On one side are Ted Turner’s brand of old-school ranchers who finish their bison on grain and slaughter them like conventional cattle. On the other are people looking for America’s original red meat, raised as wild as possible and slaughtered as humanely as possible.
ATLANTA — Ted Turner’s office above the bison restaurant here that bears his name is stuffed with trophies, both earned and acquired. The America’s Cup he won in 1977 sits on a pedestal in the conference room. The Oscar for “Gone With the Wind,” which he picked up when he bought the MGM film library, is on the coffee table.
Turner just rounded the corner on 77. The billionaire they used to call the Mouth of the South is a much quieter version of himself these days, thinking less about the 24-hour news cycle he invented and more about his 1.9 million acres of ranch land and what he did to nudge bison — of which he owns more than anyone else on the planet — onto the American plate.
“I used to satisfy people’s hunger for knowledge; now, I satisfy their hunger for food,” he said as he headed downstairs with a reporter and a small entourage to work through several cuts of bison at Ted’s Montana Grill. Although he said he eats plenty of bison, he opted for tortilla chicken soup and a small salad.
Turner, a deep lover of nature since childhood, bought his first few bison in the 1970s but didn’t touch a bite for a decade. “They were like my pets,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to eat my dog, either.”
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At the time, there were maybe 30,000 American bison left in the world. (Buffalo is more of a nickname that came from early French explorers who called the animals “les boeufs.”)
When Turner started on his quest to bring bison back, the meat showed up mostly as supper on private ranches or as a gimmick in game-centric restaurants that did not care if they were selling rattlesnake or yak.
By the 1990s, his interest had driven prices up, and dozens of other ranchers had joined him. Then a mix of market conditions and bad weather contributed to a crash. Bison meat began piling up in freezers, and ranchers went bankrupt.
So Turner came upon a concept that Alice Waters and her Slow Food followers understand well. To save something special like the American bison, you have to eat it. He opened his first Ted’s Montana Grill in Columbus, Ohio, in 2002 with George McKerrow Jr., the Atlanta restaurateur who founded the LongHorn Steakhouse.
Picking up fans
After some stumbles (the company had to close nine of its 57 outlets in 2010), Turner’s restaurant business is back on a path of expansion, and so is bison. The average American eats about 55 pounds of beef a year, while per capita bison consumption barely adds up to a couple of burgers. But a side of bison can bring in twice as much money as beef these days, and processors say they can’t keep up with demand.
At Whole Foods, ground bison is a tiny but fast-growing segment that commands a handsome $10.99 a pound. Strip steaks sell for $25.99 a pound. Sam’s Club and mainstream supermarkets offer bison in the form of steaks, hot dogs and ground chuck. Bison burgers are almost as common as chicken wings at pubs in California and Colorado.
Bison also is picking up new fans among high-end chefs, bone broth enthusiasts and the paleo crowd, as well as less dogmatic eaters who prefer meat with a healthier profile and a more environmentally sound back story. Bison is leaner than chicken or fish and, if it is raised on grass, has a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
This emerging school of eaters is creating something of a generational range war. On one side are Turner’s brand of old-school ranchers who finish their bison on grain and slaughter them like conventional cattle. On the other are people looking for America’s original red meat, raised as wild as possible and slaughtered as humanely as possible. They see bison as a special protein source unto itself that should be raised as part of a system that restores and preserves grassland.
“These are the same people who are saying, ‘Where is my coconut water?’” said Sean Lenihan, a marketing expert and CrossFit aficionado from Los Angeles who has turned his attention from selling electric cars and Beats headphones to grass-fed bison, which he said is “bulletproof in its authority and its health profile.”
His brand, the Honest Bison, sells meat online and to the millennial-friendly meat snack maker Epic Provisions. Two former vegans from Austin, Texas, Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest, started Epic in 2013 with a grass-fed meat and fruit bar. In January, they sold it to General Mills in a deal reported to be worth about $100 million.
Their bison and bacon bar, which was inspired by a bison-bacon burger they ate in a small town in Texas, sells almost as well as a category of Kind bars. The company’s bison jerky made OK magazine’s December “What’s Hot” list, on the same page with dry shampoo from the Olsen twins.
“Bison is this iconic, beautiful symbol of Americana that represents strength and power,” Forrest said. And her company is not interested in buying bison that have been fed grain.
“It seems like a shortcut,” she said. “We don’t want animals from ranches using a feedlot model.”
Bison bar wave
They are not the first to catch the bison bar wave. The early adopter was the Tanka bison and cranberry bar, created about a decade ago on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Lakota Sioux. It’s now sold at natural food stores and Whole Foods around the country.
Even Patagonia, the clothing company, is getting in on bison. The company’s motivation is largely environmental. Last fall it introduced a line of buffalo jerky as part of its 4-year-old food division, Patagonia Provisions. Two ounces of it sells for $10.
Patagonia went into business with Dan O’Brien, a former biologist who owns the thousand-acre Cheyenne River Ranch just west of Badlands National Park and an hour’s drive from Rapid City, S.D. He is a well-regarded writer of fiction and nonfiction whose 2007 book, “Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch,” chronicled his effort to convert his land from beef to bison.
His animals eat only what grows on his land and are slaughtered there, too. Last year, he killed and processed about 800 animals, some of which were from his own herd and others from animals owned by nearby Native Americans and celebrity ranchers like David Letterman.
Some of the meat goes to his processing plant in Rapid City and is turned into sausage or sold on the Internet as pristine steaks or ground meat. His wife, Jill, is a chef and culinary adviser. “No one has cooked more buffalo since Mrs. Crazy Horse died,” he said.
He considers himself a farmer of grassland and carbon, with bison a byproduct of good land conservation.
“If we have to force buffalo into the cattle feedlot model, we are just creating another problem,” he said, adding that buffalo won’t become common fare on the American table because the supply is so small.
“The only way to get those numbers is to perpetualize the industrialization of buffalo, which would ruin the romance,” he said.
O’Brien would love to see Turner abandon the feedlot model. “He is the one guy who could change it,” O’Brien said.
For the record, however, Turner has no intention of changing. And bison shows no sign of overtaking beef. There are about 90 million cattle in the United States, and only about 500,000 bison, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of those, about 60,000 are processed a year. Cattle are processed at a rate of 125,000 a day, said Dave Carter, director of the National Bison Association.
Bison grow to market size much slower than cattle, although giving them a chance to get fattened up on annual grasses instead of wild pasture and then putting them on a diet of grain for the last three to six months of their lives helps speed along the process. It also assures that the meat and fat have a more homogeneous flavor, which helps shoppers who want a product that is as reliable as beef but has a much better nutritional profile.
Kyle Mendenhall is the executive chef at the Kitchen, which began in Boulder, Colo., and now has restaurants in Chicago and is about to expand to Memphis, Tenn. When he gets bison from a grass-fed grower in Colorado, he treats it like a specialty item. He may turn tender cuts into tartare, or braise ribs with juniper, rosemary and chili flakes and make a ragù. Hearts sometimes become pastrami.
“We want people to taste the purity and the sweetness,” he said. “We want to highlight its preciousness.”
Trying to look at bison as a substitute for beef is a mistake, he said. It’s like trying to make rabbit perform like chicken.
“They are similar but at the same time very, very different,” he said.
Not everyone sees bison within that frame. Recently in Denver, where the theme of the annual meeting of the bison association was “Bet on Bison,” Turner was honored, and tomahawk bison rib-eyes were served. They came from Bob Dineen’s Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, a company that processes 200,000 pounds of bison a year, almost all of it finished on grain and processed like beef.
Bison, Dineen said, will never become a commodity. The people who raise them don’t want it, and the numbers are just too small. “There is no chance we are going to turn them into meat wagons,” he said. “They’re bison. We haven’t really messed with them like we have cattle.”
Still, to keep up with demand and provide a consistent supply of uniform bison meat for the shoppers at Publix or Kroger, some herd management and supplemental feeding are essential.
“There’s a lot of criticism of large-animal agriculture from people who don’t know anything about it,” Dineen said. “What if you don’t get enough rain that year? What about your hay supply? Grass quality varies from area to area. You are leaving a lot to Mother Nature.”
In the end, perhaps two systems for bison will exist, one to satisfy people who want a meal centered on four ounces of grass-fed, field-slaughtered buffalo and another for those who prefer affordable bison that can be turned into a decent, healthful burger on a Tuesday night. It may look a little like the salmon market, where supply, price and consumer preference have made room for both farm-raised fish and wild fish.
But whatever way the system goes, the future looks good.
“No one saw this coming,” said Forrest of Epic. “It’s a really good time to be a bison rancher, for sure.”