By now, the story is familiar. In under two years, an east coast businessman rapidly ascends to the nation’s capitol. His single-minded focus on local manufacturing sets him apart from the competition. And he’ll have edged his way into Friday’s Inauguration Day ceremonies, in part, because of what he represents to an underrepresented economic sector: Greatness.
We’re not talking about Donald J. Trump here. We’re talking about Ryan Ford, president of Seven Hills Food Company, a small, niche meat-processing company based in Lynchburg, Virginia that established itself just sixteen months ago—about the time Trump’s candidacy started to look viable. Ford’s rise, like Trump’s, has been against all odds and somewhat dizzying. And they both will be together at the traditional inaugural luncheon on Friday. On the dais: @realDonaldTrump. On the menu: Ford’s “Grilled Seven Hills Angus Beef” with dark chocolate cabernet sauce.
Immediately after the inaugural ceremony, the President and Vice President and their 200 guests will proceed to the Capitol building for a meal hosted by the leadership of both houses of Congress and catered by Design Cuisine of Alexandria, Virginia (the menu for which was announced on Tuesday by the Joint Congressional Committee for Inaugural Ceremonies). Seven Hills supplied the protein for the main course: 50 whole beef tenderloin, divided up into 200 six-ounce steaks.
Ford still sounds a bit stunned from the news. “I got a text from Shannon [Design Cuisine’s chef] saying ‘you’re the only supplier identified on the menu.’ The first course is ‘Maine lobster.’ I thought we’d be listed as ‘Virginia Angus,’” he says. “I know the chef wanted a local product. That’s how we were able to get to the table. We’ve been looking to develop a reputation for Virginia beef and not more.”
Ford is a native of metropolitan Washington, D.C. who began an organic butcher business 10 years ago in central Virginia. He would hear more and more requests for local meats from the restaurants, institutions, and supermarkets he serviced. It wasn’t that he had trouble finding local quality livestock producers—there were plenty of those. The problem was the region’s lack of small-scale slaughter facilities, which forces local farmers to send their live herds to out-of-state packing plants for processing. Once these cattle—raised in, say, Rapidan or Charlottesville—are sent off to distant meatpackers, they become anonymous, commodity beef, distributed nationally. Ford was frustrated watching a growing demand continually be unmet. His lament: “I can’t get my hands on enough local product.”
We see it again and again: the way the routine practice of centralized national processing, abetted by efficient national transportation infrastructure, forces the chef and consumer on the one hand, and their potential suppliers who are their neighbors on the other, to lose touch with each other.
Ford saw a market opportunity: if he could bring local beef to Virginia when no one else had any, it could be the beginning of a booming business. The risk: he’d have to spend millions building a processing facility before he’d know whether there was enough demand to keep it afloat.
Ford felt confident enough to take the plunge. He found the century-old shuttered home of what was once a custom meat processor in Lynchburg, and the town authorities helped him acquire it. He himself underwrote the initial phase of renovation; managed to cobble together the lion’s share of the rest of the money needed for the build-out (totaling $3 million) from new market federal tax credits, private investment, and public grants; and obtained all the requisite licenses and inspection certificates.
He then went out to the local farms to convince them to keep their herds on site, have them “harvested” virtually next door, and let Ford sell the meat branded as Seven Hills beef.
“In local food economies, a lot of the business involves saying ‘this is the guy who made the product or raised the animal,’” says Ford. “Our success depends on our ability to get local meat into the marketplace and then for people to order more meat. We control the relationship with our customers. Our business is dock to door.”
The Seven Hills Abattoir took 20 months to get its facility up and running, and opened for business October of 2015. Now, 16 months after opening, his tenderloin is the center-of-plate protein on the banquet tables of Statuary Hall.
Such success in such a short period of time is astonishing. But in the context of Friday’s events, it’s also apropos.
Ford markets his product directly to restaurants in Charlottesville and Richmond, Virginia, making twice-a-week drop-offs. And nearly half of his volume he sends off to be distributed by Fells Point Wholesale Meats in Baltimore, Maryland, which had gotten to know his high standards when they were handling his output as a butcher. According to salesman P.J. Weber, not only were they already familiar with “the integrity and consistency” of his product, but there was “the fact that he had invested so much money into his traceability software to allow us to run reports from him about the history of the meat.” Finally, says Weber, Ford simply lives the model he sells. “He feeds his family this way.”
Ford, his wife Christy, and their three children live in Charlottesville—near the Thomas Jefferson estate. Last summer, he ran into friends who said they’d just attended a catered affair at historic Monticello, and the tenderloin on the menu was identified as coming from Seven Hills. Ford says his reaction was disbelief: “Somebody is greenwashing.” Then he realized what had happened. “We’d sent a large order to Fells Point and they put us on their customers’ radar.” In this case, the buyer in question was the caterer of the Monticello affair, Design Cuisine.
Subsequently, Design Cuisine got the assignment from the Congressional organizing committee to cater the inaugural luncheon. They informed Jeff Kolker, their contact at Fells Point, that they again wanted only first-rate local beef. Kolker called Ford to ask him to set aside a special supply of Seven Hills beef tenderloins. “We’re the only place around where somebody can order 50 pieces of beef tenderloin that didn’t get pulled out of a freezer,” Ford says.
Seven Hills can’t succeed on prime cuts alone, and serves various demographic markets. Among the buyers to whom he sells different cuts at different price points are a local school district, a group of grocery stores catering to customers who use food stamps, and, says Ford, “an amazing non-profit organization called D.C. Central Kitchen. They run before- and after-school programs a half-mile from Capitol Hill.”
Weber says that, as recently as five years ago, it was hard when a distributor would get a call from a chef saying that he was doing–for example–a bourbon dinner for local distillers and wanted to use local beef or pork. “It was hard to find one rib-eye, or three to four tenderloins, without having to take the rest of the animal. It was hard to find the product, and only the product, that they needed. Ryan figured that out. He has his own suppliership in his own region, working parallel to us to move items that we can’t move. He’s built a tremendous customer line for his product.”
Now, Ford reports Seven Hills has begun to turn a profit by processing 30 to 50 animal units per week. He ended last year with more than 20 employees and $2 million in sales. Seven Hills has the capacity to process 100 animal units a day.
Half of the tenderloin for the inaugural lunch will come from Sherwood Farm, a cow-calf operation in Virginia’s Albemarle County near Charlottesville. The owner, John Lewis, grew up in the area and bought the 675-acre farm/estate in 2001 following his retirement from a career in the financial industry. Sherwood has a 200-cow herd of pastured American Black Angus. In the winter, the herd feeds on hay and silage.
The cows produce 170 calves a year. Before Seven Hills opened, once those calves got to weaning weight, most of them were carted off to an auction house to be sold and sent to out-of-state feedlots. The farm’s business manager, Pres Nowlin, did run a small side business, by holding back up to 35 steers a year and marketing them to individuals, area chefs, groceries and schools as “Sherwood Farm Virginia Premium Beef.” He’d finish them on grain to fatten them up and take them to a slaughterhouse one hour away. But the custom quality was not there, and furthermore Nowlin was still left with the chores of sales, marketing and distribution. “There was not any chance to scale in that process,” he says. “The most we ever did was four steers a month. Now we send 10 a month to Seven Hills Food. We are out of the processing, sales, and distribution business. The economics are better for us. We used to get paid about $1.20 a pound. And now we’re getting $2.10 a pound.”
Nowlin credits Ford’s rapid success to entrepreneurial vision. He took over “this derelict slaughterhouse that hadn’t been used in a decade. The place looked like it could have been the set for a horror movie. There were meat hooks hanging from the ceiling and holes in the floor where blood went. Ryan looked at this place and said ‘I’m going to buy it and modernize it.’”
Fells Point distributor Weber also marvels at Ford’s rapid ascendance. “I’ve never seen a processor be able to achieve a business model that Ryan has so successfully so quickly.”