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The Well Done Man – Dana Ehrlich
The Well Done Man is a biographical interview with a Bostonian who is doing exceptional things. It is meant to give insight and knowledge regarding each interviewee’s vision of success and how, beyond their obvious talents, they have reached this point in their lives and careers.
Dana Ehrlich is co-founder and CEO of Verde Farms, the Boston-based provider of organic, grass-fed beef. His products are now available nationwide at places like Whole Foods or Wegmans and served locally at Boloco. We talked with Dana about his life-altering exchange program in Argentina, his passion for evolving the beef industry, and the everyday mission of making naturally-raised meat more available in the U.S.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Lynn and grew up in West Peabody and Lynnfield. I went to college at University of Pennsylvania where I studied Chemical Engineering and Product Development/Finance. Then I worked for 6 years in Silicon Valley first for Intel as an engineer and then a product manager for their microprocessors. I moved on to another hi-tech company, Network Appliance, for a few years but really wanted to do something besides technology so I applied and got into Tuck Business School at Dartmouth. Before I went to business school, I backpacked around the world for about a year traveling to 20 different countries throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. While I was at Dartmouth I did an exchange program in Argentina and ate a lot of grass feed beef while I was there. When I came back to the U.S., I couldn’t find grass-fed beef anywhere and had my ah-ha moment.
How did the idea for Verde Farms come about? Was there a specific moment or experience that really drove the idea?
I was studying entrepreneurship at Dartmouth and developing ideas for an adventure travel company so I had originally gone to Argentina to work on my Spanish and research potential trips to Patagonia. While in Argentina I had an experience where I stayed for a weekend at an estancia which is like a bed and breakfast that is located on a working cattle ranch. The beef there just tasted different: clean and delicious. You could eat a lot of it and not get sick. The analogy I use is Budweiser is to conventional beef as Sam Adams is to grass-fed beef. It was really only when I got back to the U.S. that I started to see the potential for a company because I couldn’t find it anywhere. I started looking into the differences between U.S. and Argentinian beef and the current organic and grass-fed livestock standards. My vision was to combine organic and grass-fed beef and put that into the trend that was happening here in the U.S. After 10 years that has finally come to fruition.
What type of research did you do before launching Verde Farms?
There was 3-4 years of just research before we starting selling any products because there was so much to learn. I needed to know where to procure organic livestock, how to arrange freight for meat products, customs brokerage, packaging technology, what are the different parts of the cow, etc. It was a lot of conversations and networking and just learning where you can to put the pieces together. There wasn’t one good source.
Why is the term grass-fed so popular these days?
What’s driving the current trend in grass fed beef is consumer interest in health and wellness, environmental sustainability, and animal welfare. Grass fed beef is lower in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol. Environmentally, our organic line has no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers used. For example, In Uruguay we have two gauchos on horseback for a 1000 head of cattle and it’s pristine; there’s no tractors or corn silos. The way you would envision it to be is how we do it. When we first started there might have been 50 farms and now we have 500. So there is a real movement happening on the ground where the farmers are responding to the demand from consumers. We are essentially playing matchmaker and making a market that ensures the farmers are getting a good return on the animals that they raise so that they can continue to expand.
What do you think has allowed you to succeed to this point?
Our format has always been 100% virtual whereas other people went out and bought factories and had massive overhead or they were very farmer centric and not focused enough of the business aspect. So there was a lot of business strategy upfront. Then it’s just relentless dedication to execution, right down to the tiniest detail.
Any cool milestones?
We’ve sold 10+ million pounds of beef in 2015. That’s a lot of beef!
What is most important to Verde Farm’s long-term success?
Up until now it’s been execution on supply chain management. I’ve always wanted to focus more on the brand but you can’t focus on the brand until you have supply, customers, product and distribution. So I’ve spent most of my time and energy to build the team and infrastructure to manage the supply chain properly. Right now we have a 99.9% fill rate which is not easy to do so we’re pretty proud of that. It’s important that our customers are stocked 52 weeks a year. We can’t have a scenario where someone walks into a Boloco and says “I’d like the beef burrito” and have Boloco say “Sorry, we don’t have beef this week.” It’s just not acceptable, which is why we focus on supply.
What is your biggest challenge on a daily basis?
We want to continue to educate the consumer and we are starting to do more on the marketing
end to build the brand and use it as a platform. For example, all grass-fed brands start their cattle out grazing in a field but some brands finish the process in a feedlot, which may be allowed by the letter of the law but we believe it’s disingenuous to the consumer. So a lot of consumers may eat grass-fed or organic and not know what all the differences are.
Any advice for those who have never considered grass-fed meat?
You vote your morals with your wallet. You can turn a blind eye and pick up a package of meat and throw it on the grill and never think about where it came from so the more questions that people ask, the better. If they see animals being raised in feedlots or dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico because of all the fertilizers running down stream, or the obesity epidemic in the U.S., then at some point you can’t turn a blind eye. The more people know, the more they will trend in this direction, which is what’s happening now with social media and increased transparency. 99% of people don’t know any better and if you go to the supermarket it’s easy to not pay attention to it, but it really does make a difference and we are dedicated to that.
What is the best selling item at Verde Farms?
Definitely the ground beef for burgers, tacos, meatloaf or meatballs. We are available nationally including Wegmans and Whole Foods under private label. Also, we provide all of the beef for Boloco who’s founder also when to Tuck. Soon we will be launching some more premium products under a Reserva label that we will be selling through high end markets.
What do you love about this job?
I really like the creative process and creating something out of nothing. Also, my senior thesis in college was on an environmental issue related to the Clean Air Act so I’ve always been interested in environmental sustainability. Lastly, I love food. So with the creation of an organic and grass-fed product combined with my personal interest in food and the environment, it all just came together with Verde Farms.
Advice for current or aspiring business owners that might be looking to jump into this business or change their current focus?
Don’t have a plan B because you need to be all in. You also need to be smart about it so going into the corporate world first gave me a lot of good experience; however, you’re never going to be successful replicating what someone else is doing. You need to create a unique innovation to be successful.