Used to be if you wanted to buy meat directly from a farmer without a middleman, you’d have to go find a farmer to sell you a side of beef.  The only problem is, not many of us have a giant freezer to hold hundred of pounds of meat let alone time to drive out and find a farmer.

Enter Crowd Cow. The company makes directly sourcing meat from a farmer much easier through crowdfunding a cow (or technically a heifer or steer) with others online.

The company was founded after former UrbanSpoon founder Ethan Lowry heard a friend rave about the beef he had bought directly from a farmer. Before long, he half-joked with his eventual co-founder Joe Heitzenberg that they should crowdfund a cow.

They eventually did just that and, when to their surprise it worked, Crowd Cow was born.

We decided to catch up with Ethan to ask him a few questions about his company that is trying to bring meat directly to the consumer through crowdsourcing.

Wolf: Grass fed beef delivery services tend to serve local geographies. How do you plan to scale Crow Cow as you go nationwide?

Lowry: Giving consumers across the country access to high-quality, sustainably and ethically-raised beef is exactly what Crowd Cow aims to do. With the rancher relationships we have today, we can reach customers in 14 states. But we’re excited to be national by the end of this summer. To make that happen we need to bring in new ranchers, which is a time-intensive process since we need to do very thorough vetting. We also need to build fulfillment centers across the US so we can efficiently reach customers in different markets.

Wolf: Why use a crowdfund mechanism for each cow? Does it lead to more engagement? 

Lowry: One thing that makes Crowd Cow unique is that we sell the entire animal from a ranch. By crowdfunding each cow, we’re giving consumers exactly what they want, and doing it in a way that doesn’t waste any part of the beef. It’s a nose-to-tail selling experience that you won’t find elsewhere. Some people just love strip steaks and tenderloins, other people just want roasts, and others are really excited to get harder-to-find cuts like oxtail, heart, kidney and tongue.

It gives our customers a sense of community too. It’s not just a one-off purchase they’re making. They, along with their friends and family, can get together and support a particular farmer with a particular story. Also, it’s a bit of a game to watch a cow move towards tipping, the term we use when an entire animal has been purchased. It encourages people to rally their friends and family, buy up shares, and make sure the cow tips.

It’s also important to point out that the small, independent farms we work with can only sell an entire animal. Industrial farms producing thousands and thousands of animals can have them slaughtered and then distribute all the tenderloins to one place and then all the hanger steaks to another. Our farmers don’t work with massive wholesale buyers who do this type of piece-by-piece distribution. They rely on buyers like us, or local butchers and restaurants that can really use all the parts of the animal. We respect this process. We know our ranchers are great at raising delicious beef and we enjoy the challenge of buying the whole animals and finding innovative ways to sell them to consumers.

Wolf: As you go national, do you see regional or even local crowdfund campaigns? (and does that mean the consumer in a specific geography only sees cows that are being crowdfunded in their local geography?)

Lowry: We can’t wait to have partners across the country so we can offer customers locally-raised beef. We’d love to offer California customers California beef and Chicago customers Midwestern beef.

But beyond that, we want customers to experience beef in the same way that you would a fine wine. Beef raised on one ranch actually tastes different from beef raised on another ranch. The flavor comes from what it grazed on during its life, the particular breed it came from (like Angus or Hereford or Wagyu), and importantly the care and treatment it received. It’s exciting to sample beef from different ranchers and find the one you absolutely love.

Crowd Cow is about great-quality beef from the best farmers, but it’s also about experiencing different types of beef and finding your favorites. Featuring regional farms will help us achieve this.

Wolf: Grass fed beef is around 2% nationally, but growing fast. Is your growth a result of this trend as well as the movement towards newer ways to buy food more locally (the Portlandia consumer as you define it)

Lowry: There’s certainly growing interest in understanding how our food is produced. Part of that is consumers being better educated about the downsides to both the animals and ranchers that comes with industrial farming practices. Another part of that is understanding how the food we eat truly impacts our health. When you realize that much of the meat you find at your local supermarket has been pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics, most people would think twice about eating it.

We’re definitely benefiting from this overall food supply chain awareness. Because we partner with farmers that follow ethical and sustainable practices, customers can have confidence in what they’re eating, and it’s a primary reason our customers are telling us that they shop from us. Now, the reason they keep coming back is because this beef happens to be delicious.

I should also note that not all of our beef is exclusively grass fed. We’re certainly open to working with farmers that grain-finish their beef — which means they feed their cattle grain to fatten them up before slaughter. Provided they aren’t using hormones or antibiotics, crowding their animals into pens, or otherwise acting in ways they would ashamed to admit to customers. In fact, we work with some amazing wagyu beef farmers that grain-finish their cattle because it results in a beautifully marbled beef.

What we focus on is transparency. We think people want and deserve to know where their food is coming from, and that supermarket labels are misleading and insufficient. When we ask our customers what really gets them excited about beef from Crowd Cow, it has much more to do with this aspect of our business. Customers care where their food comes from, and we can give them that insight.

Wolf: As consumers move towards local food purchasing enabled through technology-driven marketplaces, how does this look in the future?

Lowry: As consumers, we’ve gotten used to having more and more information about the products we buy, so we can make more knowledgeable decisions and tradeoffs. Digital marketplaces are a fantastic way to get that information. A two-inch label on a grocery store shelf just can’t offer that kind of help.

Wolf: Part of the charm of buying local is getting out and talking to local producers at farmer’s markets, local butchers, etc. Have you thought about ways to keep that alive since you are moving this process online?

Lowry: Absolutely! When you come to our site one of the very first things you’ll see is a complete feature on the farmer whose beef we’re selling that day. You get a video tour of the ranch so you can see their pasture and their grazing herd. We present detailed background about the farmer, their practices and the beef itself.

The digital space is an amazing place to engage with people just like you who may live thousands of miles away. You don’t usually see customers talking to each other at a farmer’s market about favorite recipes, grilling techniques, or even the tastiness of different cattle breeds. But with an online community, we can create this one-to-one experience.

Wolf: One of your local Seattle startup peers, ChefSteps, is looking to build a direct-to-consumer steak marketplace.  Is the market still nascent and big enough to lift all boats, or do you see competition rising?

Lowry: Getting the best quality, sustainably and ethically raised beef delivered to a consumer’s door is quite a bit easier said than done. We let you order just the cuts and quantity you are looking for, from the farm you choose, delivered to you. We have to be unbelievably diligent about who we work with and how we assess their practices, we have to efficiently package and deliver each custom order, and fuel a growing community. That’s no easy task.

Right now we’re not seeing anyone offering what we are, and we know (from hard experience) that it will be difficult for anyone else to do this.

That said, I think other companies talking about the importance of high-quality meat is great for us, and consumers, by simply raising awareness. Our biggest challenge is to get the word out so people realize they have a choice.

Wolf: We focus a lot on the future of the kitchen. Have you thought about ways to leverage growing interest in cooking tech and new technology in the kitchen for your business of crowdfunding cows?

Lowry: Each and every Crowd Cow beef cut is vacuum-sealed in a food safe pouch and then flash frozen. At a very basic level, this makes it easy to keep fresh in your freezer until you’re ready to cook it up. But, this is also really great for sous vide cooking. Customers are always sending us pictures of their sous-vide-prepared meat and it looks amazing.

As the cost of sous vide devices comes down and the features and quality get better and better, I’m sure more customers will want to try it out. At this point an Anova is less than $150, and it’s an amazing little machine. We’re definitely excited to help people learn more about sous vide and how it can help them prepare restaurant-quality beef at home.

I also think new food tech innovations like June, the “smart” oven, align beautifully with what we’re about. This is a device that’s designed to give you high-quality food, coupled with convenience and simplicity. That’s almost exactly what we’re trying to do with Crowd Cow — bring you the best quality beef, with the convenience of ordering online and home delivery.

Wolf: Can you see extending Crowd Cow into other forms of locally produced food?

Lowry: Definitely. There’s a ton of demand for ethically and sustainably raised meat. Almost since day one we’ve had customers asking us for pork, chicken, lamb, fish and other more exotic meats.

Right now however, we’re hyper-focused on finding fantastic beef farmers across the US. Once we’ve nailed that, we’ll work with farmers to offer other great products.