Ask which came first, and Happy Egg Co. CEO Alex Worley has a ready answer: It was the chicken.
“It’s a great question,” he says. “But it’s got to be the chicken. And I really love eggs.”
Well-treated chickens lay the best eggs, Worley believes, and his premium free-range brand stakes its business on it.
And he’s not above a little crowing about how business is going.
“We’re the largest free-range egg brand in the country,” said Worley, a Walmart Inc. veteran who has led Happy Egg since 2017. “We’re No. 1 in the United States, which folks in Arkansas — even in northwest Arkansas — don’t really know.”
The 50-plus employee company sells 700,000 dozens of eggs per week, all laid by chickens that have free run of about 10 acres at each of about 100 partner farms.
Worley’s customers are happy to spend more on eggs laid by uncaged chickens, eggs that are brown or pastel blue or even dark-chocolate in color, bearing amber-hued yolks.
“We pioneered the space that we call outdoor access, which is really an industry term,” Worley said as a morning thunderstorm roared across the company headquarters on South Horsebarn Road in Rogers, right on the border with Bentonville.
“We believe that treating the birds the way we do is the right thing for them and ultimately for the consumer.”
And how does the company and its farmers in Arkansas, Missouri and Indiana treat the hens?
“It’s incredibly simple,” Worley said. “Our birds live on 10 acres and have access to the outdoors on as many days as possible.” Each farm has a large barn, sheltering 16,000 to 20,000 hens, with doors 6 feet wide and 18 inches tall. On most days, the doors are open at least eight hours, and the hens can go out or not as they please.
“We leave it up to the birds, and on the farms, you can see that they have different personalities. Some stick within about 200 feet of the barn; others will run all the way to the end of the 10 acres,” which are bordered by tight-woven fencing. Water sources and sheltering cover dot each farm.
“We put play kits out on the range,” the CEO said, along with sand pits giving the hens a place to peck and scratch. At dusk, the chickens roost in the barn, and in the morning select their own nesting boxes to lay their eggs.
‘Keeping It Simple’
“Keeping it simple is actually the foundation,” he said. “We always say the birds do all the work. You just have to let them do their thing, and make sure they have water and good feed and a roof over their head. We keep it simple because food should be simple.”
Worley said Happy Egg customers rate the product as far better-tasting, and are willing to pay premium prices for better flavor and humane sourcing.
Earlier this month, walmart.com listed a dozen large brown Happy Eggs at $4.94. The website’s cheapest eggs, Great Value, were $1.54, and Marketside Cage Free Brown Eggs were $2.58.
“Today’s consumer wants to know and trust where their food is coming from,” Worley said. “And when you’re talking about live animal production, they want to know those details too. When folks stumble upon Happy Egg for whatever reason, they tend to stick with it. One of the reasons we invest in a growing social media presence is to bring awareness to the fact there’s a difference. And it’s a massive difference in the product and most other eggs you try.”
The company is certified for upholding Humane Farm Animal Care and Humane Certified Animal Welfare standards. It applies current research and veterinary advice and heeds its farmers’ experience in caring for “our girls,” as company literature calls the hens.
In contrast, most industry hens live in cramped mesh cages, producing eggs but doing little more. They can’t even spread their wings. And more than 70% of retail eggs come from caged birds.
Eggs labeled as cage-free can also be problematic, in Worley’s view, because the hens that lay them can still be crammed together and never see the sun; they’re just not in cages.
“The scale of those operations is significantly different than our small family farms,” Worley said, describing an “industrial” form of egg production that he considers inhumane. “And frankly, cage-free I put into air quotes. We’re continually bringing awareness to the differences and how they play into the quality of the egg.”
Pastured birds with real outdoor access eat seeds and insects along with specialized chicken feed, improving the taste and nutritional quality of their eggs.
Pastel Blue Shells
Happy Eggs come primarily from Lohmann hens, placid, bountiful birds that lay brown eggs. Two other breeds produce the company’s Heritage Breed Eggs, Speckled Legbar and Copper Maran hens. Speckled Legbar eggs have pastel blue shells; Copper Maran eggs are chocolate-brown. All are favored for their hard shells and creamy, almost orange yolks, Worley said.
He likes his with breakfast, of course, but his favorite way, fried a little runny, is on top of a juicy cheeseburger.
Walmart, Harps Food Stores and Kroger sell Happy Eggs, and Worley and his team are eager to get them into more outlets. “If we don’t have our eggs in your store today, our goal is to have them there tomorrow. It’s part of the journey.”
The company is building on its 700,000 dozens-a-week output, and aggressively adding carefully selected farms. On Aug. 3, Worley was in Imboden (Lawrence County) for a groundbreaking at Randall Archer’s farm on Old Jackson Road.
Happy Egg is vertically integrated and holds the rights to its hens’ genetics. “We’re growing the business rapidly with our Heritage free birds,” Worley said. “Their eggs are unbelievably vibrant blue and brown, and we’re building an infrastructure for them specifically in Arkansas, and a little bit in Missouri.”
Arkansas ranks eighth in the nation for total number of laying hens, according to United Egg Producers, an industry group. Iowa and Ohio are No. 1 and 2, followed by Indiana, where Happy Egg also has farms. Missouri ranked 10th. Arkansas typically produces more than 4 billion eggs a year.
Worley, a native of the Kansas City area, joined Happy Egg in 2017, the same year the company moved from San Francisco to Rogers to be closer to its partner farms in the Ozark woodlands. He started as a sales executive and became CEO a little over a year ago after several years as a dairy and fresh foods leader at Walmart and Sam’s Club.
“I love the egg business because it’s a people business,” he said, calling good relationships important at the corporate headquarters but absolutely crucial in relationships with Happy Egg’s farmers.
“We’re putting a lot of trust in folks to raise the birds humanely,” he said. “We call it animal husbandry, but it’s mainly about building relationships with people in a genuine way.”
The family farms that supply the eggs work exclusively for Happy Eggs, the company inspects them monthly and uses third-party auditors to oversee production practices.
The company supports the farms with banking and finance advice, helps plan the barns and farms and assists in procuring the birds. Potential growers need 12-15 acres of land for the barn and birds, a company spokesperson said. Financials are based on each individual situation, but Happy Egg partners with growers through the entire process. She urged potential growers to visit happyeggfarms.com.
“We’re there every step of the way, locked at the hip,” Worley said. “This is a big investment for us, and obviously it’s a huge investment for the individuals.”