Industry: Food & Beverage
Products: Grass-fed beef products
CEO Mike Murray oversees a line of sausages and hamburgers made from humanely-raised, grass-fed cattle while promoting the benefits of regenerative agriculture.
Murray's company partners with 2,500-plus ranches globally in order to supply meat for the brand's sausages, hot dogs, and hamburgers. The ranches are spread out across the United States -- in states like Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada -- as well as in Australia and New Zealand. As a point of distinction, Teton Waters Ranch only collaborates with ranchers who raise grass-fed cattle according to Certified Humane protocols.
While most cattle spend the first part of their lives eating grass, their final days often consist of eating grain, such as corn, in confined spaces. Not so with the cattle raised by ranchers working with Teton Waters Ranch, says Murray: the animals spend their entire lives grazing on grass in pastures.
And while the company started off primarily selling steaks, it now allows the ranchers to sell those prime cuts to local markets themselves. Murray says of the company's partners, "They love us, because we offer a premium home for their [beef] trim, because we've created a premium demand with the consumer in categories like hot dogs, dinner sausages, frozen burgers, and frozen breakfast sausage to date -- with more to come."
Murray cites the benefits of raising grass-fed beef for consumers, in terms of nutrition -- as well as for the health of the grasslands, themselves.
By raising cattle on grass, healthy fatty acids are abundant in the resulting beef. Murray says, "Eating the diet that they're naturally evolved to eat, and then being active -- as opposed to unnaturally confined -- produces that kind of high-quality beef with that high-quality fat content." (Not only that, Teton Waters Ranch advertises its sausages as containing no hormones, antibiotics, nitrites, nitrates, or gluten.)
The company traces its origins back to "dead potato farmland" near Driggs, Idaho, that was originally going to be turned into a real-estate development, says Murray. When that project went bust, owner Jeff Russell received encouragement to seed the property with grass. But advocates like the Savory Institute have pointed out that grasslands benefit from the presence of ruminants (e.g., cattle), which eat the grass and then fertilize it with their manure; the cattle are rotated to different parts of the grasslands, mimicking their historical migration as a result of their interactions with predators. Murray says that allowing cattle to act "as natural lawnmowers of the grasses, keeps grasses healthy, keeps the roots-systems healthy, keeps the soil healthy." According to a chart supplied by Teton Waters Ranch, regenerative agriculture (as the practice is known) can actually sequester carbon from the atmosphere, as opposed to conventional beef -- or even soy -- production.
"The beef was almost a secondary, unintentional byproduct of that experiment in regenerative agriculture -- and that's our foundation story," says Murray.
Established in 2006, the company moved to Colorado in 2012, eventually settling its headquarters within Denver. Murray says, "Denver's a great place in terms of a central location for building a natural brand." The company's products are made at seven contract manufacturing facilities across the country, including locations in Chicago, North Dakota, Northern California, and Oregon.
In 2017, the company received received the certification of Certified Humane. Murray says of that organization's standards, "They cover everything from the feed, to the behavior, to making sure [the animals'] last days as good as can be."
Business is booming because of it, too. Citing a compound annual growth rate of 60 percent for the company, Murray says, "The growth rate has been pretty significant over the past six, seven years." Its products are available coast-to-coast, and can be found at retailers such as Costco, Natural Grocers, and King Soopers.
Murray joined the company in 2018. Prior to that, he worked for over a decade at Minnesota-based General Mills. When General Mills purchased the company that introduced Lärabar in 2008, Murray oversaw the further popularization of the product. He then transitioned to employment in Eugene, Oregon, at So Delicious Dairy Free, before moving to Colorado, working first at WhiteWave Foods and then at free2b Foods. "Ironically, I worked on vegan brands until this job," Murray says.
In deciding whether to lead Teton Waters Ranch, Murray purchased a package of the company's hot dogs and shared them with his family. "It was without exception the best hot dog any of us had ever tasted," says Murray. (The product had already received an award for "Best grass-fed hot dog" from Epicurious in 2014.) Under Murray's leadership, the company's hamburger patties won a Nexty award in 2019 within the category of "Best New Frozen Product."
Murray, 46, is encouraged by how seriously his sons -- a 14-year-old, and twins who are 11 -- take the concept of environmental stewardship. It's a trait they share with their peers, "a generation of people who are [wired] to care, and want to be part of the solution."
Acting as an advocate for regenerative agriculture and grass-fed cattle, Murray says, "I get to look [my boys] in the eye, every day, and say I'm working on [a solution] -- especially from the climate standpoint."
Challenges: Increasing the domestic supply of beef raised according to the company's standards. Also, Murray says, conveying to consumers not only why grass-fed beef is better, but what the standards ought to be in terms of the treatment of the livestock. "That can be a very challenging marketing and communications situation," he says. "We want people to know exactly what the standards should be."
Opportunities: Murray cites two major opportunities: "Expanding our distribution [so we're available] everywhere [nationally]."
And it's releasing more products: "Bringing what we do to some additional categories where grass-fed beef is an unmet or under-met need. We see it as our job to be that solution, where there's not a clean, humane protein available in that category."
Needs: Murray re-emphasizes that Teton Waters Ranch needs to increase its domestic supply of beef, while effecting further "the education piece" of the company's mission.