Cameron Hughes, Founder at Holy Grail Steak Co, on Consumer Access to High-End Beef

What was the driving force behind starting your brand? Was there a specific event, or series of events, that catalyzed the launch?

As a long time beef lover, I was frustrated by the quality of beef available to me through local retailers. I knew from experience that the best beef is reserved largely for high-end restaurants willing to pay a premium. Through my restaurant contacts, I saw an opportunity to offer consumers access to high-end beef. As I dug deeper into the category, I came to understand that premium consumers are looking for unique and differentiated offerings.

It became apparent that more than just offering access to fine beef, there was an opportunity to lead the premiumization of the beef category beyond the largely commoditized USDA quality designations of Select, Choice, and Prime. With the addition of Japanese Wagyu to our high-end Angus and American-raised Wagyu selections, our portfolio rose to be the finest in the US and Holy Grail Steak Co. was born.

Originally, my background is in the wine business. I saw years of declining per capita consumption (PCC) in the wine category reversed by a 1993 episode of 60 Minutes titled “The French Paradox”. The show effectively countered the narrative that wine consumption was bad for you and launched a 25 year run of consistent PCC and category dollar growth in the hundreds of percent. I saw the same trends emerging in the beef business:

  • In 2011, the National Institutes of Health effectively decoupled the link between animal proteins and heart disease/cancer showing the epidemiological studies suggesting the link to be severely flawed.
  • In 2014, the Big Fat Surprise chronicled the corruption of the scientific process in an attempt by Big Grain and Big Sugar to pin heart disease on animal proteins which, due to their disparate producer base and lack of funding to fight back, had little response. The book went on the make the case for animal proteins as a foundational event in human evolution and the continuing need for them in a healthy human diet.
  • In 2016, the New York Times and Time Magazine both posted studies that continued to decouple the link between fat/animal proteins and both heart disease and cancer.
  • In 2014, per capita consumption of beef bottomed out and has been on the rise ever since.

I am not a business person by training. For me, breakthrough or innovative brands seemed intuitive, coming from the gut and “grokking” the consumers’ relation to the category in a new and fundamental way. At some level, I think of “brand” as Kierkegaard’s “Dog Star”. It’s not there if you look directly at it. You can only see it out of the corner of your eye. Having said that, there are practical considerations around exit strategy that must be taken into account in the initial development of your brand. Are you looking to launch and sell the company? Or, are you looking to launch and run the company for the foreseeable future? The decisions you make at the beginning of starting a business will affect your options down the road.

What should a future founder be most aware of before launching a brand? From your experience, what have been your biggest pain points and what have you found to be the most rewarding?

Personally, I am good at relating my vision but putting that vision into a business plan has always been a challenge. I believe in the power of ideas, and sometimes it’s hard to translate the idea to dollars. Having said that, entrepreneurs need to just get pen to paper. The iterative process is very challenging, but in the end, very rewarding.

In the early days of Cameron Hughes Wine, it was my wife. I want to work with people who can execute (she was an executive with Razorfish Digital at the time) and with whom I can work on a personal level. Trust and open communication are very important to me. My first hire when I launched Holy Grail Steak Co. was my cousin Michael. With a diverse background in entrepreneurism and tech sales, he was a seminal figure in convincing me that I didn’t need fancy designers. I had already blown about $25K of my own money on such designers so this was welcome feedback! Michael, in effect, goaded me into building the website myself in Shopify. After helping me there and getting a sense of how he could further contribute, I knew I needed to officially bring him on board. After consulting with our mothers to help negotiate the contract, he was my first (and best) hire for Holy Grail.

Who was your first hire? What are the most important attributes you look for when building a team?

When it comes to attributes I look for when building a team, I would have to say the most important is someone who plays well with others. It is also essential that they be an optimistic, flexible go-getter with a can-do attitude.

After that, I have to say Shopify has been a fine platform. There are still issues with how they manage the business. One of which is requiring modules for items that should have been included in the everyday iteration as well as these same modules fighting with each other. However, the reporting is good, and the platform is largely stable while still maintaining some flexibility to make things run smoother.

What are the three tools/platforms you can’t live without for your business? Is there is anything you wish you had started using sooner?

First and foremost is effective fulfillment. This is the Achilles heel of the frozen fulfillment business. Complex SKU arrangements sourced from multiple vendors require universal packouts and labeling systems that are extremely difficult to put in place amongst multiple vendors. After two failed attempts to outsource our frozen fulfillment, we are bringing it back in- house in 2020. We realized we needed the flexibility to assemble packages how and when we want, receive products how and when we want, and ensure the customer delivery experience is quickly and flawlessly executed.

Finally, a good old phone. I prefer to communicate with my team over the phone as much as possible. We don’t use Slack or IM but will probably have to in the future as the team grows. What do I wish I should have done earlier? Hmmm, I could argue that I should have called Costco earlier in the year rather than in May of this year so that we could have brought in Japanese beef before the tariff kicked in. We would have had better pricing, but hindsight is 20/20, of course.

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