Some see the small American ranch as an enduring symbol of freedom. Others see that rancher as an embattled relic of a past for which there is no realistic prospect of return. It is, however, no stretch to describe Eric Brandt and his company as the Seal Team 6 of America's corporate agriculture wars.
Brandt Beef has branded itself as a high-quality, "True Natural" operation, opposed to the corporate and conventional ag culture. The weapons Brandt uses are (not unlike the tactics of an accomplished Judo-master) the strengths of his opponents: vertical integration and a highly sophisticated just-in-time delivery supply chain. It is also this: unbelievably high quality beef. I have tasted none better.
Brandt Beef's feedlot is 11 miles outside of Brawley, itself 15 miles north of El Centro, 113 miles east of San Diego. The heat in Brawley can be oppressive. The look and feel is of an early color film or maybe something in sepia tone. You suspect that a dust bowl could break out at any moment.
When Brandt returned from college to Brawley and his dad's company, he did so proudly with ag degree in hand, along with expectations of a role greater than scraping out the manure-filled pens. No such luck; there were dues to be paid.
His way out of the pens lay not in his degree but in a magazine advertisement for a Denver seminar on composting. After pestering his father for weeks ("You read too many magazines," his dad would say) for his blessing ("OK, OK, go") and money for the fee ("You expect me to pay for it?") and the airfare, too ("I'm not paying to fly you there"), Bill Brandt finally relented, if only to shut his son up.
Upon his return, Brandt convinced his father to invest in a composting operation. One might think the payoff came when the equipment arrived. It's a moment carved in Ericís memory:
"Eric?" said the voice over the walkie-talkie.
"Yes," he replied.
"Eric, your turd flipper's here."
No. That was definitely not the payoff. The payoff was the transformation of one of the ranch's biggest costs—cleaning manure out of pens—into a revenue stream.
The success of that venture gave Brandt the credibility to build what turned into Brandt Beef: a high-end beef company selling 100-percent natural meat, which, though not exactly organic and grass-fed, is hormone free. The business now accounts for anywhere from a quarter to a third of the parent company's business (the rest is sold mostly to Brandt's competitors).
Most of Brandt's sales are outside of California. Among his New York chefs are Tom Colicchio, Mario Battali, Gordon Ramsay and Michael Lomonaco. To that list add Jay Murray of Boston's Grill 23 and Uwe Opocensky of Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental. Indeed, a high percentage of Brandt Beef's sales are to restaurants in the Far East. The reason, as Opocensky has made clear, is the quality of the meat.
But quality is not necessarily enough. Quality vendors go under every day. And Brandt Beef, a third generation, family-run operation, is facing some stiff, sizeable and ruthless competition. Four companies control more than 80 percent of all the beef slaughtered in this country: Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef Packing. JBS attempted to buy National, but that effort was vetoed by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Brandt knows how the big boys play. Bill Brandt was one of the main investors in a local beef-processing plant that seemed to be their answer until National bought out the plant and "offered" to process Brandt's beef—so long as National could buy at a sharp discount off wholesale. Eric Brandt wants to build a new plant; this time on a smaller scale and focusing on quality.
But that core concept—vertical integration—is one of Brandt's primary defenses against the big boys. The centerpiece of that defense is the company's feed mill. It allows it to control the key input to its key output: food for the cattle. Partnership in Brawley's granary and a sophisticated grass-growing operation run by Brandt's brother gives the company nearly complete control of a fresh supply chain.
Brandt Beef's marketing is also a multifaceted hedge against the big players. While the company sells to many restaurants through distributors (and has experienced problems doing so), it also sells to many restaurants directly and goes direct to the consumer at four farmers markets in the San Diego area: Coronado, Hillcrest, Downtown and Pacific Beach.
Brandt has felt other pressures though, darker ones. Recently at a Los Angeles hotel bar, this happened:
Dude: So who are you with?
Brandt: I'm with Brandt Beef. We—.
Dude: I know who you guys are. I know what you guys do. You use corn. You deserve to die.
Brandt: Um—you're joking, right?
Dude (after a chuckle): No. Oh no. You're going to be lucky to make it out of this place alive.
Was this scare tactics by Big Beef? Was it more of what brought us the foie gras ban? Was it the same people who attacked the Harris Beef processing plant in Fresno County?
Crazy or inebriated, Big Beef or Animal Liberation Front, barstool threats were little more likely to stop Brandt than they would Seal Team 6. There are missions to accomplish and business plans to execute. There is beef—some of the best in the world—to raise, sell and bring to people who otherwise would not really know how it truly good meat can taste.