Thursday, September 11, 2014

When Butcher Meets Entrepreneur: Happy Valley Meat Co.

Dan Honig (CAS '10, GSAS '11) is a co-founder of Happy Valley Meat Co. (HVMC), a start-up that is striding towards "making sustainable meat sustainable." According to Honig, the meat industry is flawed. The system lacks transparency, and chefs, let alone consumers, rarely know the history of the meat they are serving or eating.

Last week, we had the pleasure of speaking to Honig, who started out as a butcher, and now helps to run HVMC. Read our Q&A with him to learn more about how this start-up is changing the way we eat meat.

What does it mean to "upgrade the food chain?"

Upgrading the food chain can have a multitude of meanings, which is what makes talking about food and where it comes from so difficult. An upgrade can be more food at a lower cost for some or less food at a higher cost for others. The main problem that I want to tackle with Happy Valley Meat Company is the gross misinformation, confusion and lack of understanding that is ubiquitous in today's meat market. Upgrading the food chain through this lens means complete traceability, from birth to slaughter to meal. By maintaining transparent operations, consumers can easily obtain the facts on animal treatment, environmental practices, health concerns and human rights concerns and then use those facts to decide where they stand on important moral issues.

Are there any big misconceptions that the common American meat-eater has about their food?

I think most people do not know where their food comes from, or how it got on their plate. A misconception would mean that there was a concept of how meat is made in the first place, however, I don't think that concept exists. The road from farm to fork is complicated, but at Happy Valley Meat Company, we try to simplify that road by going directly from small farms to restaurants.

What is Happy Valley Meat Company? What do you guys do from day to day, and how do you provide a better option than other meat suppliers?

Happy Valley Meat Company buys beef from small farms and sells them directly to chefs. Traditionally, working with small farms means you have to buy a whole or half animal, but by working with Happy Valley Meat Company, a chef can buy only the cuts she wants (ribeyes, New York strips, filet mignon) but still get to use product from small farms and connect with the farmers who grow their beef.

You earned both a bachelor's and a master's from Arts & Science at NYU. Did your experience at NYU at all influence or prepare you to start your company?

I studied environmental studies and philosophy and did my master's in bioethics, all of which influenced me to try and change the meat market. I learned what the american food system looked like and it's effect on the environment, animals and people, leading me to the conclusion that the conventional system is wrong and change is imperative. My advisor,  Christopher Schlottmann, was and still is a source of inspiration. He helped me apply philosophy to the real world and walk away with a practical solution. So while the specifics of a business are hard to train for, my time at NYU gave me the tools to problem solve, which is the main job of a small business owner.

What has been the biggest challenge in getting HVMC off the ground?

The biggest challenge in getting Happy Valley Meat Company off the ground is creating a brand that people trust and getting our name out. Word of mouth is everything. We partnered with a small plant, Rising Spring Meat Company, that focuses on quality control, a very big concern of ours since word of mouth is our biggest avenue of growth. Keeping consistent high quality product is an equal challenge.

Do you have any advice for other alumni who want to become entrepreneurs?

Learn everything you can about all aspects of your business and know the basics on how to do everything. It's okay to rely on other people, but a small business is volatile, so a flexible owner can get a better grip on sudden changes.

Is it possible to eat healthy meat on a budget?

Yes, eat less meat, but better quality meat and learn how to stretch meals by reusing leftovers and utilizing all edible materials like bones and stems. Vegetables and fungi are key for delicious meals on a budget.

What's your favorite steak recipe?

Buy a high quality steak from your local butcher, ask her for recommendations on cuts. Take an 1.5" thick steak, salt and pepper generously on both sides. Let it get to room temperature. Throw it on a screaming greased hot pan, cook on each side for three to four minutes. Pull it off and let it sit for five minutes so the juice redistributes. Then enjoy.

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