Meat seller brings low-cost sales model to Vancouver

Customers buy in bulk, package it themselves in exchange for better price

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter



Zaycon Foods

What: An online company that delivers fresh meat, fish and some produce in bulk at wholesale prices.

Where: Spokane

Owners: Mike Conrad and Adam Kremin.

Employees: 22.

Next Vancouver sales event: Bacon event, 7:30-8:30 a.m. Thursday, June 27. (Sold out)

Website: Zaycon Foods

In 2001, a Utah grocery store meat buyer discovered patrons were willing to buy 40-pound boxes of meat and package it themselves in exchange for a better price.

The enthusiastic response led to a Spokane-based company called Zaycon Foods, which now sells meat from the back of trucks in 48 states on scheduled days at designated stops. The fresh meat, also offered in Vancouver, sells at wholesale prices, often 30 to 50 percent lower than grocery store prices, according to Mike Conrad, part owner of Zaycon and brother of company co-founder JC Conrad.

JC Conrad introduced the concept more than a decade ago while working for the Maceys grocery chain in Utah. Accustomed to ordering 40-pound boxes of meat for the store, JC Conrad simply offered to pre-order the same boxes for customers who could save money by wrapping it themselves. The experiment drew more than 1,000 orders for the boxes of fresh meat.

"He sold 1,500 to 2,500 cases," much to the dismay of store management, said Mike Conrad, JC's younger brother. "They were upset with him when he did it."

By 2010, JC Conrad had relocated to Spokane and launched the wholesale concept as Zaycon Foods with his brother and their cousin, Adam Kremin. The company's annual sales grew from about $40,000 the first year to $12 million in 2012. Zaycon Foods employs about 22 people in its Spokane offices.

"We're projected to do almost $20 million this year," said Mike Conrad, who now owns the business with Kremin, after the two bought out JC.

Customers sign up to order through Zaycon's proprietary online system. The company uses refrigerated trucks to deliver its fresh meats -- items such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts, fish, hamburger, ham and bacon -- on designated days at prearranged stops, generally at large church parking lots. Meat is about 96 percent of the business, said Mike Conrad, although it sold blueberries, strawberries and peaches last year, Conrad said.

Locally, the company distributes deliveries at the Vancouver First Friends Church, 2710 N.E. 65th Ave. in Vancouver.

The company's custom-built software includes a logistics system that sets up deliveries and "events," the term Zaycon uses for its scheduled sales. With the company's order-taking and scheduling tasks managed by technology, Zaycon's business growth plans are all about bringing on new customers these days, Conrad said.

"At this point, it's about the volume," he said. The company recently attracted its first angel investment and has about 250,000 online customers.

The operation today has changed dramatically from its earliest days when Zaycon gained its first foothold through food and coupon bloggers across the country.

"We got ahold of as many as we could," Conrad said. "We asked if we brought a case of fresh, boneless, skinless chicken to your house, would you tell your readers about it?"

As the bloggers responded, Kremin rented a refrigerator truck and the founders of Zaycon Foods embarked on a "Chicken Across America" tour, taking a month and a half to deliver the fresh chicken to every blogger.

With its established fresh-meat suppliers throughout the country, "We can get to a location within 30 hours at the longest," Conrad said.

Today, the company employs professional drivers who make deliveries in Zaycon's fleet of 10 trucks and two trailers. Conrad sees his business as both revenue opportunity and a service that provides low-cost options for clients who are trying to serve nutritious meals on fixed budgets.

"We have a lot of welfare families who want to buy from us," said Conrad, who is trying to get his products approved for purchase by EBT cards, as part of the U.S. Farm Bill, now up for discussion The Electronic Benefit Transfer card payment system is used by state governments throughout the U.S. to provide financial aid to food stamp recipients.

Conrad estimates the system pays out about $80 billion in annual benefits, often in areas where fresh food is a scarce commodity. Such neighborhoods have been dubbed "food deserts" by experts who've noted similar areas throughout the country where convenient access to fresh food presents a barrier for low-income people.

Conrad said he has visited such places, including certain neighborhoods in the Bronx, N.Y.

"They have building after building after high-rise, but no grocery stores," Conrad said. "Our system will help the food deserts. This is fresh food. This is something people need."