Stocking up on hamburger, 40 pounds at a time


By Angel Gonzalez, The Seattle Times (MCT)

Some bulk buyers of fresh beef products, seeking relief from a big spike in meat prices, have found an alternative to Costco and Sam’s Club, with drive-through access instead of a crazy parking lot.

Dozens of cars queued up last week at Papa’s Tree Farm, nestled among orchards and cattle ranches in Maple Valley, Wash., to pick up 40-pound boxes of ground beef and 22-pound packages of ham from the back of a refrigerated truck owned by Zaycon Foods.

Zaycon says the meats come fresh from the farm or the meat processor, and that the company keeps its costs low by purchasing in bulk and delivering directly to buyers in the parking lots of churches, bowling alleys and such.

Some 325,000 customers have signed up with Zaycon, which from its Northwest roots has expanded to the rest of the West and Midwest, as well as Texas, Florida, Georgia and several other states.

At the Maple Valley farm, Zaycon was filling orders of customers who paid $3.99 a pound for ground beef and about $3.49 a pound for smoked ham. At a Safeway in Seattle, lean ground beef of the same quality retailed between $5.49 and $6.49 per pound.

“I love it. I got their chicken a couple of months ago, and it was ‘wow,’ ” said Gina Santos, of Kent, Wash., who said she learned about the service online.

At the time, she was drawn in by the price — $1.89 a pound, she says, well below the $3.38 average urban retail price for boneless chicken breast reported by the U.S. government for February.

And the flavor was great, she said. Last week, in her second Zaycon run, she was taking delivery of 40 pounds of ground beef to make hamburgers.

Zaycon, started in 2009, is a no-frills business. It calls itself “a weird company,” but “in a good way.”

“We work on very small margins, we don’t have locations, we don’t have a lot of overhead,” said CEO Mike Conrad.

Interested buyers enroll at the company’s website and pay online for an order, by the case only. The company sells chicken, beef and pork products, as well as strawberries, peaches and other agricultural products straight from the producer.

Then Zaycon’s fleet of 20 trucks spreads out, each following a route of scheduled “savings events” through several states. The driver arrives at the designated parking lot, spreads out yellow parking cones to create a path for the customers’ cars, and hands off the boxes while checking names on an iPad. The parking-lot owner gets a cut, in the form of a case of whatever Zaycon is delivering that day.

“Churches — they love it,” Conrad said.

Zaycon’s caravanlike business plan means that products are not all available on a whim: The company has two major chicken sales per year, for example. There are also two sales for beef, Conrad said.

The rhythm takes getting used to, Conrad acknowledges. “The first time people get 40 pounds,” he said. “The next time we see them, they buy 80 pounds.”

Conrad said Zaycon now employs about 40 people, more than half of them truck drivers.

The company doesn’t disclose revenues, but one measure of its business is this: In January and February, Zaycon sold more than 3 million pounds of chicken, Conrad said.

That growth comes at a time when meat prices are soaring to records, spurred by weather disruptions and high demand in Asia. In March, the retail price of fresh beef reached its highest level in nearly 27 years of records, averaging about $5.36 per pound, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Kameron Pierce, of Auburn, Wash., was buying two entire applewood smoked hams at the Maple Valley event. He said he found out about Zaycon through his girlfriend’s father, who learned about the company at work. He said he likes the quality and the price.

“We feed like, nine, people at the house,” Pierce said. Buying this way, he added, “it’s not going to break the bank.”


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