Despite the fact that cattle outnumber people by a 2-to-1 ratio in Wyoming, it’s always been difficult for beef lovers in the state to buy meat identified and labeled as locally produced. Meat had always been a commodity product. But when Kelcey Christensen entered the Wyoming meat business, that all changed.
The president and founder of 307 Meat Co. in Laramie, Wyo., was the son and grandson of family butchers and grew up around meat processing. As someone who appreciated local agriculture and ranching, he set his sights on becoming a veterinarian and enrolled at the University of Wyoming. When he had an opportunity to work at the university’s meat lab, he jumped at the chance and worked there for four years and went on to spend the next 11 years managing the facility.
“Four years ago, I set out to establish a full-service meat company that could work with small livestock producers,” he said. “Most of the cattle were going into feedlots and were bought up by large packing houses. The meat they were selling had no identification with our state. It was just another commodity. I saw the need to recognize the environment where these animals were raised and add value through the label that would let customers know where their meats were coming from and the conditions under which they were raised.
“There was only one small USDA-inspected packing house in Cody that could ship its meats to other states, and I felt the need to help broaden that market to create a premium for Wyoming raised meats. We broke ground in May of 2019 and opened our processing facility on March 3 of this year. Our retail store was ready for customers on April 9.”
Christensen’s clear thinking and strategic business plan was spot on. He offered private labeling for the meats he processed for producers and a two-week aging availability. He is equipped to process 50 head of beef a week and is already booked up through December. The facility has 2,000 cattle on the waiting list.
The 37-year-old entrepreneur describes the processing end of the business as “they’re knocking down the door.” He adds that the retail shop is at or above projections and already accounts for 30% of the company’s volume.
It’s not just the source-known meat supply that rounds up his customer base. The retail shop displays more than 300 different products ranging from summer sausage, brats and chorizo and meats hand-cut and trimmed to customers’ wishes. The retail area represents 1,000 of the facility’s 9,000-square-foot space, and an additional animal handling area.
Although he does no formal advertising, Christensen says he promoted his new plant at some trade shows for producers and relies on social media and his website, 307meat.com, to spread the word of his products and services. When asked how he came up with the name 307 Meat Co., he mentioned that the entire state of Wyoming has one telephone area code...307. That, he said, lets existing and potential customers know that his is genuinely a “Cowboy State” business.
Christensen applauds the work of his management team, which includes plant manager Jace Linke, a fellow University of Wyoming animal science graduate, with experience in the meat lab. He also credits retail manager Nick Nordberg, a Colorado native who came to the university in pursuit of a degree in business management, who has catering team experience and was area supervisor for a local restaurant.
If you get the hint that there is a bit of an educational connection that came into play in assembling this management team, you are correct. But that concept doesn’t just end there. The company has also planned and implemented an internship program, bringing in one intern per university semester. They anticipate helping to train at least three a year.
There are 11 employees at 307 Meat Co., including Christensen. They hope to have around 15 to 25 employees soon. Therein lies a cautionary tale that Christensen relates regarding the planning process for the business:
“Not withstanding the COVID-19 disruptions, I learned that it is vital to keep the plant operation designed around the ability to get and keep trained employees. In a large packing facility, every worker is assigned one task or makes one cut. In a business our size, you must be able to find or train employees who can do – or learn to – do it all; who understand where every cut of meat comes from and how to fabricate an entire carcass. There is nothing piecemeal about this process to maximize the value that our farmers, ranchers and individual producers can receive from their livestock.
“We had some well-qualified individuals who we were going to hire from outside the state, but they had a fear of the pandemic and chose not to work in a meat facility. We exercise maximum worker safety and sanitation precautions, but there is a real fear among many potentially good plant workers that they shouldn’t take any risks,” he said.
307 Meat Co. handles mainly beef, but also does swine, lamb, goats and will soon be adding bison. Although located in a hunter’s paradise, Christensen believes that custom game processing is something they will have to put off for the immediate future. He says they would only do it in a separate building, but for now the goal is to get the plant fully staffed to handle the demand, make adjustments to keep things running smoothly and hope that there is no uptick or resurgence in the COVID-19 situation.
Wyoming has many custom and state-inspected processing houses, but the custom plants make products for the customer’s own use and the state-inspected plants cannot sell their meats beyond state lines.
Christensen further anticipates that there may be a few more smaller processing houses being planned within the state to come under USDA inspection.
“Many beef animals raised in Wyoming are shipped out of the state at an early age and lose their identity as premium meats from this area,” he said. “We want to help recognize and add value to the high-quality livestock produced here. We display meats under our name and feature products from as many as five other producers in our retail store. Those products will have our label on them but indicate on which ranch they were raised. Other producers want the private label with only their name and our USDA-inspection seal on the package so they can market them on their own. If it adds value to what they produce and the customer recognizes that this is a Wyoming-produced meat, then we’ve done our job.”