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Selling meat online might sound like a dodgy proposition. But not when you connect farmers with consumers eager to eat local—and then wrap it in an appealing box

Janick Laurent/The Globe and Mail

A few hundred cattle graze the fields at Heritage Cattle Co. in Keene, Ont.

Aaron MacDonald, along with his brother and dad, has operated the grass-fed beef operation, just a couple of hours east of Toronto, since 2007. A few years ago, they decided to start selling meat online. Customers had been asking about delivery, and the world was becoming increasingly digital, after all. Things did not go well.

The number of orders was unpredictable—10 in one week, just a single order the next. They had to pack the boxes themselves, stuffing each with dry ice. The farmers schlepped meat to Purolator or directly to a customer’s home, which occasionally meant a 45-minute trek to deliver a couple of boxes of liver. They soon realized e-commerce and delivery were more trouble than they were worth, and gave up. “We’re really good at farming,” MacDonald says, “but when it came to the online thing and the logistics behind getting frozen products to people in an efficient way, we struggled.”

Over the years, various companies solicited the MacDonalds, armed with pitches about how to take their business online. The family always declined, burned by their past experience and preferring to focus on farming. Still, when Marc Lafleur, from a company named TruLocal, got in touch, MacDonald had heard so many pitches that he was ready to give in. “Marc came across like he’s going to give it his all, and this company is his baby,” he recalls. “He’s very, very passionate. I was like, ‘Okay, this guy is gonna go for it.’”

Lafleur co-founded TruLocal in Kitchener, Ont., in 2016 and serves as CEO. It’s essentially an online meat vendor, buying from suppliers like Heritage. Its customers, in turn, assemble orders online, choosing from frozen beef, pork, chicken and fish products. The company ships an insulated box to their door. Revenue has ballooned nearly 3,700% over the past three years, with most of the firm’s customers in Ontario. (British Columbia and Alberta are growing markets.) “Farmers focus on raising animals, and for them to focus on trying to get all this online exposure is tricky,” Lafleur says. “We’ve rallied these farmers in one location and built demand and credibility that way.”

For suppliers like Heritage, TruLocal offers another sales channel. At least 30% of Heritage’s orders are routed through the online platform, providing a steady income stream in an industry that can be unpredictable and contributing to a boost in sales. “There’s been a huge increase since we started with TruLocal,” MacDonald says.

Lafleur, 29, credits TruLocal’s growth to a few factors. Mainly, it has a clear purpose and a well-defined brand that taps into a number of current food trends—convenience, the popularity of high-fat and low-carb keto diets and, most importantly, the desire to eat locally and know where your food is coming from. “If we just sold meat online, you’d probably feel a little bit grossed out,” Lafleur says. So he frames the company’s mission differently. “We’re all about connecting you directly to local producers,” he says, “and that resonates with people.” That promise is reflected in the company’s name and website, which profiles suppliers.

There have been other meat delivery services, and TruLocal is aware of and learning from those previous attempts. While completing a bachelor of science degree at the University of Waterloo, Lafleur took a job as a door-to-door meat salesman. That probably sounds challenging enough, but Lafleur had to convince people to buy an entire year’s worth of frozen meat in one shot. An upbeat guy and a fast talker, he discovered a knack for sales and later ran an office for the company in London, Ont.

He became friends with another employee, named Greg Quaile, 31, and the two of them often traded ideas about what could be improved at the bulk meat company. The adherence to the door-to-door model ignored the power of online marketing. There was upselling involved (if you’re going to get a year’s worth of frozen meat, you’ll probably need an extra freezer), and there was no way for customers to receive deliveries weekly or monthly. The pair brought some ideas to their bosses, but they were rebuffed. “I think they were looking back to what had worked historically for them,” Lafleur says.

But the two shared an entrepreneurial streak. Lafleur had previously launched an instant messaging app and a platform for finding odd jobs, both of which fizzled out. He realized that if he were going to succeed with a business, he couldn’t treat it like a part-time project. So he and Quaile quit their jobs and started TruLocal.

One of their first tasks was securing a warehouse—they quickly learned working out of a garage with a chest freezer wasn’t going to cut it—and then started building relationships with farmers. Explaining to “old-school meat guys” that they wanted to ship slabs of beef directly to consumers was challenging, Lafleur says. “They didn’t want to associate their name with us. We were really just two guys.”

But they found a few suppliers willing to take the leap. Lafleur and Quaile, now vice-president, walked into a company called Townsend Butchers in Simcoe, Ont., one day to try to secure them as a pork supplier. “They said, ‘We’re website designers with a taste for meat,’” recalls co-owner Steve Miedema. The company, which Miedema runs with his brother, had just expanded its facilities and had the capacity to fulfill new orders. “We thought, Why not? We can handle this,” he says. Townsend Butchers now has four staff members dedicated to Tru-Local business.

A crisis hit early on when one of TruLocal’s large courier partners dropped them over safety concerns. Their delivery boxes contain dry ice; when handled improperly, it destroys skin cells, leaving an injury akin to a burn. “We were like, ‘This is the worst thing ever. We quit our jobs for this. We’ll be out of business if we can’t ship our products,’” Lafleur says. The team scrambled to find another courier and luckily partnered with one that lobbied for a regulatory change that would allow them to leave dry ice at the door without a signature. The company says the material usually dissipates by the time someone actually gets their order, and disposal instructions are included in each TruLocal box.

Janick Laurent/The Globe and Mail

That box, insulated and painted black, with the company’s name stencilled on it, has become something of a totem for TruLocal. Customers have posted unboxing videos on Instagram, along with shots of their orders and finished meals, all of which has built the brand.

Those boxes are also used to deliver a whimsical personal touch. Each one contains a new handwritten meat-related joke—"You’re bacon me crazy," for example—every week. “We think this is one of the most important things the customer receives when they open the box,” Quaile says. “We try to engage with them when they least expect it.” The company has a staff member who has the uncanny ability to come up with a prodigious number of meat puns. They have yet to recycle one, as far as Quaile knows.

An appearance on Dragons' Den in 2017 also helped get the TruLocal name out. On the show, Lafleur and Quaile struck a deal with Michele Romanow and Joe Mimran—a $100,000 investment in exchange for 10% of the firm—although only Romanow ended up actually investing. She was impressed with the founders and also by the niche they were carving out in the crowded food-delivery space. “They’ve been able to really eke out a completely different position,” she says. A typical meal-kit company, for example, might charge $60 and deliver a package every week, making it hard to recoup the cost of acquiring customers. But TruLocal charges more and delivers less frequently (the most popular option is a $249 monthly box), which is better for profitability. “That really changes the economics,” Romanow says.

The pandemic caused business to skyrocket during the first few months of lockdown. People not only wanted to avoid grocery stores, but they also wanted to stock up. Frozen meat filled the bill. The company hired about 15 people to help fulfill orders, and the surge in demand has pushed TruLocal into profitability year-to-date. “We were planning to be profitable this year, regardless,” Quaile says. “It just got us there a few months sooner.”

These days, TruLocal is expanding beyond its original business model. The company recently launched a service called TruLocal Connect, which helps farmers set up their own online stores to sell directly to customers—a Shopify for beef, if you will. It’s a way to build on the company’s ethos of showcasing food producers. “I want to give customers more of a connection to these people,” Lafleur says. TruLocal will charge a transaction fee, while the farm handles the fulfillment and shipping. Lafleur views it as a complementary business, not one that competes with the company’s core offering.

The company has signed up a few farms to TruLocal Connect, including MacDonald, despite his past bad luck. “I’m just going to lean on TruLocal and their expertise,” MacDonald says. “They’ll definitely steer us in the right direction.”

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