Keren Chen wanted more than just the perfect steak.
The third-year nutrition and food science student was looking for high-quality meat that would fuel her athletic needs, without breaking the bank.
But instead of going to her local grocer, the 20-year-old started Urban Rancher in March, a meat distributing business that epitomizes farm-to-table dining.
The concept is simple: Urban Rancher buys a whole cow then sells the cuts piecemeal, usually serving 12 people per cow. Each share costs about $187.50 for 30 pounds of meat. The process starts with the farmer, located in
Durham, to the butcher in Port Perry, and finally to Urban Rancher in Toronto.
Chen, an avid cross-fit trainer says it all started when she and about seven other gym friends decided to purchase and share a local, grass-fed cow. The initial order was so successful, that Chen and another gym member, Brennan Direnfeld, decided to take it further.
That included making the business official with the government of Ontario’s Summer Company program, which gives a students a $3,000 grant and entrepreneurial mentorship to start up.
Chen heard about the opportunity through her academic adviser. “It was very last minute, but I think they saw a really good idea and something they hadn’t heard of before.”
Her largest customers are still other members of the gym, Auxiliary Crossfit, in the city’s west end. All the meat is stored in a small, white fridge there, where it becomes convenient for people to purchase the cuts post-workout.
“We are surrounded by people that have a really high protein diet and that propelled us to find quality beef for cheaper,” says Chen.
The main advantage to the process is how fresh the meat is kept, says Chen. Instead of storing the meat in a locker for months on end, Urban Rancher says it tries to get its product straight to the customer in a week.
Chen, a full-time student, says she can spend more than 20 hours a week on the business if there are multiple orders. Her schedule can get busy, she says, especially co-ordinating all participants.
Mastering the logistics has been the biggest learning curve for Chen. Most of the operations are still done through Skype, Gmail and a mobile purchasing app.
Despite a lack of elaborate ordering systems, the business is growing fast. According to Chen, they’ve tripled their orders within six months. They also bought a new freezer recently just to keep up with growth.
Chen is hoping the introduction of new items including sausages, shepherd’s pie and beef jerky, will also help expand the business. Customers have also asked for a variety of meats, including chicken and lamb.
“We hope to start a monthly subscription and be a one-stop-shop for meat,” says Chen.
Still, some of Chen’s friends and family remain skeptical about how far a girl with a passion for meat can take the business.
“They think I’m nuts,” she says. “They see it as some small project on the side and I don’t think they know how much it can grow if I devote more time to it,” Chen adds.
“I’m looking forward to showing them up,” she says.
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on October 23, 2013.