Jeff Tripician’s next chapter in the meat industry will be his last. That’s why he wants to make it count.

The announced merger of two grass-fed beef leaders in November that brought together SunFed Ranch and Teton Waters Ranch (TWR), to form Grass Fed Foods (GFF), signaled the formation of one of the largest grass-fed beef entities in the country. The deal, which stakeholders described as a “stock swap,” with no cash changing hands was painstakingly negotiated by Boulder, Colo.-based Sunrise Strategic Partners (SSP), a growth equity firm and the lead investor in Teton Waters Ranch since its founding in 2016 (resulting from its partnership with Trilantic Capital Management L.P.) and SunFed Ranch. Grass Fed Foods was a valuable concept to make a reality as the company pushes to get more non-traditional beef onto the plates of more American consumers.

“The time is right for grass-fed beef with consumer interest in organic, sustainable and regenerative foods at an all-time high,” said Jeff Tripician, a beef-industry veteran who was appointed chief executive officer of Teton Waters Ranch this past May. “Trip” will now serve as president and CEO of the new, combined company.

“Grass Fed Foods will lead the way for consumers that want to upgrade their beef purchases to a better, healthier choice for themselves, their family and the planet, allowing them to embrace these products,” Tripician said.

Prior to joining Teton Waters, Tripician worked as president of Perdue Premium Meat Co., which included the brands of Niman Ranch, Coleman Natural, Panorama Organic Grass-Fed, Sioux Preme and Alexander & Hornung. His resume includes 36-plus years of marketing and branding experience and about 25 years working in the meat industry.

While discussing this new endeavor, he shared how he believes GFF can make a meaningful difference in the health and wellness of consumers by putting more non-traditionally produced beef on the plates of more consumers. Reducing childhood obesity and giving aging consumers better diet control while relying less on pharmaceuticals are just some of the benefits, he said. Meanwhile, the new platform will give ranchers another option to access an additional market to sell their cattle and give foodservice players an opportunity to expand their menus.

SunFedSheaEvansV10311 smaller.jpgThe majority of the cattle raised by SunFed Ranch graze in California near its headquarters in Woodland. (Source: Shea Evans)

 Opportunities knocking

After joining TWR in 2022, Tripician recognized SunFed Ranch as a valuable supplier, but after hearing their story and strategy, he realized a more meaningful message could be sent with the right partner.

“If we’re going to resonate and try to change the way people think about grass-fed and human health and planet health, then we should do it together,” Tripician said.

When looking for grass-fed beef products, Tripician wants to examine all elements, including where the livestock’s genetics come from, what land it’s raised on and soil production on that land.

With SunFed Ranch, those boxes are checked. Based in Woodland, Calif., Matt Byrne, SunFed Ranch co-founder and sixth-generation rancher, shared his support for this deal and how it can improve the lives of US cattle ranchers and US families.

“At the core of our company is creating the connection between these families. Every parent wants to see their family thrive,” Byrne said. “Grass-fed beef is a simple change that improves family diets and regenerates the land we all count on.”

Another partner at SunFed Ranch, Chris Donati, co-founder and CEO, said that as a fifth-generation rancher, his role as a steward of the land, livestock and ranchers is at the very core of what they do at the company.

“We have grass-fed ranching and livestock relationships that allow us to scale the brand with great partners coast-to-coast,” Donati added.

GFF shared that the combined businesses would have more than $150 million in sales at the merger date, trailing 12 months. SunFed itself raises about 350 cattle per week with the ability to grow in the future.

Even with the generations of knowledge, SunFed made changes in the last 15 years that added to its existing cattle business.

Byrne shared that controlling most aspects from the farm to the table was the best route to sustain what the family built.

“We’re really trying to make these connections and you have to have a bridge all the way to the consumer and we found that the best way to get there was to work to build it ourselves,” he said.

SunFed looks at its business through the lens of regenerative agriculture, the constant improvement of vital soil health principles, and how grazing animals provide meaningful benefits to the landscapes when managed appropriately.

The company works with dozens of ranchers across California and other states in the West. A few of those ranchers take the final steps to finish the animal with grass through the process.

For SunFed, that means no grain, corn or feedlot.

Now, as the company moves away from a California regional business to nationwide, Grass Fed Foods plans to help market the SunFed meat throughout the process to retain ownership of every aspect of its process.

Tripician and Byrne talked considerably about giving choices to existing shoppers.

They both mentioned that people have many options for organic milk, eggs and other products but beef still makes up less than 1% of total sales.

“And it’s not because the shopper is not there. It’s because the delivery system hasn’t been developed yet,” Byrne said.

But that’s now changing with another important asset of this new partnership. As of January 2023, TWR products were being moved with foodservice redistribution company Dot Foods. Products featured under the SunFed Ranch label will begin shipping in February.

“A current customer can now type into their computer when they’re ordering whatever else they order from Dot, they can order anything from Teton and anything from SunFed and it’s delivered in four to five days,” Tripician said.

Setting up a nationwide distribution channel from Dot Foods allows Tripician to grow the Grass Fed Foods line to a much wider audience.

He said having a distribution partner like this was crucial. At a previous stop working with similar products at Niman Ranch, the final product would run through one cold storage facility.

With Dot, GFF can reach 12 distribution centers, so its meat can have a greater reach. Grass Fed Foods will be an additional pallet added on and Tripician shared that Dot already has full trucks moving around the United States with other refrigerated products.

Sun Fed 3 smaller.jpgSunFed Ranch expects to become a national player in the grass-fed business with the new merger. (Source: Third Street) 


Trusted partners

One of the people helping launch the product is Kirk Halpern, founder and CEO of Farmers & Fisherman Purveyors in Atlanta.

Halpern has a proven track record of developing meat businesses starting with Buckhead Beef and then building Halperns’ Steak & Seafood into a standout player in the space.

He’s now taken on all the challenges presented during COVID-19 and continues to push forward into 2023.

“Through our combined work with Farmers & Fisherman and Teton Waters Ranch we’re going to create the demand,” Halpern said of the Grass Fed Foods. “Our customer base is predominately comprised of the thought leaders in culinary within our marketing area. If we take what will be set up to be a great program with all the positive attributes that Trip and his team are going to deliver, we believe we can take that to the marketplace and rely on our expertise but validate it with their own taste buds.”

Halpern worked extensively with Tripician and Amanda Duran at Niman Ranch and was always satisfied with the outcomes for business and clients. So even before Grass Fed Foods took purchase orders, Halpern was happy to put one down because he trusted the relationship.

“I don’t do that with anybody, but I do that with Trip because of my complete confidence in him and in the program that he’s going to develop,” Halpern said.

Duran, now the chief revenue officer for GFF, said foodservice distribution will help tap into new generations to expand the product.

“With the strong demand for grass-fed by younger millennial and Gen Z consumers and established consumers who care about better-for-you claims upgrading their shopping carts, it is only natural for grass-fed beef to find its way onto progressive-minded menus across the country — from fast-casual, to colleges and universities, to corporate dining, grass-fed beef is a clear upgrade consumers want and expect today,” Duran said.

TWR 4 smallerest.jpgTeton Waters Ranch will ship its product throughout the country in 2023 with the help of Dot Foods. (Source: Teton Waters Ranch)


Key technologies

After six generations, Byrne and others at SunFed are convinced that the knowledge base about soil preservation and conservation around California can help the business compete with traditional, grain-fed cattle around the country.

“We’re taking our historic strengths and, in some ways, turning back the clock to a world where more cattle were finished on grass and taking the learnings of that historically, and adding to it the benefits of technology today so that we can rapidly develop the next set of improvements that help make the business positioned to grow,” Byrne said.

Technology plays a part in Grass Fed Food’s plans. In California, the company can track much of the grazing and convey how the company color codes ranches to ensure the specific length of grass that is needed to move cattle. Byrne said that since his operation has become larger, identifying the right people and traceability have been critical for cattle sourcing.

“We have a program that’s grass-fed, antibiotic-free and we have a program that is Grass Fed Organic,” Byrne said. “We need to know which cattle sit in which of the various programs and doing so with more than a pad of paper in your pocket, which is kind of a historic ranching tool for tracking information.”

In October 2022, Teton Waters Ranch also announced that it would elevate its sourcing practices to apply end-to-end traceability using Wholechain.

The company said the system allows for tracing beef products throughout the supply chain, starting at the birth farm and recording data points along the way on the Algorand zero-carbon blockchain.

More points for customers

Tripician believes that more exposure to dining experiences will lead to purchases in retail. When he came to Teton Waters Ranch, foodservice was not part of the plan, but he strongly believes in bringing a product to consumers. A large portion of placing these two brands together was a push for foodservice products with grass-fed beef.

“We’re opening foodservice, because that’s where people try stuff,” he said. “We need them to go to a good place that they like and say, ‘Oh, Teton’s on the menu.’”

Tripician and Byrne want restaurants to give them a chance to upgrade some of their fully cooked options on the menu, whether it’s a hot dog, slider or sausage using their grass-fed product.

“We want to make available for them what we have available for us at home,” Byrne said.

Above all else, Byrne and Tripician want people to know the purpose behind this partnership and operation.

They share a vision of caring about the people buying their beef and giving them options that can benefit them with better health and a better planet.

“We really strongly believe that there are more consumers and more customers who have this interest,” Byrne said.

Grass-fed adds up

Anne-Marie Roerink, founder of San Antonio, Texas-based 210 Analytics, said retail sales of products in the grass-fed segment in the United States generated $822 million during the 52 weeks ended Aug. 8, 2022.

Roerink stated that additional grass-fed sales could be found on other platforms like Butcherbox, Wild Fork, farmers’ markets and farm direct among others.

“Just three years ago, sales were $613 million in the traditional multi-outlet universe, which means sales have increased 34.1% versus pre-pandemic levels,” she added. “This means it is highly conceivable that we are going to see sales hit the one-billion-dollar mark in the next few years in the traditional channels alone.”

Even in a demanding marketplace with inflation impacting all consumers, grass-fed beef sales increased over the last year by 4.6%

“America’s reduced purchasing power has prompted shifts throughout the store and beef is not immune to the many money-saving strategies,” she said. “During typical times of inflation, we tend to see a shift from beef to pork and chicken. Chicken is indeed picking up a bit of that business, however, poultry is having its own inflationary problems in the light of avian influenza. That said, we have seen grass-fed demand hold up during periods of high inflation or recessionary times. This is because core grass-fed shoppers have very specific reasons for buying the product.”

Support in the retail category is also sustaining. According to the 2022 National Meat Case Study by Sealed Air, 11% of total beef packages in the meat case had a grass-fed label. That is up from 10% in 2018.