ReGen Brands Recap #67

Blaine & Brooks Hitzfield @ Seven Sons

Scaling Regen Meat To 75,000 DTC Orders A Year

Seven Sons is supporting regenerative agriculture with its direct-to-consumer (DTC) meat business that sells regeneratively raised beef, bison, pork, and chicken, as well as seafood and other snack items. Seven Sons sources their originally raised meat products from their own 550-acre farm in Roanoke, Indiana and from other regenerative farmers around the Midwest. You can find their products online, at their farm store, and at select retailers. 



A Decade of Dangerous Transition

The first thing to know is, that there really are Seven Sons! 

The story began in the 80s when Lee and Beth Hitzfield purchased 20 acres set up for conventional hog production and leased 100 acres for row crops. A decade into operations, Beth was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition. Fortunately, Beth could treat her condition through medicine and nutrition, but the overall health struggle led the family to think differently about their farming practices. They started working with a soil agronomist who opened their eyes to regenerative agriculture, and the Hitzfields were hooked. They immediately sold all of the equipment for the conventional hog business and began converting the leased row crop land into perennial pastures for regeneratively produced beef.

But it was not an easy transition for the family. The brothers watched as their parents struggled to survive - losing the cash flow from the conventional hog business while investing in the infrastructure needed to stand up the regenerative beef business. While they were inspired by their parent’s entrepreneurial spirit and resilience, most of the sons were not immediately interested in farming. 

But perhaps Beth had faith they would eventually all be in, naming the business Seven Sons and officially launching the brand in 2000.


From The Farmer’s Market To 14,000 Online Customers

All seven brothers eventually joined the business and have transformed it over the last two decades. What started with a few local farmers markets has now grown into a successful direct-to-consumer e-commerce company that fulfills 75,000 orders a year and serves 14,000 active customers.

While selling from their farmhouse store and local farmers markets proved there was demand for grass-fed beef, the model was too time and labor-intensive. The brothers quickly realized they needed a strategy to scale. In 2006,  encouraged by the fact that they already had customers driving hours from Chicago and Indianapolis to buy their meat, they decided to develop “buyers club” drop-off locations. They coordinated these central pick-up locations in metro areas within 3-4 hours driving distance, eventually growing to a total of 53 locations by 2010. 

After a few years of growth, by 2015 the business began to flatline. Competition increased as more retailers began carrying grass-fed beef and DTC brands like Butcher Box were popping up. Though they had built an incredibly loyal customer base, Seven Sons quickly lost the “convenience” advantage they had worked to develop over a decade. In 2018, Seven Sons began shipping their products directly to customers homes with an equal mix of success and failures. Just before COVID-19, they officially shut down their pickup locations and shifted their focus 100% on DTC. 

Shifting to DTC has enabled Seven Sons to serve customers who are already online searching for more sustainable, healthy, or ethical meat products. This approach has led to massive growth, requiring them to take on additional farm partners to meet demand. DTC has not only been good for business, but it has also allowed Seven Sons to create a market for other small farms seeking to transition to regenerative practices.

“We found out within 3 years, we needed to have stronger partnerships…Which has been a big part of our impact and what we do here because, when we started our transition into regenerative, we did not have a premium market to go to. So there was that 10-year struggle, and we feel like a big part of our impact now is to be able to…help with that transition by having a premium market for them.” - Blaine 


Quality, Authenticity, & Convenience

What stands out about Seven Sons is their deep entrepreneurial spirit and their laser focus on delivering on quality, authenticity, and convenience. 

While the brothers have transformed the business, they have held on to their parent’s dedication to producing high-quality meat that is good for animals, the environment, and human health. They are committed to ethical practices, including no crates, cages, or feedlots, and do not use hormones, antibiotics, or GMOs. They stick to these production principles for their own farm and require the same of their partner farms. 

Understanding that trust is key for customer loyalty, Seven Sons has focused on developing content that connects the consumer with the farm. They use personalized email marketing to build their relationship with the customer and videos to bring customers to the farm so that they can see exactly how the chickens, pigs, and cows are raised. Even their egg cartons in Whole Foods have a QR code that takes you to a video of the farm! Seven Sons steers clear of corporate-style messaging and instead brings their audience in to get to know “the faces behind the brand.” 

Perhaps most importantly, Seven Sons has zeroed in on optimizing convenience for the customer. Their logistics and delivery system enables customers to have an Amazon-like experience when purchasing ethical, high-quality regenerative meat. Working with an excellent USDA processor, Byron Center Meats, has been a game changer. Finding a processor that can deliver consistency at scale is key, and working with a USDA-certified operation allows for the delivery of the meat across state lines. 


The DTC Double Down

After years of testing, learning, and growing a team of digital marketing experts, Seven Sons is now in a position to double down on DTC. Their investment in analytics has enabled them to identify which advertising methods are working and the return on their ad spend, giving them the confidence to ramp up digital advertising. They have learned that it’s not just about customer acquisition cost, but also lifetime value. Compared to other DTC businesses, Seven Sons may have higher costs of goods sold, but their focus on customer retention ultimately translates to a high lifetime value.

Seven Sons has also been incredibly smart in varying their product offerings to maximize their average order value, margin, and therefore the customer lifetime value. While beef, pork, and poultry will always drive the business, expanding into seafood, dairy, frozen vegetables, and snacks enables Seven Sons to be more of a one-stop-shop for customers to stock their kitchens. 


Why Education Won’t Sell More Regenerative Products

One thing Brooks and Blaine learned in their transition to DTC is that educating consumers on regenerative agriculture is not a marketing strategy. Rather than trying to explain what regenerative means, they bring consumers in by calling attention to the specific elements of regenerative that they care most about, such as animal welfare, environmental impact, and human health. 

“We educate our customers that come to us. It's just part of our DNA to do that. But I think you can get lost trying to go out there and convert and create this awareness through education. For us, we just don't believe it's an effective marketing strategy.” - Blaine

Instead of education, Seven Sons focuses on rebuilding consumer trust in the food system. 

“There's different things that people care about most, but one common thing is that they've lost trust in where they were buying their food…We really feel like our differentiator when it comes to separating us from you know, some people who've got much larger marketing teams out there, like ButcherBox and other folks… is we have to be able to connect customers to where their food is coming from and what's actually happening on the farm and what's happening on our partner farms.” - Brooks


50% Market Share 4 Regen

One of the most impressive and inspiring aspects of Seven Sons is their dedication to teaching and supporting other farmers and ranchers who direct market to consumers. Blaine and Brooks believe farmer education and tools for scalability are key to increasing the supply of regenerative products on the market, and they are actively solving these challenges through their software and learning platform Graze Cart

Built by the Seven Sons team, the Graze Cart e-commerce platform is tailored to meet the specific needs of food suppliers. The technology enables small farmers to avoid many of the marketing, sales, and logistics headaches of growing a direct-to-consumer business that Sevens Sons had to learn the hard way. It helps avoid duplication of efforts and allows farmers to spend more time focusing on farming. 

The Graze Cart website also offers courses and free materials to help farmers grow a DTC business. Resources cover topics like perishable shipping, setting up a website, managing orders, and organizing deliveries. Seven Sons has learned so much through their DTC journey, and building curricula for other farmers has only enabled them to dig through their data and identify what has driven their breakthrough moments. 

Their best advice for farmers: be your own customer.

“One of the simplest pieces of advice that we've ever given farms, and we remind ourselves to do with our team is be your own customer… And you'll just discover all these breakthroughs one after another because this all comes down to convenience. You know, we've got to tell an authentic story, and we need to have quality…but the big missing link in all of this is convenience. That's why a retail grocery store exists. It's convenience. And so forcing yourself to walk through your buying experiences is sometimes one of the best things you can do.” - Blaine


This ReGen Recap was written by Katey Finnegan

The illustrations were created by Stacey Shaller

You can check out the full episode with Blaine & Brooks Hitzfield @ Seven Sons HERE

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