Niman sells to nationwide meal service Blue Apron

03/30/2017

Longtime Bolinas rancher and meat purveyor Bill Niman has sold his latest venture to Blue Apron, a national company that delivers pre-portioned meals to be assembled at home. The price of the deal, which was finalized last month, was not disclosed. 

Mr. Niman has known one of Blue Apron’s founders for decades and has worked as a consultant with the company for the past couple of years. He will stay on as president of the grass-fed meat line. 

“Absolutely everything will remain the same,” Mr. Niman said of BN Ranch, which he founded in 2007 with his wife, lawyer and author Nicolette Hahn Niman. 

The sale will allow Blue Apron, which delivers eight million meals a month to its subscribers, to increase transparency between farmer and consumer. That is key as food producers forge a better future, Ms. Hahn Niman said. “That’s what we need to be doing more of, in order to rebuild our food system,” she said. 

The relationship between Mr. Niman and Blue Apron began in the late 1990s, when Mr. Niman, then owner of Niman Ranch, was delivering meat to the Oakland restaurant Oliveto. Matt Wadiak, who would eventually co-found Blue Apron in 2012, was working in Oliveto’s kitchen. A few years later, Mr. Wadiak and Mr. Niman coincidently shared office space in Richmond, and began a
friendship. 

For Mr. Niman, besides financial security, the most compelling aspect of the sale will be Blue Apron’s utilization of the whole animal. The company can devise menus that use each part of the animal—all the way down to the bone, which he said can be used for demi-glace—resulting in a more humane operation that produces less waste.

“Typically, when animals are slaughtered and dismembered, you have to find a home for every part,” he said. “It’s an expensive undertaking. Blue Apron solves all that and can predict each menu.” 

The Nimans’ 800-acre Bolinas property is leased from the Point Reyes National Seashore. Mr. Niman began raising hogs there in the mid-1970s alongside his then-partner Orville Schell. The duo grew Niman Ranch into a pioneering producer of natural meat that swore off the use of antibiotics and growth hormones. 

In 1984, the seashore acquired the ranch through eminent domain, paying Mr. Niman and Mr. Schell around $1.3 million. Mr. Schell left the company in 1997.

Although Niman Ranch had a notable list of clients, including Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Zuni Café in San Francisco, the company was losing money. The Chicago company Natural Food Holdings became its chief investor and, according to a 2009 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, acquired four of the seven seats on the board of directors in 2006. Mr. Niman disagreed with how they modified cattle-raising practices to increase profits at the expense of husbandry, and left the company in 2007.

That same year, Mr. Niman formed BN Ranch, with help from his wife, and began by reacquiring two dozen or so cattle they had leased to a ranch in Idaho to add to their herd of about 250. The couple currently grazes 100 breeding cows, and about 100 others, on their ranch.

Ms. Hahn Niman said raising grass-fed cows was a focus from the start. “Our original thinking was to start a company where grass was at the center of everything,” she said. “Grass is at the core of good animal husbandry and we based our model on it.”

BN Ranch sources from over 20 farms in California and New Zealand. By working with ranches that operate on different seasons, it can track when grass is its finest in order to offer high-quality meat year-round. 

“I believe there’s a seasonality for each meat, just like eating a tomato in season. Why eat a tomato from North America in January?” Mr. Niman said. 

Grass is most nutritious and full of energy as the seed is forming and hardening, he said. And, similar to how a bear prepares for hibernation, cattle begin storing energy—and growing fatter—before winter and summer. That’s when animals are in prime condition to be slaughtered, he said. And when animals are their biggest, you don’t have to kill as many to feed consumers. 

Various restaurants and suppliers throughout West Marin purchase from BN Ranch, including Osteria Stellina, Saltwater Oyster Depot and the Palace Market. 

The Nimans are avid cooks who make their meals from scratch, but Ms. Hahn Niman said she was impressed after trying one of Blue Apron’s meal kits. She’s also encouraged by the company’s ability to teach consumers how to cook. 

“You beat with a whisk and chop up the vegetables,” she said. “I love the whole concept of teaching people as opposed to providing them with a meal.”