Chicken Day at the Salatin Farm, Part 2
Where chickens are sold before they're raised.
And customers pay full cost of delivery.

Marketing and delivery, the last of 2 parts. By George Devault
Check out part 1: 'Chicken Day' at the Farm of Many Faces

Marching orders: Like a general on the march, Joel Salatin hands invoices and
last-minute instructions to waiting delivery driver Doug Porter.

 

 

Sell It First
"We do not take the risk of selling the
birds after we've raised them. They are sold, or contracted
for, in writing, even before we receive
the chicks."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quality Sells Itself
"The chickens are superior enough that customers come for them like a religious observance, like a pilgrimage."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telling 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."



The Salatin family and their helpers are working furiously to finish processing 250 broilers before the deliveryman arrives at their farm at 11 a.m.

"Oh no!" mutters Daniel, as he starts on the very last crate of eight birds.

"What?" asks his father, Joel. He doesn't look up from the pile of freshly plucked chickens he's eviscerating.

"Doug's here," Daniel groans, motioning toward a late model SAAB sedan slowly rumbling across the new bridge over the fast-flowing mountain stream beside the gravel road at the entrance to Polyface Farm. It's 10:30 a.m. The deliveryman is early, a full half hour early.

Joel's face darkens slightly. A look of mild irritation flashes quickly across his boyish features. "Well," Joel says matter-of-factly, while opening up another chicken carcass with a flick of his knife, "he'll just have ... to wait."

That's perfectly fine with the driver. "I'm in no particular hurry," Doug Porter says as he saunters up to the processing outdoor pavilion where the seven workers have been plucking and dressing chickens non-stop for the past two hours. Doug knows he's early. He says he just didn't have anything else much to do, so he went out for a drive on a beautiful sunny morning and wound up at the farm a little sooner than usual.

"It's no problem," Doug adds. "Take your time. I'll wait." Doug delivers Salatin's freshly dressed chickens, eggs and a growing list of other farm-fresh products to as many as 10 gourmet restaurants that are up to 240 kilometers away from the farm. He works for himself, so he can set his own schedule to match the needs of his customers.

Despite the interruption, the processing line continues to run like clockwork. All of the birds have now been bled out, plucked and eviscerated. At the head of the line, Daniel begins hosing down and scrubbing the killing cones, scalder/dunker and chicken plucker. Pat O'Connor, a visiting helper for the day, begins scooping wet, matted chicken feathers out from under the plucker with a silage fork. He trundles them off to a nearby compost pile in a large wheelbarrow. At the opposite end of the processing line, 10-year-old Rachel Salatin and apprentice Joshua Griggs still have a large pile of birds to finish dressing.

 
Automatic compost: Before all the birds are cleaned and on ice, their feathers and offal are in the compost heap.

Joel quickly finishes with the last chicken at his station in the middle of the processing line. He slips off his black rubber apron and turns his blue Polyface Farm baseball cap around so that the bill faces forward. He has his businessman's hat on now. Joel carefully weighs two metal washtubs full of stewing hens, then rinses his hands. He glances around to make sure everyone is doing what they're supposed to be doing. Then he sits down in an aluminum lawn chair and begins filling out delivery invoices for Doug. Joel's desk is a folding card table set up at one corner of the processing pavilion. Fingers that just moments ago were gutting chickens now dance across the keys of an electronic calculator, instantly translating the morning's hard work into dollars and cents. The total is more than $1,000 -- plus delivery.

"Delivery is a separate item on the invoice," Joel explains, glancing up from his paperwork. "We have broken it out, despite all of the advice to the contrary. The customer knows exactly how much is in transportation. We wanted our restaurants to understand just how much of the food cost is transportation, that the packager gets more than the farmer. If they have a person who wants to come over here and pick up their order instead, that's fine. We just want them to understand that the farmer is not getting this.

"Doug is not acting as a broker, but strictly as a delivery person," Joel adds. "He's a delivery sub-contractor. He works three to four hours, one day a week, and takes home right on an average of $200 a week.

"Some people say, 'If you get much bigger, he'll be making $500 a week!' And that's just fine with me," Joel grins. Doug's pay comes solely from a sliding percentage of sales to restaurants that day. On orders of less than $50, for example, the delivery surcharge is 33 percent. Doug gets 15 percent on orders of $250 or more. So the more Doug makes, the more Joel makes.

"We don't want to be in the delivery business. We like to farm too much," Joel explains. "This allows the delivery person to work half a day a week and earn a couple hundred bucks. I get to stay on the farm, which I enjoy. He doesn't. In this case, one plus one is three. You have each party doing what they enjoy doing. It's win-win for everybody.

"We are protected from him doing a bad job because he's not guaranteed a dime. He is strictly out there on his own. If he slacks up, he's out. That protects us from having a typical employee who does not put ice on the chickens or handles the eggs rough and cracks eggs. This protects us from all of that. It also protects the customer from any one of us being slipshod.

"When we started, I did the deliveries, myself," Joel adds. "There is a time when you just have to hustle. But once the cost of delivery hit about $100 a week, that was enough of a return that Doug took it over, and he has doubled it again. We have seen the demand for chickens go through the roof this summer. His goal is to get it on up to $500 a week, and I hope he does." When he's not making deliveries for Salatin, Doug works as a financial manager for two nearby restaurants. His wife, Lisa Joy, is the chef at the historic Joshua Wilton House more than 40 kilometers away in Harrisonburg.

Eggs Came First

Don't forget the eggs: Joshua Griggs lug crates of 30 dozen eggs from a walk-in cooler to the delivery car, while Joe keeps chickens on ice.

Joel first cracked the restaurant market for eggs three years ago. He carefully drew up a list of quality-conscious chefs at better restaurants and gave them one or two dozen eggs to try -- for free. "We said, 'We have the world's best egg and we'd like you to take a look at it.'" he recalls. "Samples do work, especially when you're introducing a product that no one is familiar with. A lot of people never had a stewing hen. We gave everyone who came for broilers a free stewing hen. Now, stewing hens are in big demand. I've never given anything away that didn't come back to me four times."

The chefs were paying 60 cents per dozen for eggs from conventional sources. But Joel's farm-fresh eggs produced such superior dishes, especially baked goods, that many chefs gladly began paying $2 a dozen for them. That quickly opened the door to other products.

"I was working at Galileo Restaurant in Washington, D.C. The pastry chef was a big fan of Joel's eggs. I got his number and called him up about chickens," says Chef Angelo Vangelopoulos, who serves up to 120 meals a night at his Ivy Inn in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the 95-seat restaurant in partnership with his parents.

"Now, besides his chicken and eggs, I also buy his rabbits, turkeys, ducks, guineas and, through his deliveries, vine-ripened tomatoes, red and golden baby beets, shell and fresh beans. We don't buy beef or pork, because we're a small restaurant and can't use too much.

"Quality and freshness are just beyond compare. And, personally, I'm a big advocate of anyone who produces things with the environment so much in mind. I like, whenever possible, to support local farmers," adds the chef. He also buys shiitake mushrooms, lamb, bison, lots of local produce at the farmer's market in Charlottesville, goat cheese and other products from local farmers. Depending on the season, up to 60 percent of the food served at the Ivy Inn comes from area farmers.

Joel finishes up the paperwork, while Joshua carefully packs the back of Doug's car with 10 large cardboard cartons. Each case contains 30 dozen eggs. Then Joel and Doug add three large, plastic ice chests full of freshly dressed -- and iced -- broilers and stewing hens to the car. Doug is on his way into town, long before the first pickup customers begin arriving at the farm by appointment in early afternoon. By 5 p.m., all of the customers and the chickens are gone.



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 people-friendly way.

"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 spent $2,500.

"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."