Ten years ago, Jeff Emerson?a self-proclaimed city slicker?and his wife, Chris, started selling beef at a farmers' market in Tulsa, Okla. Chris grew up in a farming family, and the couple had been trying their hand at raising cattle for a few years, though they still had full-time day jobs?Jeff as a mechanic for United Airlines and Chris as an accountant.
At the market, people started coming up to Jeff, asking him if his beef was "all-natural." "I don't know," he said. "What's all-natural?"
"Do you use any growth hormone? Any antibiotics?"
"No, we don't use any of that."
"You're all-natural, then."
Emerson learned that because he didn't use any pesticides on his pastures either, his meat could become certified organic.
At first, he thought interest in natural and organic meats was just a fad that would go the way of the hula hoop. But now he has a very different opinion, as the Emersons' Tulsa retail store, Naturalfarms, continues to succeed. "It hasn't done anything but grow, and in the future I see it becoming part of the mainstream," he says of organic food.
In October 2000, the Emersons opened a 400-square-foot store specializing in organic meat, but also selling produce and other foods. Chris ran the store full time while Jeff continued to work for the airline. In 2006, Jeff quit his job to join his wife, and they opened their second store, which, at 2,300 square feet, is more than five times larger than the first. They've averaged about 60 percent growth each year, with annual sales now approaching $1 million, and are looking into expanding out of state soon.
While it hasn't necessarily been easy attracting Tulsa customers to a natural products store, the Emersons have had a few advantages. Not only do they fill a meat-and-potatoes gap in the industry, but they've also capitalized on the "buy local" phenomenon sweeping the nation. "Customers don't want their steak coming from California," Jeff says. "That's a big push in Oklahoma, to support your local growers."
Naturalfarms is about as local as it gets. In addition to raising their own cattle, sheep and goats, the Emersons own their processing plant, attached to the original store, and make their own sausage. Their pork comes from a local farmer friend, and they've got a local "coffee guy," a friend who makes soap, and lots of local produce.
"By being vertically integrated, we can control costs as well as quality," Jeff says.
Being both supplier and processor has also allowed Naturalfarms to tap into wholesale markets while waiting for word-of-mouth to slowly add to the store's retail base. "My wholesale business is growing faster than my retail," Jeff says. "The retail for some reason is pretty tough in this area. The wholesale has kept the retail alive."
Naturalfarms supplies a few local restaurants with wholesale meat, but by far its biggest client is a local cancer hospital that accounts for 20 percent to 25 percent of Naturalfarms' business. "They were going down to the local Wild Oats and paying retail prices for organic and all-natural meat," Jeff says. "They started looking around. It turned into a heck of an account."
While the Emersons are optimistic about the future of their business, that doesn't mean there haven't been sleepless nights. The first thing they had to realize was that they couldn't look to the people they knew to keep their business afloat. "I think the toughest thing for us to swallow was we did not get supported by friends, relatives and co-workers who we thought would shop with us," Jeff says.
The Emersons spent thousands of dollars on TV and radio ads, with no success. Word-of-mouth continues to be the way people find the store. It's a steady but slow growth. The store's Web page even apologizes for not always being fancy or flowing perfectly, while reminding customers that it's because Jeff and Chris "are probably out with the animals keeping them healthy, or figuring out how to pass some savings on to you."
There's simply never enough time for the Emersons to do everything they would like to do, but they hope that will change with their next growth spurt, when they can hire more people. One project they're making time for now is working with medical professionals to design ready-to-eat meals for people with different needs, whether they want to stay below a specific daily calorie level or need to lower their cholesterol.
The Naturalfarms philosophy is simple: to provide the best, healthiest, all-natural and organic food to their customers. "We have a lot of sick customers, people with cancer, diabetes, and it's nice to know that we can help," Jeff says.
Jessica Centers is a Denver, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 2/p. 46