Niman Ranch

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Niman Ranch, Inc.
Industry Food distribution
Founder Bill Niman
Headquarters Alameda, California, Oakland, California, USA
Key people
Jeff Tripician, GM
Products Beef, pork, and lamb
Revenue $75 million projected 2008
Number of employees
Subsidiaries Niman Ranch Pork Co.

Niman Ranch began in the early 1970s on an eleven-acre ranch in a small coastal town just north of San Francisco. They produce beef, lamb, and pork. The Niman Ranch network has grown to include over 720 independent farmers and ranchers in the US.


Early years[edit]

Founded in 1969 by rancher William Ellis "Bill" Niman, who has since left the company, a hippie and elementary school teacher, moved from Minnesota to the small coastal town of Bolinas, California.[1] 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.[2]

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 US 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[edit]

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' pork under the name "Niman-Schell".[3]

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 the 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).[4]

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.[2] Projected revenue for 2008 was $75 million.

Niman becomes a national brand[edit]

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 development of California cuisine, and by extension much of 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.[5]

In 2001 Niman entered an agreement to sell pork to the Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant chain. To meet the demand, Paul Willis recruited hog farmers, mostly from the Midwest, to raise pigs under contract.[6]

Today Niman Ranch sells to more than 1,200 restaurants and restaurant groups.[7] Large grocery chains such as Whole Foods Market 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 now carries their own house brands of high-quality premium meats, using many of the same production and marketing techniques.[6]

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.[8] The CEO at the time, Jeff Swain, said that the company is making $7,000 a week since Natural Food took over, rather than losing $10,000.[9]

Embezzlement Scandal[edit]

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.[10]

Bill Niman leaves Niman Ranch[edit]

In August 2007 Bill Niman left the Niman Ranch after increasing confrontations with the new management team. Bill Niman is no longer part of the company and is forbidden to use his surname commercially.[11]

Perdue buys Niman Ranch[edit]

In September 2015, Perdue Farms, a large privately owned poultry company, announced that it was buying Natural Food Holdings, the owner of Niman Ranch.[12] The Niman Ranch company continues to operate autonomously.

Niman Ranch becomes Certified Humane[edit]

Beginning September 1, 2016, all of Niman Ranch’s pork, beef, lamb and processed products, including bacon, sausages, hot dogs, and hams, became Certified Humane[13] by the Humane Farm Animal Care program, making them the largest multi-protein company in the U.S. to join the program.[14]

Production and distribution[edit]

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.

Partner farms[edit]

Niman Ranch claims that their livestock are "humanely raised according to the strictest animal handling protocols."[15] The company sold Niman's original cattle feedlot in 2008 because it was not financially viable.[9] The company works closely with over 750 family farmers and ranchers across the country.[16] 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.[9]
  • 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.

100% genetic Angus cattle graze on pasture for 14–18 months. When they reach 900 pounds, they are "finished" on a diet of barley, corn, wheat, soy, molasses, and hay.

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.[2]

Slaughter and butchering[edit]

Most Niman Ranch Pork is processed at a slaughterhouse in Iowa, lamb in California, and beef in Utah. After slaughter, animals are transported and butchered by a network of local and regional distributors.



Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]