- Blue Apron founder and former COO Matthew Wadiak has launched Cooks Venture, a food company focused on regenerative agriculture and transparency in food production, according to a company press release. The company's goal is to build a better food system, with an emphasis on poultry to start.
- The startup has purchased two processing facilities in Oklahoma and an 800-acre farm in Arkansas, where it will raise slow-growth heirloom chickens. Cooks Venture said it is the first company of its scale in the U.S. that produces only slow growing, pasture-raised birds with unrestricted outdoor access.
- Cooks Venture will begin distribution in July 2019, with pre-sales available now. The company will distribute to retailers and will also operate an online store. Prices begin at $40 for two slow-growth, pasture-raised heirloom chickens, four for $70 and six for $90.
Consumers' concern over animal welfare has been an increasing focus in recent years, reaching a fever pitch when California voters passed a ballot measure requiring poultry farmers in the state to provide a minimum level of space for egg-laying hens, which are traditionally kept in cages and allotted no more than a standard size sheet of paper. As the wall between consumers and the poultry industry slowly crumbles amid cries for greater transparency, a new market opportunity has risen for a fresh approach to putting chicken and eggs on shoppers' tables.
Cooks Venture aims to tap into this demand with its slow-growing, pasture-raised birds. Conventional poultry is raised in confined houses and chickens are not allowed outdoors for biosecurity reasons. Although many packages bear the label "cage-free," this does not mean the birds have outdoor access. Some outfits similar to Cooks Ventures raise poultry in mobile coops or schooners that provide outdoor access to forage, which is referred to as pastured poultry.
The new company has some steep competition ahead if it plans to achieve its goal. California-based Pasture Bird offers pasture-raised poultry via online sales with free home delivery nationwide as well as in-store sales at select California retailers, while Primal Pastures offers similar products through home delivery on the West Coast. Vital Farms, an outspoken advocate of pasture-based production, sells pasture-raised eggs in stores nationwide including Whole Foods and standard grocery chains, while online subscription service Butcher Box offers free-range organic chicken delivered to shoppers' doorsteps.
In order to achieve sustainable margins, these companies often have to charge substantially higher prices for their products compared to conventionally produced products. The day-to-day maintenance of moving schooners, providing high-quality feed and having to wait longer for birds to reach butcher weight are factors that conventional poultry producers don’t have to recoup. Pasture Bird sells a five-pack of boneless, skinless breasts for $69, for example, while Tyson offers a five-pack of conventionally raised breasts for $12.27.
There have already been a few casualties in the pasture-raised poultry game. Last year, pastured poultry operation Crystal Lake Farms announced the closure of its 35,000-square foot processing plant in Jay, Oklahoma. The company raised a proprietary breed of chicken that featured similar characteristics to Cooks Venture's birds. (Cooks Venture acquired Crystal Lake Farms, a spokesman for Cooks told Grocery Dive).
Cooks Venture is already discussing plans to raise cattle, pigs, grains, vegetables and more in the future, but this is going to hinge on whether or not they can attract enough consumers to pay top dollar for a different type of chicken.