Matthew Wadiak, co-founder of the meal service Blue Apron, is thinking outside the box — and outside the cage.
After leaving Blue Apron, which delivers packaged recipe ingredients for meals to be cooked at home, Wadiak resolved to create an earth-friendlier food industry, one superchicken at a time.
His new company, Cooks Venture, bought an 800-acre farm in Decatur (Benton County). The site, Crystal Lake Farms, is producing slow-raised chickens with full access to the property’s pastures and woods.
In announcing Cooks Venture last month, Wadiak said it had also secured two large processing plants in Oklahoma and was beginning presales of its heirloom birds online. The meat is expected to be available in some supermarkets by July.
The farm, led by Executive Vice President and University of Arkansas graduate Blake Evans, includes a hatchery, barns and pedigreed birds. Wadiak called it the country’s only biodiverse and vertically integrated poultry operation, built over 10 years by Evans and Richard Udale, the company’s director of genetics.
“I’ve been all over the country, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Wadiak told Arkansas Business. “Blake’s grandfather put the parcel together in the ’40s and ’50s. It’s a beautiful piece of land, and it blew my hair back a little bit. Most industry-raised chickens are couch potatoes. These are the Olympic athletes of poultry.”
Evans’ grandfather was Lloyd Peterson, the chicken-breeding pioneer who developed the Peterson Male. Most of the family’s poultry business, Peterson Farms, was sold to Simmons Foods Inc. of Siloam Springs in 2008.
Crystal Lake will be the first link in what Wadiak conceives as a superior food chain focusing first on pasture-raised chicken, then eventually on beef, pork, grain and vegetables. Chicken, a $48 billion-a-year industry in the United States, was the natural place to start, he said.
The overall goal is simple but grand. At Blue Apron, Wadiak dealt with more than 250 farmers, ranchers and agronomists, and those relationships convinced him that he could practice regenerative agriculture and give customers better food while making a profit.
His birds have a far different existence from the chickens now filling most supermarket poultry cases, birds grown in such cramped conditions that their legs can’t support the massive breasts genetically engineered to feed Americans’ appetite for cheap white-meat chicken.
Saving the Soil
A former line cook and chef who also worked on farms in his 20s, Wadiak has support from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, often a critic of poultry industry practices. Cooks Venture’s first principle is to try to cultivate soil capable of capturing and storing 1% more of the carbon now floating in the Earth’s atmosphere. The process, known as soil carbon sequestration, could be crucial to reversing climate change.
“We’re really passionate about that,” Wadiak said, but environmental concerns go hand-in-hand with putting better chicken on the plate.
“These antibiotics in use for all these diseases, and the growing conditions that produce huge birds, make the chicken taste like a rubber hose. Our chickens will have a far more diverse diet, and common sense tells you that outdoor access leads to a better-tasting bird.”
Presale prices for Cooks Venture poultry will be higher than most supermarket brands’, but comparable to prices for higher-quality chickens, Wadiak said. Presale prices start at two 3- to 4-pound birds for $40, four for $70 and six for $90, delivered frozen and prepackaged in recyclable containers. Shipping will be free nationwide.
“This is priced similar to other top 40% products in the chicken category, and there’s free shipping,” Wadiak said. “You can pretty much walk into any supermarket and find a per-pound price of $3 all the way up to $5. We’re in the middle of that range, and we hope to let consumers vote with their dollars for better food choices.”
A common bird in other operations “will grow to 9 pounds in 42 days. Our birds grow 30% to 40% more slowly, and we select them for leg health, frame and organ health. They’re going to get up and run around, explore the woods, do whatever the chicken feels like doing.”
Wadiak contrasted Cooks Venture’s birds with those sold under the “organic” label. He sought experts to help apply a scientific regenerative approach while “ultimately fueling a healthier planet.”
So he brought aboard Evans and Richard Udale, an expert in slow-growth breeding and the startup’s director of genetics. Mark Fisher, vice president of operations, has 26 years of poultry experience and will run the facility in Decatur and the two plants in Oklahoma, which are capable of processing 700,000 chickens a week.
Wadiak said the operation will be “scalable” but unique in the industry. “There will be economies of scale, and we’ll hatch all our own eggs, process the birds and pay our farmers more. It’s not commodity-cheap chicken, but it’s affordable considering that high-end retailers are getting $15-$17 for a chicken that’s well below our standards.”
Udale and Evans worked together to develop heirloom birds at Crystal Lake Farms for a decade, Wadiak said.
The goal was “to breed the best-tasting slow-growing chicken in America,” said Evans, who earned his business administration degree from the UA in 1999. “We are excited to have created an entirely new category and standard that goes beyond green-washed buzzwords like ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable.’”
Cooks Venture’s online store will offer food from other regenerative agriculture sources, and the company will buy chicken feed only from farmers also committed to carbon sequestration. “Cooks Venture’s team will measure their farms and partners for soil health and sequestration of carbon, and publish the results annually,” according to the company’s website, CooksVenture.com.
“There’s a better way to run the food industry,” Wadiak told Arkansas Business. “I started cooking at 16 years old, and I’ve stuck with the principles, including excellent ingredients. I spent a lot of time going to farms and asking questions, learning about the science and being open-minded to creative solutions instead of just accepting the status quo.”