it like it is: The Salatins are not shy about promoting
the benefits of their family farm.
Not For Everyone
"If people who spend hundreds of dollars
on a vacation fling can't make the effort
to come to the farm and acquire the
world's best chicken, then they don't deserve it."
Families Still Best Customers
Despite its rapid growth, the restaurant trade still accounts
for only about 20 percent of Joel's business. The rest of
his customers -- about 400 of them -- are families and individuals,
most of whom live within 80 kilometers of the farm. Two or
three times a year, these people drive out to the farm and
buy an average of 12 to 15 freshly dressed chickens per visit.
The birds are ordered, in writing, before Joel receives the
baby chicks from the hatchery. Everyone pays for and promptly
picks up their orders.
"People who live really close may come out every week
we slaughter. They'll buy half a dozen birds at a time,"
Joel says. "People who live over 100 miles away come
once a year. It's like a pilgrimage for them. We have customers
who come from as far away as Washington, D.C.; Richmond; North
Carolina; Virginia Beach; Pennsylvania, and Maryland. They'll
stay for half an hour, see the chickens in the pens and maybe
bring a picnic lunch with them. It's not just a business purchase.
They're here for the country experience.
"The distance of the drive is in direct proportion
to the value of what is being purchased," he adds. "Many
people will not drive five miles for vegetables, but they
will drive 100 miles for meat. Half a beef is a $500 purchase.
You don't think twice about driving 100 miles for a $500 purchase.
The average check runs about $100, but one this season was
two bucks less than $1,000 from one customer. We've dressed
$3,500 of poultry in a morning. That's a lot of vegetables!
We are so bullish on meat and animal products because they
are so much higher in value for the producer."
"You start with one chicken and a neighbor," Joel
explains. "You start with a superior product and then
you go to your neighbor and knock on the door and say, 'I've
got the world's best ... fill in the blank ... and I'd like
you to try one.'
"You have to start with one. Make a list of all of
the people who you would send a wedding announcement to, and
that's where you start."
But it doesn't happen overnight. "We had three customers
for beef the first year. There were no chickens until the
second year. We had 400 birds and we gave away about half
of them, or so it seemed. The next year, we dropped back to
300 birds. But the fourth year, we had 800 and it's just gone
up ever since," Joel recalls.
"We put together a slide program about the farm and
started doing little, 20- to 30-minute programs for local
civic clubs. All of these folks meet routinely and they usually
try to have some sort of speaker program. We have done some
of these clubs three times in the past 10 years. This is an
educational program about farming in an environmentally and
"By doing it this way, people were able to see that
I was a clean-cut, all-American boy, not a leftover hippie
running naked in the woods in the middle of the night or some
good old boy drinking moonshine.
"What we have found over the years is that people are
just starving for an agricultural model that is environmentally
enhancing and is kind to its neighbors. People just really
warmed up to the image of a viable business being run like
that. It's like a breath of fresh air to people."
It also took time because the Salatins planned it that way.
"We decided to grow slowly," explains Joel. "Dad
always counseled me that the worst thing a small business
can do is overrun its headlights, to outstrip its cash flow
or the ability to produce a quality product.
"We drove a $50 car and lived on $200 a month. If we
didn't grow it, we didn't eat it. We kept our living standards
extremely low, from a material standpoint. That's how we were
able to weather those early, lean years.
"Whenever somebody would recommend a new customer to
us, we would try to trace them back to the source -- the customer
who told this new person about us. We'd make sure that the
person recommending us received for something free ... a broiler,
a fryer, hamburger. We reward people for passing our name
along to someone else. It turns customers into evangelists,
and protects us from people who write bad checks or don't
show up to pick up their orders. Our loyal clients have screened
the next generation of customers, protecting us from the deadwood
that you encounter when you do mass advertising.
"It is a lot easier to find 100 people who will spend
$1,000 with you than to find 1,000 people who will spend $100
with you," Joel says. "They buy a side of beef,
a side of pork, chickens, eggs, turkeys and pretty soon they've
"There are two ways to grow: Get more dollars from
the customers you have or get more customers. We always try
to get more dollars from the customers we already have, although
I'm always glad to have new customers."