Successful family-owned businesses are hard to come across these days, especially when it comes to food distributors. The big dogs seem to take over and knock the little guys down, but one Texas-based family has defied the odds.
You might have noticed "44 Farms " next to menu item descriptions at several Houston restaurants, but you have probably never given it a second thought. 44 Farms, founded more than 100 years ago, is the largest black Angus producer in Texas and the fifth-largest in the United States. The company is headquartered in Houston but raises its cattle in Cameron.
Bob McClaren, the owner and CEO of 44 Farms, explains that the business was founded by his great-grandfather in 1909.
"He came with his family from Tennessee to Texas in the late 1800s," McClaren says. "He was a laborer and saved his money and started buying some land on the Little River in Milam County. He started farming primarily in the early years and then expanded into farming and ranching."
Now, 100 years later, 44 Farms is a thriving business that focuses on the genetics of the cattle as a means to improve the overall flavor and quality of their meat. McClaren says that his primary breeding philosophy is to produce the highest marbling content in the meat, something that sets them apart from other beef producers. 44 Farms steaks are aged for a minimum of 28 days.
"We know exactly how our genetics work," McClaren says. "If you invest in our genetics, it will improve your herd. You'll enjoy the cattle more."
Beef is categorized into three grading parameters: prime, choice or select - prime being the best. According to McClaren, less than two percent of beef in the United States is graded USDA Prime.
"We try to produce as much prime as we can," McClaren says. "We just had a result of cattle that we had graded and we had 65 percent prime. We feel like we are on the right course in terms of grading cattle that do well in Texas heat and humidity."
"In July 2012, we launched our own online store as a way to introduce to the public who we are, share the story of 44 Farms, and then from that we took it to a few restaurants, had several taste tests with several restaurants," McClaren says.
"It truly has a different flavor than other beef programs," McClaren says when describing his company's products. "It is so tender, has got a great flavor, and it has been very popular with the chefs."
The chef at Haven, Randy Evans, is an enthusiastic supporter of 44 Farms. He partnered with the business late in 2012 and has enjoyed hearing customers rave about the tenderness and quality of the steaks.
"I really like what they are doing. The meats marble, which means flavor," Evans says. "They are exceptionally tender."
Evans uses a number of 44 Farms products, including big bone-in rib eyes, culotte steak, and even beef franks.
"That meat is really tender," he says. "I will slice it up to make smoked sliced beef sandwiches -- surprisingly tender, well marbled ... sweet finish."
While the marbling of 44 Farms' steaks sets them apart from many other producers, the importance the company places on sharing its story and having its partners do the same also makes the family-owned business special.
For the past 25 years, 44 Farms Steaks has expanded its product line into restaurants through open and blind taste tests with chefs and restaurateurs.
"My career started as a lawyer in baseball, so I had never been to a taste test in a restaurant," McClaren explains. "It is kind of like the World Series; you have the owner or the chef, and in many cases they have been using a supplier of beef for many years. We come in and ask them to try our product and they will cook some up and share it with all of their employees."
To McClaren, the taste tests are just like being in the bottom of the ninth, your team scores. But, as nerve-racking as each taste test may be, 44 Farms Steaks always seems to come out on top, and McClaren says he owes that success to the program's philosophy of "knowing your rancher."
"44 Farms is a little slice of heaven for cattle. They are well treated and the cattle are given the top-shelf treatment; all of the guys and women who work here buy into that philosophy," he says. "The eating experience is phenomenal. We feel like our partners in the food service industry know that they can trust it, and share the story and product with their customers."