Meet the Meat of Tomorrow

Back in the days when people in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District actually packed meat, my mother hunted far and wide for bargains on beef. When she’d capture her priced-to-buy prey, we’d pack the icebox with enough meat for months of meals.

But soon, her children may have the same quality at the push of a button.

Businesses have offered custom beef delivery since the 1940s when a Nebraska meat cutter brokered a deal with the Union Pacific Railroad. Omaha Steaks were special-occasion cuts and worth the premium to ship long distance in waxed paper-lined boxes filled with dry-ice.

Today’s meat entrepreneurs are refining that 80-year-old concept. People want convenient, fresh meat. The race is on to deliver it the fastest—and cheapest.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to get high quality proteins to more customers cheaper,” says butcher turned businessman Joshua Applestone.

Applestone thinks vending machines maybe be the solution to the meat lovers’ dilemma. After selling Fleisher’s Grass Fed and Organic Meats (now Fleisher’s Craft Butchery), he started Applestone Meat Company with two upstate New York locations in 2016. His small team sources local sustainable hormone and antibiotic-free meat, cuts it to impeccable standards, then vacuum-packs and organizes it in his refrigerated vending machines, where it is available 24/7 in storefront kiosks.

“People buy meat a few times per week and they want it safe, clean, fresh,” he explains. His vending machines let meat shoppers buy after work or after hours without waiting on line. “Customers have the perception that it’s never closed. So there’s no stress.” France and Germany are leading the way with food vending machines. In Japan, you can buy live crabs and cooked eggs in vending machines, but their technology is not up to U.S. health codes.

“Success comes from building a brand that customers trust,” according to Applewood. He is creating a “human experience” in a “full-service craft butcher shop with no humans.” Fewer people behind the counter cut his costs.

“The machines are the first step,” he explains. “We use machines for cutting, for packaging and for selling faster, cleaner, cheaper.”

He’s on his third vending machine design, continuously refining the customer experience. Applestone plans to open 10 more locations in 2018.

The beef-buying experience from venture-backed Crowd Cow operates like an app. It’s like Uber Pool, but for beef. The playful website finds nearby cattle and connects other buyers who want to purchase “stakes”—i.e select packages of cuts of beef—in the same animal, and when it sells out (about 50 shares), the cow is “tipped,” credit cards charged, and a week later, your share, about 8-9 pounds, is delivered flash-frozen via FedEx for a $12.99 flat fee. The company went national in June.

Crowd Cow’s goal is to connect small local ranchers who would happily sell beef by the “side,” with customers that like knowing where their food comes from (see Portlandia Season One, Episode One). For years, websites like Local Harvest and Eat Wild have showcased farmers for local foodies to find. But growers often don’t have the skill or time to be retailers. Now, ranches are on waiting lists to work with Crowd Cow, while customers seem cool with the easy game-like interface that gives them details on how their meat was raised, grazed and finished without any interaction with an actual farmer.

“My friends and I have been doing beef shares for years,“ one happy customer wrote about Crowd Cow. “Now it’s so much easier.”

ZayconFresh, a seven-year-old start-up, now valued in the tens of millions, also pre-sells meats online, but they sell in bulk and distribute in person—at 1200 drive-through parking lot pop-ups two or three times per year each. At a designated hour, customers cue their cars and Zaycon employees load their trunks with pre-paid 40-pound orders direct from ranchers. This takes a lot of coordination and plenty of custom-cooled trucks. The company maintains its own fleet and uses a proprietary logistics software that founder Mike Conrad claims “rivals UPS.”

The company’s success comes from their delivery of freshness and below-club-store prices. Bulk ground beef is $2.99 pound.

It’s a deal my mother would love.