Living in the hinterland of northwest Alberta I often get asked if I do a lot of hunting. My answer is yes my hunting season starts the first week of September and lasts till the first week of December and then the season starts again mid-January and runs through till the end of March. They look at me with fascination and ask if I live in a zoo or the Serengeti with boundless game. Then I explain that I don’t hunt the four-legged quarry with a rack that would make an American hunter lose his senses. I hunt the two-legged kind… retailers and chefs! Stalking and bagging one of these creatures is much more of a challenge and most of all rewarding, because once you’ve got them mounted on your wall they can help feed your family for more than just one season. But the hunting is tough, the quarry is wary and sometimes it would seem bagging Bigfoot would be an easier task.
What’s prompted this kind of analogy? Could be I’ve just come off another nine-hour flight, stacked with an eight-hour time zone change, but I really think it is a fitting description of what it takes to grow a branded beef program. Others would refer to these jaunts as fishing trips but I’m not much of a fisherman. I like to see the game that I am trying to bag.
My best hunting trips have always been when I manage to take down the patriarch or matriarch of the herd. Translated, when I can deal with the visionary/ owner/creator of the business — the people who call the shots, that’s when I am much more likely to get the deal done. Unfortunately the number of small independent retail chains with more than five stores in Canada can almost be counted on one hand.
Food service is a different cat. There are lots of independents to pick from but this quarry often lacks volume and weight and it takes a lot of them to use up as much beef as one retailer would. There are chains… but then you get into the world of cloak and dagger.
What I mean by this is it becomes almost impossible to get an answer or a decision. Sometimes it is nearly impossible to figure out who is in charge. The chain store is a world populated by layers of middle managers who all seem to develop a bad case of “analysis paralysis” at some point during the process. They are afraid to make decisions because their careers may be on the line if they make a bad one, so the wheels spin. You don’t get anywhere and the quarry continues to evade your trophy wall. In addition, this quarry can often get adversarial and as a hunter you have to be quick on your wits otherwise the quarry can pounce and the next thing you know, you are on their dinner table.
It’s a good thing that hunting season has a break from May to August because the game of predator and prey does become tiresome, so it’s good to have time to play cowboy and think of your strategy for next season.
Taking some advice from bear hunters I am finding it easier to bag my quarry by “beef baiting.” This involves bringing the quarry to the ranch. That way you take them out of their environment and can hunt on your own turf where you set the rules of engagement. Best of all they cannot run away! In short, we wine and dine them ranch style!
After six years of first fishing, then stalking, baiting has proven to be one of the most effective methods of getting potential customers to understand what our brand is all about. They see the heart and the blood, sweat and tears that go into producing a product that they often take for granted. Too many end-users, including butchers and chefs, do lose sight of all the hard work that goes into the branded beef showing up in boxes on their receiving docks. But bring them to the ranch and you can see the realization sink in that the beef they are preparing comes from living, breathing animals that once roamed the pastures they are touring.
Now that I have modified my hunting strategy less towards stalking and more towards baiting, the trophy room has started to fill up, but like any good hunter I am always looking for ways to improve. So I tried using decoys. Unlike the plastic ones used by goose hunters I prefer live ones. I call them “End-User Champions.” These are the chefs and retail owners who recommend our products to their colleagues. I think this is the best marketing/sales/hunting strategy of all — have the trophies recommending to other quarry that they should go to you.
As Jimmy Buffet says, “the world is made of innovators, imitators and idiots.” There are only so many in each category and it requires time and patience for the innovators to influence the imitators or better yet for the imitators to copy the innovators.
So there you have my hunting story. Unlike many that come to our neck of the woods to hunt for pleasure, I hunt for the sake of survival for our family ranch and the 19 other ranchers who are part of our branded program. Becoming a good hunter takes time, patience, knowledge of the habitat where the quarry is found, and the skills to take it down. It gets tiring at times, like when you’ve not slept for 28 hours, but in the end when you can add another trophy to your wall of satisfied customers, it is worth it. There is a good story behind every one of them.
Dr. Christoph E. Weder is a purebred Angus breeder in the Peace region of Alberta and also runs SVR Ranch Consulting. He is also a founding member of Prairie Heritage Beef Producers. For additional info check outwww.spiritviewranch.com.