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Branding Beef

Maui Cattle Co. takes pride in a purely home-grown product

Where can you get the best steak in town? One brand-name answer is on the menu at some of Hawaii's best restaurants, including Alan Wong's, Roy's at Ko Olina, Haliimaile Store and even Stella Blues Café in Kihei: Maui Cattle Co.

"We really feel good about our product as the best tasting beef anywhere," says Alex Franco, Maui Cattle Co.'s managing director, who also manages Kaupo Ranch on Maui. "And that's by design. Our goal was to keep our cattle here to develop a branded product that we can be proud of."

In recent years, the 750 ranches statewide have faced fluctuating beef prices, rising costs in raising and slaughtering cattle and cutbacks in local processing, due in part to cheaper competition from large Mainland chains, such as Costco and Sam's Club. In 2003, beef sales were valued at $17.2 million, down 8 percent from 2002. Some 55,000 cattle were sold in 2003, a decline from a high of 74,000 in 1999, and 29.57 million pounds were sold, a drop of 26 percent from 1998's high of 40.06 million pounds.

MOO-VING ON MAUI: Kaupo ranch is one of seven ranches on Maui and Kauai that own the Maui Cattle Co. LLC, a cattle production company Photo: shootingstarsphotography.com

In 2002, seven ranches on Maui and Kauai decided to take matters into their own hands and formed the Maui Cattle Co. LLC, to focus on beef production. Maui members are Haleakala Ranch, Ulupalakua Ranch, Hana Ranch Partners, Kaupo Ranch and Nobriga's Ranch. From Kauai are Olumau Angus Plus and Makoa Ranch. Each ranch is an independent cattle operation and an owner and investor in the new production company.

Unable to compete with the large volume and low prices of the big chain stores, the owners instead decided to reserve "the best of the best" of their herds to be sold as premium Maui Cattle Co. beef, according to Floyd Miller, owner of Kauai's Makoa Ranch, who is in charge of Maui Cattle Co.'s marketing.

"We reversed the trend of sending our best off island," says Miller. Local ranchers currently send their calves to the Mainland for finishing on grain, slaughtering and processing, only to see generic commodity beef, unidentifiable as Hawaii grown, come back for sale in Island stores. To ensure a home-grown product-from start to finish-the group purchased and modified a processing plant to locally produce their Maui Cattle Co.-brand premium beef.

To develop "the best tasting beef on the planet, we started with taste," Miller says matter-of-factly, once again running counter to the traditional ranching approach of growing the most beef quickly at the least cost.

Kaupo Ranch manager Alex Franco is also the Maui Cattle Co.'s managing director. Photo: shootingstarsphotography.com

The Maui Cattle Co. started by choosing to raise an all-natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free product to differentiate its beef. For its seed stock, the company turned to Bobby Ferreira, part-owner of Kauai's Olumau Angus Plus and a 25-year veteran of cattle breeding, who is credited with developing the unique-to-Hawaii Angus Plus derivative species specially suited for tropical grazing.

Recognizing that local taste for a good steak was for grain-fed, not grass-fed, beef, the group turned to another member, Buddy Nobriga, whose Maui feedlot created a finishing feed using locally raised pineapple, sugar and tropical fruit byproducts that proved a cost-savings for the ranchers and a complementary partnership with local farmers.

"Maui Community College's Culinary Arts program even helped us with taste tests on our beef," says Miller, the results of which allowed the Maui Cattle Co. owners to fine tune their herds to breed for taste and help monitor food safety and quality through tracking.

Maui Cattle Co. is also profitable, with 100-percent growth year-to-year, according to Miller. The company has some 80 accounts, including Kamehameha Schools, selected public schools on Maui, Hard Rock Café statewide and all Longs Drugs stores on Maui.

With managed growth part of its strategic plan for its premium product, the Maui Cattle Co. sees expansion of retail sales and exports in the future. So menus across the state and beyond may someday track how well the Maui Cattle Co. brand expands.

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