Although Casa Grande, the main building of San Simeon’s sprawling Hearst Castle, boasts 38 bedrooms, 41 bathrooms, and countless pieces of valuable art and antiquities, William Randolph Hearst never stopped calling his extravagant spot “The Ranch.” Since 1865 when his father, George Hearst, bought the property, the rolling hills above the Pacific Ocean have been prime cattle country. That tradition continues today, as Hearst Ranch Beef (HRB) is one of the country’s premier meat producers, offering sustainable, grass-fed beef grown on the property’s 82,000 acres and at the 73,000-acre Jack Ranch inland.
This summer, Whole Foods began selling the beef in Southern California, and it’s an immediate hit. “While beef as a seasonal food is a new concept, Hearst grass-fed beef is really catching the attention of our shoppers,” said Whole Foods’ Regional Meat Coordinator Mike Hacaga. “Since the beef is only available through August, or until quantities run out, we really encourage our Santa Barbara shoppers to come and experience the robust and delicious flavor of grass-fed beef.”
The Independent recently had the opportunity to talk to Brian Kenny of Hearst Ranch Beef to find out more about this partnership and the cattle up the coast.
Why did HRB choose to partner with Whole Foods? If you look for the top organic and natural grocers in the country, Whole Foods would be at the top of the list. They do a really good job about telling their story. It’s rare and unique to share philosophies, and it’s been exhilarating to do demos at their stores and meet the public. We’re doing something real, and our product is real, and our story is real, and people react to that powerfully. That’s what missing in the world: real stuff.
What makes Hearst Ranch Beef unique? If you look at how things have gone the last 20 years in our culture, there’s a lot of homogenization. Our product has gone in the other direction. If you taste Hearst Ranch Beef, it will taste different than other grass-fed beef; it will taste different than non–grass-fed beef. When I started talking about terroir [a winemaking term that means “sense of place”], I was talking to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, and she said, “There’s really a unique taste,” and I said, “That’s the Central Coast.” It’s a zestiness, a herbaceousness. It also cooks faster, 10 to 20 percent faster. You can always cook it more, but if you leave it on too long, it’s hard to cook it less.
What’s the difference between grass-fed and industrial feed-fed cattle? Corn-fed and grass-fed beef are almost different animals. There’s less fat on grass-fed beef, and certainly on free-range. A series of studies have shown grass-fed cattle have 10 times the beta-carotenes, three times the vitamin E, three times the omega-3 fatty acids, three times the conjugated linoleic acid [a healthy fat]. We’re doing a lot of testing of our own, but not enough yet to be statistically valid.
But ultimately we’re really in two different businesses. I like to think of it as grammar. We sell adjectives that are true, as opposed to common nouns—that’s true for specialty foods in general. To take that further, what consumers, what the public wants, focuses on the subjunctive mood—would, could, should. We focus on the imperative mood and present tense as much as possible. That’s why people on the commodity side look at us as something quaint.
How does your own background fit into this schema? Your official title is the rather prosaic “Division Manager,” but you’re also called “The Singing Cowboy”? I’m a spreadsheet cowboy. I’ve been a singer for a long time. I grew up on ranches—my family didn’t own them but worked on them—in Northern California. I learned really early about our country’s agricultural history, and, after a couple of other careers, I’ve been back to it since 2000. I used to be in software, and then, if the power goes off, your product doesn’t exist anymore. I like that that’s not true at Hearst.
As for “The Singing Cowboy,” I am into music, and everything is a sound byte, so I figured why not? It’s unique and different and a fitting way to get our message out. Music has been part of the cowboy experience for a long time.
Wrangle yourself up some Hearst Ranch Beef at the Santa Barbara Whole Foods Market (3761 State St., 837-6959), or learn more at hearstranch.com.