Espousing sustainable grazing practices, and adherence to strict animal-welfare standards without using antibiotics or hormones to produce grass-fed beef, La Cense Beef has been a leading company serving a niche market for more than a decade. William Kriegel, a native of France, came to the United States in 1984 with an entrepreneurial vision of owning and operating his own ranch. Eleven years ago he fulfilled that dream when he bought a ranch in the Northwest and founded La Cense.

“We are a ranch. We own the land. We operate the land and the ranch,” says Kriegel, with his native accent still very prominent. Each year, the company raises about 2,000 head of pure Black Angus cattle on 88,000 acres of land surrounding the ranch based in Dillon, Montana. With a business plan structured around selling directly to consumers and using some innovative marketing strategies, Kriegel’s company is quietly thriving in a niche he admits is light on competition.

When he bought the ranch it was a traditional cow-calf operation and included a small feedlot. “We looked at what was there and at what was good and what was not good,” Kriegel says. “The team saw some opportunity in the grazing practices, among other things.”

To help offset the cost for the unconventional system of grazing, the company began marketing grass-fed product at a premium price to a specific demographic.

“What I can do is take a yearling from May until September, make it gain two-and-a-half to three lbs. a day on grass only,” at a finish weight of about 1,200 lbs., says Kriegel. “We have buyers of our product who like what we do and like the quality of what we produce because it is an all-natural, very specialized product that adds value vs. the commodity market,” he says, referring specifically to grass-fed’s lower fat and calorie content and higher levels of omega 3 and beta carotene.

Partnering with a XL Four Star Beef in Nampa Idaho, the company’s ranch brings its cattle to slaughter just one time per year. But marketing and selling the portion-controlled cuts is a year-round effort. During the annual cycle, cattle are shipped to Idaho, slaughtered, processed into boxed beef and stored in frozen storage facilities nearby. As orders come in throughout the year, inventory is removed, portion cut, vacuum-packed and refrozen to meet demand using a Wisconsin-based distribution center. The company also maintains a call center in Dillon, Mont., and a marketing department in New York.

By using an Internet-based strategy, the company benefits from direct marketing directly to its customers. “You are able to get feedback directly from the customer, whereas if you wholesale, you sell to a very different type of buyer,” he says. To facilitate the Web-sales, La Cense sells only frozen meat. Typically, cattle are harvested in September or October, “at the optimum time, and it gives us really strong quality control and consistency control because finishing in winter is very challenging,” Kriegel says. His company adopted the mail-order web approach about five years ago. Now, about 90 percent of the company’s sales are from the Website.

La Cense customers have come to expect quality and consistency, says Kriegel. They pay a premium for these attributes, as well as for the assurance of knowing where the meat came from. “All of our meat comes from the ranch, without exception. This way, they know the source, they know the origination and they don’t have to think about that,” Kriegel says.

Unless products are purchased as a gift, orders typically range from as few as 10 or 15 cuts up to one-quarter or one-half cows. “The end-users storage capacity will dictate the size of the order,” he adds.

The majority of customers are located on the East Coast, especially in New York, Boston, Washington, DC and Florida. La Cense also has a solid presence in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “You follow the people who have awareness of natural food, quality food, healthy food,” he says. “The consumption of grass-fed in the national market is marginal – we recognize that.”

A more recent and successful marketing effort involves selling La Cense burgers on the streets of Manhattan, utilizing a hard-to-miss food truck in a region where many of the company’s key consumers live.

“I started that because I wanted to be able to put the meat in the customers’ mouth. And it works very well – they love it,” Kriegel says.

La Cense banks on the loyalty of beef lovers who are not buying a specific product, but rather a brand. “The customer doesn’t come to us to buy a T-bone,” for example. “They come to us to buy La Cense beef, grass-fed and natural products,” and if their cut of choice isn’t available, “they can go to the next cut.”