RENO, NEVADA — Chris Flocchini has always hated the term “wild game.”
|Chris Flocchini, president and CEO of Sierra Meat & Seafood|
“People always say, ‘Does it taste gamey?’ and it’s always a negative connotation,” said the president and CEO of Sierra Meat & Seafood, a family-owned distributor and manufacturer of specialty and exotic meats. “So we introduced the phrase ‘natural, sustainable specialty meats.’”
Under the Durham Ranch brand, Sierra Meat & Seafood offers varieties of jerky, dinner sausage and ground meats featuring rabbit, venison, wild boar, wagyu beef, elk, bison, pheasant and more. The Flocchini family also operates a bison ranch in Wyoming, also called Durham Ranch.
“What has happened in the last six or seven or eight years ago, I noticed that as a distributor… we’ve seen up close the slow building of momentum with alternative proteins, from grass-fed to antibiotic/hormone-free raised poultry and pork,” Flocchini told Food Business News, a sister publication to MEAT+POULTRY. “Sierra Meat & Seafood’s primary focus has been food service, and now we’ve been venturing more and more into retail.”
The brand recently introduced jerky products made with wagyu beef, bison, elk, venison or wild boar in smoked, peppered or honey glazed flavors, and a range of sausage sticks that includes such varieties as maple cured elk, wild boar and bourbon, venison with garlic and rosemary, and ancho chile bison.
“There is this interest in different types of meat proteins, and we happened to be at the crossroads of that and one of the first in the country to be marketing alternative proteins,” Flocchini said. “So we have seen a tremendous interest. Bison first and foremost has been leading the charge. We get calls every day, every week from a lot of retail, restaurant chains wanting bison.”
Trouble is, the price of bison is at an all-time high because demand is much higher than supply, he said.
“About 100,000 a year are processed in North America at the most,” he said. “Under USDA inspection in the US it’s around 60,000. There are some in Canada and some processed in the States under state inspection, not USDA inspection.”
Several factors are driving consumer demand for bison. Ground bison is easy to use as a substitute for ground beef. Bison also benefits from a positive health perception.
“There’s a real health purpose for it … but it’s not a cure-all,” Flocchini said. “It is higher in iron than beef or pork or poultry and salmon. It’s lower in cholesterol than other proteins on a proportion basis, and it’s typically lower in fat as well. The fat that’s in it is typically higher in the healthier fat, lower in the unhealthier fat.”
Bison and other specialty meats may be trending, but consumer education is still needed, Flocchini said.
“We used to think we got it on the shelves and high five each other and walk away and think our job was done, but what we didn’t realize was our job just began,” Flocchini said. “We realized we need to help tell mom and dad what to do with this product, what to do with a ground venison brick, what to do with a bison brick, what to do with a venison bratwurst, with a wild boar country sausage. We need to do a better job.”
He added: “We’re revamping all of the packaging because the packaging looks like it’s being sold in a farmers market.”
The origins of Sierra Meat & Seafood trace back to the 1930s, when Flocchini’s grandfather, an Italian immigrant and butcher in San Francisco, borrowed some money to buy Durham Meat Co., a distributor of meat to local restaurants.
“My father and uncle went into business with my grandfather, and the primary business was buying, hanging carcass, cattle from the Midwest like all the other meat jobbers did around the country, and then further process those hanging carcasses for retail or food service,” Flocchini said.
In 1965, the family purchased the bison ranch in Wyoming and renamed it Durham Ranch.
“Some of the original breeding stock traces its roots back to Yellowstone Park and the bison were cattle set aside by Teddy Roosevelt,” Flocchini said. “That’s where the original herd came from. The previous owner knew one of the state senators from Wyoming who allocated 100 or 200 head off of Yellowstone, and the gentleman was able to buy them and put them on the ranch. So, some of our original stock comes from the last remaining head saved from extinction.”
In the years that followed, the meat company moved from San Francisco to San Jose, and Flocchini’s father bought a number of meat businesses, including Sierra Meat & Seafood in Reno.
“Sierra was started in 1948 by a family and sold to another gentleman, and when he decided to get out of the business he sold it to my father,” Flocchini said. “We ended up with three locations — Reno, San Jose, and Monterrey. In 2006 or 2007, we renamed all of them Sierra Meat Co., and we did that because Sierra Meat held a license to sell Certified Angus Beef, and we wanted all of our locations to be able to sell certified Angus beef.
“In the meantime, we still owned the Durham Ranch, and Durham Meat Co. and my uncle started to get involved in some of the wild game business. We started importing venison from New Zealand about 25 years ago … and we would carry other lines and brands of specialty meats as a distributor. My uncle figured that the best way to grow that business outside of our trade area was to sell to other distributors.”
He added: “On one hand we were local butchers hand cutting steaks for the restaurant trade … and on other hand we were a consolidator of wild game items, including bison that we were ranching and venison that we were partnering in New Zealand to other distributors around the country or broadline distributors.”
Today, Sierra Meat & Seafood operates out of Reno and partners with other ranchers to market products under the Durham Ranch brand.
In 2015, Sierra Meat & Seafood expanded its offerings to include a sausage line, with the purchase of a sausage factory in Carson City, Nevada. Maintaining a pure product was top of mind for Flocchini and his team.
“Labels like ours that are pretty easy to read and don’t have a bunch of crap on it are an attraction for folks,” Flocchini said. “You start with a great meat product, and inevitably what happens is your end user, whether it’s a restaurant or a retailer, says it’s too expensive. So the way to make things less expensive is adding something to absorb the water. That doesn’t mean it’s terribly bad for you; it’s intended to help the price be less expensive…
“In our Durham Ranch products we’ve replaced dextrose with real sugar. There’s nothing wrong with dextrose, but we just thought using real sugar, while more expensive, is more attractive to today’s consumer looking at a label.”
Same with celery powder, naturally occurring preservative that is perceived as a more natural alternative to common additives found in processed meats.
“To use celery powder is more expensive, and the process to make sure it is properly distributed through your product takes four times as long, so it’s more expensive to do,” he said. “To use it in the right way and in the right amounts and to have it truly act and do what it’s supposed to do takes a lot longer.”
Durham Ranch products are sold in a smattering of regional retailers. The largest chain that carries the brand is Sprouts Farmers Market, Flocchini said.
“The tricky part in the marketing for us is there is not so much of this product,” he said. “We can’t put wild boar sausage in every Costco in the nation. So we have to be specific about our target. We try to look regionally, at certain size chains. I don’t think we want to take on a more than 140-store chain.”
This measured approach is critical for the sustainability of the supply, he said.
“We don’t think that runaway prices and more demand than supply are good for market,” Flocchini said. “We’re not in this for the short run. We’re not in this to make a quick buck. We have been ranching bison since 1965. We’re not a public company. We don’t have quarterly reports or Wall Street that we have to answer to. We can be thoughtful about what we’re doing, do it right, grow incrementally, not overtax the supply chain in any one area.”