Crystal River Meats

Grass-fed beef and lamb from the mountains of Colorado
Written by: 
Matt Dodge
Produced by: 
Sean Barr

Located in Carbondale, Colorado, Crystal River Meats is one of the country’s largest producers of all-natural, grass-fed beef and lamb. With a distribution network that stretches from coast to coast, Crystal River’s beef and lamb products can be found at grocery stores nationwide, as well as in restaurants and online.

“We started with the grass-fed idea back in 1999 when it was still very new,” says Tai Jacober, president and CEO of Crystal River. The grass-fed designation set Crystal River apart at the outset and tied the brand to a trend in food that would only continue to grow as the years went on. “I learned in school that you either have to develop a niche or get really big if you want to succeed,” says Jacober.

Part of what sets Crystal River’s products apart from the competition is the company’s proprietary finishing process, a step that many other grass-fed meat producers sub out to larger cooperatives. “When you have a lot of different people finishing your beef, that creates a lot of inconsistency, so every animal with our name on it goes through our finishing process,” says Jacober.

Producing over 3 million pounds of antibiotic-free, hormone-free, grass-fed meat each year, Crystal River has enjoyed meteoric 300 percent year-over-year growth since its inception. This rapid growth means that Crystal River is in the driving seat when it comes to forging relationships with vendors and suppliers, who will do whatever it takes to build a relationship with the rising company. “We rarely lose a relationship and they rarely change. That’s the most important part of the business: without strong relationships, you’re not going to get anywhere,” says Jacober.

Home on the range

Raised on a small, working family ranch in Colorado, Jacober credits his “liberal, back-to-the-earth” parents for instilling him with the morals that still drive him today. “Yet I’m kind of a businessman, so there is a little clash, but it’s interesting to bring those morals into the business world,” he says.

It was an idyllic childhood for Jacober; his mother made cheese and milk from the ranch’s cows, his father worked jobs in town to support the family and everyday he rode his horse to school. That all changed when Jacober’s grandfather died and the family ranch was divided up amongst the family. His parents moved the children to St. Louis, where they were enrolled in one of the nation’s top prep schools — a far cry from the rural schoolhouse of his youth.

By 1999, Jacober was back in Colorado working in the family construction business. He soon bought two cows and Crystal River began in earnest, though his green building construction business was still the venture that was paying the bills. In 2008, as the housing market crash and the economic downturn started to hit home, Jacober decided it was time to get back to his roots and he sold the construction business. “I think the economic downturn is really one of the things that kicked off what I’m doing now. If we hadn’t had that happen I would probably still be doing construction,” says Jacober.

Up until this point, Jacober had been raising a couple cows at a time and selling quarters and halves to his friends, but with the influx of cash that came with selling the construction business, he was able to fully invest in Crystal River and soon brought the family on board. It was a long journey only to end up back where he had started, but Jacober was wiser for his experience. “I think I had a more worldly view than if I had stayed on the ranch,” he says.

New product aims to capture changing market

Crystal River recently launched a new product:  a leaner cut of meat in a smaller portion aimed at millennial and senior demographics. “The meat itself is going to be edible end-to-end, so you’ll never leave any trim on the plate. It’s going to be smaller than the portions we have now, but the price per ounce is going to be comparable because you’re not leaving anything on the plate,” says Jacober.

The new product is also meant to appeal to common sense as much as taste. Jacober says that consumers have been asking for smaller cuts for years, but the industry has been slow to respond. “We’re getting closer to the size that I think humans should eat,” he says.

The product will be launched at several Whole Foods Markets. Crystal River’s relationship with the grocery chain — the nation’s 30th largest retailer — has been a boon for both sides, with the grass-fed beef products outperforming the competition across the board. “They’re our biggest customer and every time they replace another producer with our product, there is 10 to 18 percent more revenue generation,” he says.

Crystal River currently distributes the brunt of its products to customers west of the Mississippi River, but the team is looking to expand into promising new markets, such as the upper Midwest and East Coast, where there is “a lot of money and a lot of educated consumers,” according to Jacober.

While most companies would covet the 300 percent growth that Crystal River has enjoyed over the last few years, Jacober is thinking about scaling to a level that is more sustainable. “One of our main focuses right now is to slow that down to maybe 20 percent growth and really dial in on profitability,” he says. Meanwhile, he has plans to scale up the number of cattle grazing in the fields from 4,000 to 8,000 over the next five years.

There are also plans to expand Fatbelly Burgers, the family’s fast-casual burger joint in downtown Carbondale. “It’s a good, healthy burger, and that’s really popular right now. We’ve been in the [research and development] phase for three years with the idea that it will become a multiple store venture,” he says.

Capitalizing on fast-casual and locally sourced trends in food, Fatbelly serves up Crystal River burgers alongside french fries made by the family. “When your resturaunteur is also your protein and potato provider, that’s pretty cool,” notes Jacober.

With an increasingly health-conscious consumer base, a strong relationship with one of the country’s foremost organic and natural food retailers and plans to capitalize on the emerging fast-casual dining market, Crystal River Meats will continue to be one of the major players in the grass-fed meat industry. 

Strategic Partnership(s): 
Tonali's Meats