A North Shore-based company is pioneering change in the meat industry by offering its customers clean, preservative-free food.
McLean Meats, owned by West Vancouver resident Garth McLean and his business partner Michelle Neilson of Squamish, has been selling deli products for almost a decade, but over the past year its profile has grown significantly.
The company recently struck a deal with Loblaws, owner of more than 1,400 supermarket chains across the country including The Real Canadian Superstore, and has also partnered with Save-on-Foods and Whole Foods. It is expecting to generate $10 million in revenue by the end of 2013.
But the success didn't come easily, and has very much been part of a grassroots effort, said Neilson.
"I didn't expect this kind of growth to happen so much so fast, but it was a slog the first seven years," she said.
The company started out in 2003 when McLean, who had been conducting market tests with his preservative-, nitrite-and celery-extract-free meat, partnered with a recently laid-off Neilson.
A former slaughterhouse truck driver, McLean took issue with the conditions of pen-raised animals and the chemicals used in meat products. Neilson, who was raised in Edmonton, Alta., was a vegetarian for eight years and equally concerned with standards in the meat industry.
"I just came to realize that if I'm going to eat meat I'm just going to make sure that it's quality meat," said Neilson.
No McLean products come from animals that have been given growth hormones or have travelled for more than three hours to slaughter. Large animals like pigs and, where possible, chickens and turkeys have to be raised outdoors.
"Every single animal is given room to roam, socialize, groom," said Neilson.
"When you start digging in this industry, you start asking these hard questions that people are too afraid to ask or just too indifferent. It's kind of sad."
Most of McLean Meats' customers, however, are not animal rights activists - they are simply people looking for healthier options for their families. Of the 35 products available, top sellers include black forest ham and roast beef.
"More and more, you're hearing doctors telling moms not to feed their kids foods with preservatives or nitrites, or you're dealing with increased allergies," said Neilson.
McLean's ability to fill that niche is part of the reason it landed its first big break, a contract with Whole Foods. Save-On-Foods came next.
"They took a chance on us and that got us to the next level," said Neilson.
After advertising in food magazines, a call came from Fortinos - an Ontario-based grocery chain owned by Loblaws. When sales exceeded expectations, Loblaws committed to bringing the line into more of its stores.
"We've grown exponentially. Not only have our sales doubled, we have also now been in contact with other major chains in Canada that are also very interested in our product line," said Neilson.
Despite the growth, McLean Meats is still a very small company. To save costs, it operates on a cloud-based business model, meaning there are no processing plants and no offices. Both McLean and Neilson work from home, and their team members - spread across Canada and in the U.S. - use laptops, iPhones and a remote server to interact.
"Every now and then we'll get the odd glitch but it's actually a very, very viable model," said Neilson.
McLean Meats is available on the North Shore at Save-On-Foods, Nourish Market, Queensdale Market and Whole Foods. For more information go to mcleanorganicfoods.com.