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Ontario’s CARVE brand beef a success

Growing appetite for high-quality local food created on opportunity for a new beef brand

A newly minted premium Ontario beef brand called CARVE raked in more than $3 million in sales in just over a year and has become a flagship product for Flanagan Foodservice.

“We lead with it everywhere we go,” said Brad Heard, the company’s category manager for protein. “We worked hand in hand with the Beef Farmers of Ontario and the program has been fantastic, growing faster than we anticipated.”

Flanagan’s is a food distributor with 6,000 customers across the province, including restaurants, health care institutions, caterers, hotels and resorts.

The company received $33,000 — or 50 per cent of the total project’s cost — from the BFO’s Collaborative Partnership program, which is part of its Regional Marketing Initiative (RMI), according to LeaAnne Wuermli, the organization’s manager of communications and marketing.

The three-year RMI was developed and launched in 2017 as a response to a shrinking provincial herd, competition from imports and rising costs of production. Its objectives are to get more Ontario beef brands into consumers’ grocery carts, increase the value of the products and boost consumer confidence in the industry.

“Flanagan’s was interested in developing something unique that would differentiate them from their competitors,” said John Baker, project manager for RMI. “They’re doing a very good job at promoting the program and the brand is definitely being noticed in the marketplace.”

A growing appetite for high-quality local food was the impetus for Flanagan’s to start building their own beef brand.

“Every year, we ask what customers are looking for, and usually the first answer is competitive price, but right up there is getting local product… chefs and restaurants are asking and demanding to have access to local products,” Heard said, adding that the trend has been growing for seven to 10 years and there are no indications that it will be stopping any time soon.

Baker said Flanagan’s indicated a need for on-farm quality assurances including animal welfare and nutritionally balanced feeding protocols. They wanted a 52-week-of-the-year consistent supply of high-quality beef. And, as important, they wanted to be able to tell the story behind the products. Baker turned to the Ontario Cattle Feeders’ Association, and its experience with the highly successful Corn-Fed Beef program, to help develop the supply of cattle.

Heard said that his customers are willing to pay a “little bit more” for the local premium cuts because they have these kinds of assurances. CARVE is one of Flanagan’s in-house brands, which gives the company more control over ensuring that its own specifications are being met. All its CARVE meat is supplied by Ontario meat packers, specifically Ryding Regency and St. Helens.

The BFO also helped Flanagan’s with the brand story and marketing materials, and, according to both, CARVE is an early win for the new marketing initiative.

In spite of the membership turning down an increase in check-off fees at its 2018 annual general meeting, the BFO will continue RMI this year, making $150,000 available for the collaborative partnership program.

“We want to see lots of projects come in,” Wuermli said, adding that if a really exceptional proposal were submitted, they’d look at providing extra funding.

While staff had to rearrange some marketing priorities, several projects are going ahead this year, including consumer research being done by Hill & Knowlton, which was expected to wrap up in July.

“We’ll be using the feedback and messaging we’ve tested with consumers to refresh the website, do some videos and create other marketing tools,” she said.

Another RMI project that’s partially completed is one the BFO and the Ontario Independent Meat Processors jointly funded to find out if Ontario beef could be distinguished from that of other provinces or countries. To do the research, they hired Oritain, a company that specializes in scientific analytics to use traceability technology. After testing 236 samples of beef from 95 farms last fall, the company successfully proved that Ontario beef has a distinctive “fingerprint” that distinguishes it from all other beef.

Wuermli said the next recommended step from Oritain is to continue collecting samples to maintain a robust database and conduct a market audit in which products could be bought at retail and compared against that database.

The BFO is also working on an online, interactive carcass cutout tool — for producers who sell beef direct from the farm gate — to help them with pricing different cuts.

“It’s basic, but it’s at least a starting point for these producers,” she said.

Wuermli said that the marketing team will be making the best of the resources they have, concentrating on getting some wins from shorter-term projects and putting on hold larger and longer-term efforts until next year.

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