Marketing and Pricing “Exotic” Meat

This spring I took the Alleghany Meats employees on a field trip to Hollow Hill Farm in Paint Bank, Virginia.  There, it seems like an entire town has transformed because of Hollow Hill’s bison production.  Between visitors to their beautiful farm, a general store selling bison, and a restaurant with some familiar fare but using bison (best. french. dip. ever), Paint Bank has embraced what agritourism is all about.

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With careful marketing and proper pricing, Hollow Hill Farm has won the hearts of many first-time bison eaters.

Today we won’t touch on the very exotic like lions, tigers and bears, oh my (I’m sorry, I had to), but more alternatives to beef and pork are making their way onto the market.  Exotic Game Meat Products, such as yak, bison, rabbit, and ostrich are gaining ground with consumers.  They are lean, healthy, and tasty, and also enjoyable for the producer to raise.  And with some studies out there showing that 85% of people surveyed would expect to pay as much or more for exotics as they would for quality beef products, it may be a financially viable alternative to the mainstream meat markets as well.

Let’s talk turkey

That said, pricing exotic meat is a delicate balance.  If you price too high, you may narrow your pool of customers by combining an unfamiliar product with a high price.  If you price too low, you may be sending the opposite message that the quality is questionable, plus you will end up cheating yourself.  There is a willingness to pay amongst people who are looking for a quality product, but finding that sweet spot is important for capturing customers and earning repeat business.  I can’t give you a magic formula, but I do recommend doing your research before entering the market, then adjusting based on the reaction you get.

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lots of 2 inch pipe here.

First calculate all of your costs:  raising the animal, processing, transportation, infrastructure, labor, and other maintenance costs on your farm.  Some costs, like infrastructure, may be higher than with conventional livestock, but others, like feed (eg. bison can graze on more types of grasses than beef) may be lower.  Example:  because most of these animals are not domesticated, they aren’t exactly tame.  Hollow Hill needed to purchase custom-made, reinforced pens in order to handle the larger bison (and they still replace a lot of 2 inch pipe).  Use your total expenses to figure out how much it is costing you to raise and sell each animal.  You will have to charge more than that to make a profit.  This is a simple profit and loss calculation, but believe it or not lots of farmers do not do this.

Next look at your competition:  if you are only competing with beef or a similar, mainstream product in a local area, as Hollow Hill is at their general store and restaurant, you can at least match or mark up further what a high-end beef cut is going for.  If you are competing with other similar exotic meats you will have to consider how to compete and still make a profit, or justify your prices with proper marketing.

The Whole Shebang

Grocery stores have the luxury of ordering what they want, then putting it on sale when it needs to sell.  For small producers who are direct marketing or regional wholesalers, your mission will become “selling the rest of the animal”.  There are a variety of cuts available from the carcass, but you have to balance them out so that you can both sell them in a timely manner and make money on the whole animal.

One recommendation is to separate the cuts into sections:  premium cuts (filet mignon, ribeye), budget cuts (roasts, ribs, shoulder steaks), and ground meat.  Take the percentages of each on the carcass and make sure your prices on the premium cuts are balanced with the low prices on ground product so that you end up with a good profit on the whole carcass.  Premium cuts will bring you a higher profit, but ground meat will sell faster. 

At the time of this writing, it is almost the first day of summer.  If you were to butcher an animal now, I would consider skipping the budget cuts altogether and focusing on premium grillable steaks, kabob meat, and ground meat or sausage.  No one wants to roast or braise in the summer.  A yak divided up this way might look like 25-30% premium cuts and 70-75% ground product.  It may sound like a lot of ground product, but ground meat is a big seller, and with the lower price and familiar application as a cheeseburger, you will win more first time customers.

Once you go yak...

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yes there are people who do not heed this warning. and i'm sure they look just like the guy on that sign.Exotic meats will benefit from (good) media attention as more and more people become interested and try these products.  From there, a combination of educational marketing and great customer service will generate buzz and increase word-of-mouth. 

Customers want to meet the person growing the meat, ask the farmer what the animal ate, where it’s from, and what it tastes like.  Hollow Hill has a great back story, and Aaron, the ranch manager, has some wild stories to tell (ask him about the bull that picked up an F350.  I am not making this up).  This not only makes Hollow Hill a destination, but builds a relationship with the customer that earns their trust and establishes a good reputation.  When those people bring their steaks home and grill them with friends, those friends will be intrigued.  Then they will visit and have a fantastic experience.  Then they will buy.  Then they will bring their steaks home and grill them with different friends.  You get it.

Education in your marketing will be essential no matter if there are other people selling exotic meat in your market or not.  There are just too many people who have never gotten off the beef/pork/chicken train and need to be introduced to exotic meat altogether.  This study shows that past experience, “exotic-ness level” (not an exact term), and perception are major barriers to purchasing.  Don’t make any claims that will get you in trouble with some government agency somewhere, but touting the health benefits of lean, high protein meats will earn you points in the health-conscious community.  Promoting how unique and delicious it is by sharing recipes (that can double as a way to recommend proper cooking of leaner meats) will help seal the deal.  Wild Idea Buffalo has put a “just try it, you’ll like it” spin on their website with a whole page dedicated to the creative ways you can cook with bison.  Patrons who eat at the Swinging Bridge restaurant at Hollow Hill Farm walk out of there with both a confirmation that they like the taste, and a plethora of recipe ideas to try to recreate themselves.

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you will be bison tartare someday. and that makes me happy.

There has been a lot of attention lately on ways of cutting meat to get new steaks and value added products (flat iron filet, anyone?).  However, if you are introducing an exotic species to your regional market I would consider playing it safe at first.  Start out with some simple, boneless steaks like strip, filet, and ribeye, and a lot of ground product.  Consider making something fun but appealing like sausages or marinated kabobs.  Then once you earn a following, ask your customers what they’d like to have.  Delmonico or petit chuck tender?  Coming right up. 

You can also tap into tradition.  There are plenty of ethnic/cultural restaurants and markets serving people who already eat and enjoy what an American would consider exotic meat.  You may want to research different cuisines and drop a sample off at a German restaurant or Asian market.

The National Bison Association has a great marketing handbook on their website too.

What about you?  What would entice you to purchase an exotic meat?  What marketing strategies have worked for you?