After playing in the National Hockey League for 11 years, Terry Yake realized in 1996 that it was more challenging to maintain the physical fitness and energy level needed to compete successfully. During a successful career that saw him play with the Hartford Whalers, Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, the right winger and center decided he needed a lifestyle change if he was to continue to skate competitively . As it turns out, the biggest obstacle was nutrition based, he says.

“It was all about diet,” claims Yake, who later founded T-Bones Natural Meats, just outside St. Louis in O’Fallon, Mo. “My father had a ranch in Manitoba, Canada, where he raised all-natural beef and he brought some for my wife and me. It tasted better than anything I could buy at the market, so it was easy to start changing my eating habits.

“When I had gone from leading an NHL team in scoring to the minors in two years, I realized that something had to change. I was amazed when I found out how much diet had to do with stamina and sharpness,” he recalls.
So striking was Yake’s epiphany that in just half of a season he surged from eighteenth place to the American Hockey League’s top scorer. He knew he had latched onto something special.

Not only a customer…
“Four years ago, I was telling my friends about what happened to me and they wanted to try some natural meats for themselves. I had my father send me a truckload because the requests kept coming in and the response was so great. I had a garage full of freezers to help supply my friends and former teammates. Then I drew up a business plan and decided I should open my own meat store.”

He admits that opening the store three years later was a “pile of work” and that things did not go smoothly at first. But as he added bison from family farms in North Dakota, free-range, hormone-free chickens from Amish producers in Illinois, and natural pork from Missouri farms to the store’s inventory, things began to take off.

Then in July, 2008, a young man named Rich Quin, a portly computer and electronics enthusiast, came into the leased storefront to buy some products. Quin was so enamored with the food that he suggested a bartering arrangement and tried to sell Yake on a “will grill for food” agreement.

Then Quin began a body transformation, dropping 60 pounds and shrinking his waistline by four inches. He soon went from being a believer in healthy eating to the store’s leading advocate, not unlike Subway’s pitchman, Jared Fogle. Quin also transitioned from satisfied customer to managing partner.

Customer education
Developing a natural-meats business was new to Yake. He tried advertising in newspapers and print ads but found his message could not stand out among price-conscious consumers in a troubled economy.

“You just don’t have the space or time to educate potential customers in an ad,” Yake says. “It was not cost-effective. To make a difference, we had to talk to customers one-on-one and point them to the facts and science of healthier eating. We didn’t want to scare them or give them medical advice, but we asked them to do the research themselves. That approach has worked well for us.”
T-Bones Natural Meats’ management team took issue with many medical professionals who offered a simplistic message about avoiding red meat and pork. “We actually have monthly and sometimes weekly meetings in our store to deal with education,” he explains. “We have holistic lifestyle coaches, chiropractors and other medical experts come in and hold classes on proper eating. These sessions are by invitation and the attendance is growing.”

Product cooking and sampling are a big part of the T-Bones marketing philosophy, and the flare with which it is done is a step above most others. A hospitable bar-type service counter and complementing wines are featured in the tastefully decorated 1,100-sq.-ft. retail shop. Yake emphasizes that they have a spirits license and sold wines, but dropped that approach to devote more time to the meats.

While there are many upscale customers on the list of T-Bones’ clientele, Yake points out that they cater to everyone and make every effort to show the value of their products. He notes that about 90 percent of their business is from repeat shoppers. Another key element of their marketing approach is a presence on Facebook, where on-liners get a chance to interface with them, get their questions answered and talk about actual experiences with the product. The store’s Web site (www.tbonesstore.com) was upgraded several months ago and the colorful layout is getting over 1,000 hits per week. It features recipes, top-quality photos and a convincing story on the benefits of naturally raised livestock and healthy eating.

The T-Bones Natural Meats team is committed to network marketing, a fanciful term for generating word-ofmouth business. They donate meat to golf tournaments and serve as sponsors for blood drives and have developed and finessed a 1,000-customer mailing list. The only employees are Yake, his wife, Tanya, and Quin, and their formula for success seems to be working so well that they are considering other locations for stores in the future.

More than meat
There is a smattering of seafood, a few all-natural dairy items and, of course, glazes, natural sauces, rubs and marinades sold in the store. But the real attraction is education and salesmanship. Customers learn about how flash-frozen product retains its juices and how 14-day aged meat delivers a real taste sensation. They also find out that the family farm-raised grass-fed cattle, given unlimited water and finished on hay, barley, alfalfa, vitamins and minerals, results in a superior product.

The store inventory also includes 30 varieties of sausage – including a Polynesian brat – baby back ribs, ground turkey and bison chili. Aside from the food itself, the store offers something unique in that everyone behind the counter knows the product source, the animal diet, the processing partners and, of course, the health benefits of every item.

Yake, a native of Westminister, British Columbia, who grew up around hockey, maintains that his later-life meat diet helped save his hockey career. “I don’t think I could have taken 21 years of getting beat up with hockey sticks throughout several leagues had it not been for my rejuvenation through better and healthy eating. In a big way, it was natural meat that helped me keep shooting for my hockey career goals.”

Now, apparently, Yake’s new meat regime is helping him score new business goals in his life after hockey.
 
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.