World-changing chickens. It’s not a modest claim.
This is the hope and aim of Blue Apron co-founder Matthew Wadiak, who announced Wednesday that his new company Cooks Venture has partnered with FreshDirect to sell pasture-raised, slow-growth, heirloom chickens.
That’s a whole lot of poultry descriptors, but Wadiak, whose Blue Apron was among the first and most influential weekly meal-kit delivery services, is banking on the idea that consumers will bypass brick-and-mortar grocery stores to buy their chicken online from name-brand producers if they believe it’s more wholesome and sustainable.
“Ninety-nine percent of the chicken out there is conventional poultry raised in a confinement space,” Wadiak said by phone Tuesday. “There just is not any pasture-raised chicken in scale, no chickens out roaming the pastures like ours. What people buy in the grocery store — whether it said free range or organic — is all greenwashing. They are confined, with horrible genetics designed to convert feed to muscle mass swiftly, to the detriment of the bird and the environment.”
The partnership with FreshDirect, an online grocery delivery service that started in 1999 and largely services the Northeast, is a marriage of ideologies, Wadiak said.
“It’s one of the few companies out there in the retail space with higher quality ingredients. It can represent us well in a digital and physical space. And [co-founder] David McInerney is a fellow Culinary Institute of America alum with a great respect for food.”
The new venture joins Crowd Cow and ButcherBox among a growing number of direct-to-consumer online resources for meat, including butcher shop Porter Road and premium e-retailers Lone Mountain Wagyu and Flannery Beef. Many of these companies talk about supply-chain transparency, sustainability and improving animal welfare, buzzwords that have resonated with customers in recent years.
But what Cooks Venture is poised to do is disruptive and potentially revolutionary in farming. On 800 acres on three farms in Arkansas, the company is raising Naked Neck Free Rangers, a three-way cross bred for its heat tolerance. With a hatchery, 30 houses for broilers and 27 for pedigree birds (these are the parent stock for the broilers), they aim to produce up to 700,000 chickens per week, chickens with unrestricted access to the outdoors, no antibiotics and feed that includes toasted soy, hemp and whole legumes like lentils and high-protein lupins.
These birds are bred for slower growth (55 to 62 days from birth to slaughter, compared to the 42-day industry standard), with a focus on proportional growth so the birds don’t develop health problems struggling to support their breast weight. The slaughter process includes creating a soothing sound environment and belly rubs to calm the animals.
“If you can offer customers something that is better for the same amount of money, it’s a no-brainer. Any consumer can get behind that,” Wadiak said.
FreshDirect will sell the meat for $3.99 per pound. Cooks Venture on Wednesday begins taking orders for whole chickens, two for $40 — prices that are comparable to the higher-end chicken available in grocery stores. Still, the terms that Wadiak and Cooks Venture are most excited about are things many consumers don’t yet understand: regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration.
“Early in the organic movement, people didn’t know what organic meant either,” Wadiak said. “For me, what regenerative ag means is farming where they are measuring and improving their land year over year. It’s about working with agronomists who recommend better crop rotations so that they are putting biological matter back into soil rather than taking it out.”
So, increasing biodiversity, enriching soil and enhancing the ecosystem, but also capturing carbon in soil and aboveground biomass with the aim of taking carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for the most global warming, out of the atmosphere.
For now, Cooks Venture launches with chickens, what Wadiak calls one of “the most impactful animals that affect our food system” (every year, 9 billion chickens are killed for meat in this country).
But in the future, the company will rotate cattle, pigs and chickens on the land as well as feed crops and vegetables with the aim of measurably improving soil health — a report card that will be scannable on every meat label for concerned consumers.
“I’m really doing this for me,” Wadiak said, “because I don’t want to eat the food there is to buy in the grocery store.”