Oakland, California, USABolinas, California
|Key people||Bill Niman, Founder and Former Chairman (no longer associated with company)
Jeff Swain, CEO
Jeff Tripician, Executive Vice President
Eric Silvius, CFO
|Products||Beef, Pork, Lamb, and Poultry|
|Revenue||$75 million projected 2008|
|Subsidiaries||Niman Ranch Pork Co.|
Niman Ranch is a San Francisco Bay Area based ranch, meat processor and distributor of high quality "natural" beef, lamb, and pork, founded by rancher Bill Niman (William Ellis Niman) who has since left the company which is now owned by Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings (part of Hilco Equity Partners).
In 1969 Niman, a hippie and elementary school teacher, moved from Minnesota to the small coastal town of Bolinas, California. There he purchased a ranch for $18,000 to begin a part-time pig, goat, and chicken farming operation. His first cattle were acquired as trade for tutoring services.
For several years, Niman operated as a typical family farm. In 1978 Orville Schell, journalist and factory farming critic, became a partner in the operation, and the company was renamed "Niman-Schell Meats." The next year they began to raise cattle exclusively. The federal government condemned the then-struggling farm by eminent domain in 1984 to become part of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Niman and Schell received $1.3 million in compensation and were allowed to continue grazing cattle on the property for the rest of their lives in exchange for nominal rent.
Growth and investment
By 1994, the company had developed a reputation for high quality beef but demand was exceeding the company's production capacity. In 1994 Niman met Iowa pork farmer Paul Willis, and began private labeling Willis' meat under the name "Niman-Schell".
In 1997 Niman undertook an ambitious expansion, aided by management changes and several million dollars of funding. That year investors Rob Hurlbut and Mike McConnell became owner-partners and the company was renamed "Niman-McConnell". Hurlbut, a former manager of coffee for Nestle, became CEO. Orville Schell left to become dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Subsequently, the company also accepted funding from Pacific Community Ventures, a community development venture capitalist itself funded in large part by the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS).
Revenues grew in the period, from $3 million in 1997 to $5 million in 1998, and $20 million in 2000, as Niman began to sell packaged meats in grocery stores. Projected revenue for 2008 was $75 million.
Niman becomes a national brand
Growth of Niman Ranch is credited to restaurants that list it by name on their menus. From nearly the beginning, Niman was unique among small farms in that it sought to create a consumer product brand. The invention of California Cuisine, and by extension most modern American cuisine, is often attributed to celebrity chef Alice Waters. When Waters opened her iconic Chez Panisse restaurant in 1971, Bill Niman sent her pork for evaluation. Waters agreed to buy pork from Niman, and included both the name and company logo on her menus.
In 2001 Niman entered an agreement to sell pork to Chipotle Mexican Grill, an 800-restaurant casual restaurant chain specializing in Mission-syle burritos and casual Mexican food. To meet the demand, Paul Willis recruited hog farmers, mostly from the Midwest, to raise pigs under contract.
Today Niman Ranch sells to 1,200 restaurants and restaurant groups. Two large grocery chains, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's, also carry Niman's branded meat products, as well as smaller grocers throughout the United States. Safeway and other large chains have periodically carried the products on a regional basis.
Success has brought considerable competition. Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's now carry their own house brands of high-quality premium meats, using many of the same production and marketing techniques.
In July 2006, Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings (part of Hilco Equity Partners) bought a major stake in the company; at the time, Niman Ranch was losing close to $3 million. In January 2009, due to bankruptcy Niman Ranch was merged into its chief investor. The current CEO, Jeff Swain, said that the company is making $7,000 a week since Natural Food took over, rather than losing $10,000.
In April 2010, former Niman Ranch treasurer Gary Steven Gross was indicted by a federal grand jury of defrauding the company of more than $1.6 million.
Bill Niman leaves Niman Ranch
In August 2007 Bill Niman left the Niman Ranch after increasing confrontations with a new management team over money and animal protocols. Today Bill Niman is no longer part of the company and is forbidden to use his surname commercially. He refuses to eat the company's products, because he alleges such problems as the use of antimicrobials, less verifiable feeding standards, and poor animal treatment.
Bill Niman continues to live on his 1000 acre (4 km²) ranch in Bolinas with his third wife, environmental lawyer and animal welfare activist Nicolette Hahn Niman. She convinced him to spare from slaughter their pet cow, Girlfriend, when they were first married in 2003. (His first wife died in a horseback riding accident in the 1970s, and his second 11-year marriage ended in divorce). Because Ms. Niman is a vegetarian, Bill Niman eats almost no meat. In 2005 Niman co-authored the "Niman Ranch Cookbook". He now raises mostly goat-meat for slaughter, as well pigs on an organic farm in Iowa. Written by Nicolette, the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding A Life And Good Food Beyond Factory Farms was released in Feb, 2009. Despite her own vegetarianism, she argues that nonfactory meat consumption is not necessarily less eco-friendly than a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.
Production and distribution
Among the products Niman Ranch distributes are beef steaks and roasts, pork chops, ribs, and roasts, lamb chops and roasts, ground beef, pork, and lamb, "Fearless Franks" hot dogs (beef or pork, cured and uncured), pastrami, corned beef brisket (uncooked), ham, bacon, guanciale, pancetta, salame, stew meat and bones, and pig feet. "Uncured" processed meat is preserved with a similar process involving celery juice, a natural source of nitrites.
Niman Ranch claims that their livestock are "100% traceable from farm to fork." The company sold Niman's original cattle feedlot in 2008 because it was not financially viable. The company works closely with 50 cattle ranchers, nine sheep farmers and 470 pork farmers. Each must agree to a detailed set of "protocols" for raising and treating their animals. These include:
- Animal feed is all vegetarian. No animal products other than milk for lambs.
- Animals must be humanely raised on environmentally sustainable ranches.
- No antibiotics, except in individual cases to treat illness. However, the company does use "antimicrobials", which were forbidden under Bill Niman's watch.
- No ionophores, or hormone supplements.
- Animals are individually pre-approved and must be traceable to the farm where they were born.
- All vitamins, minerals, and other supplements must be approved.
- When it cannot purchase all available supply Niman Ranch favors full-time family farmers.
- Pens and other enclosures and facilities must allow animals to express their natural behaviors.
- Animals remain with their social groups.
- There are other standards with respect to pen sizes, bedding, bunks, shade, water, treatment of sick or injured animals, and herding practices.
- Niman Ranch inspects each supplier for adherence to the protocols. Hog farmers are audited yearly for compliance with the Animal Welfare Institute rules for ethical treatment.
In exchange for agreeing to these terms, Niman Ranch pays a premium of several cents per pound over commercial wholesale prices. It also guarantees a minimum floor price for pork if the hog market crashes.
Slaughter and butchering
Most Niman Ranch Pork is processed at a slaughterhouse in Iowa, lamb in California, and beef in Utah. Farmers are asked to accompany cattle to the slaughterhouse so that the animals are not unduly stressed, and cattle that appear to be under stress are pulled from line until they can be calmed.
After slaughter, animals are transported and butchered to order at a company-owned facility in Oakland, California. There, some cuts of steak are dry aged. As of 2006 the company was engaging meat processors in Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, DC as regional hubs to better serve national distribution agreements.
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