, the meat business is a tough place to start from scratch,” said Latham. “It takes more than selling a customer once to see sustained success. It costs a lot to deliver meat to customers, and in time, earn repeat customers with good service.”
Nicky USA is different than other meat companies, and for a reason.
To Be Successful, Set Yourself Apart
“There are a lot of hidden barriers to entry in the meat industry. To be successful, you have to set yourself apart,” said Latham.
Latham brought up an interesting influencer in his own life: his 99-year-old grandfather, Robert Johnston. His grandfather gave him a love for the land and the honor code he lives by: “Never lose your honor by cheating someone. Treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Another influencer is his friend and longtime Portland chef, Philippe Boulot, who told Latham to share the producer’s story about the meats he sold.
“We have great supplier stories: on of our most recent was hunted, USDA-inspected Venison and Antelope from Maui and Nihau in Hawaii. My harvesters are actually helping the ecosystem, because neither of these species are indigenous to Hawaii. The Hawaii Department of Agriculture is working hard to thin the wild axis venison deer population. We are helping the environment and eating a delicious meat from paradise.”
Most of Nicky’s staff need to have some kind of restaurant or meat department background in order to appreciate the challenges that their customers face in their restaurant kitchens, meat departments or home kitchens.
“We are blessed with a great core group of 50+ hard-working employees. When I think about how difficult it is to find additional, dedicated employees with a commitment to our current team, it makes me sad,” said Latham. “Currently, we interview a dozen candidates to find one to hire, and review a hundred resumes to find one that we’ll call in for an interview.”
The Future of Butchery
Latham is thrilled by the sudden craze for butchery that’s been embraced by millennials and hipsters across the country.
“I honor all people who have a passion for butchery,” said Latham, “Our master butcher and production manager, Jace Hentges, runs our plant like a USDA butcher shop. Most meat suppliers bring in boxed meats. At Nicky, we take great pride in our butchery and sausage production.”
According to Latham, being a good butcher takes years of hard work, appreciation of the craft, and honesty.
Words that all business owners, butcher or otherwise, can live by.
Learn more about Nicky USA.