Nick Carey from Green Meadows: 10 years on, would he do it again?

by | Nov 10, 2022 | News

Interview: Vincent speaks to the co-founder of Green Meadows, Nick Carey, about the trials and joys of launching an online shop, butchery and family business.

The Carey family has been farming in Taranaki for 120 years. But in 2012 they stepped into the unknown, launching a butchery and an online store to take their grass-fed Angus beef directly to the public. Ten years on, that online store is thriving and Green Meadows is also now in major supermarkets, exported to Singapore and the Pacific Islands and experimenting with new flavours and products, in partnership with chef Michael van de Elzen. Success has been hard fought.

 

The business is ten years old. Well done. How did it start?

My parents were dairy farmers with significant land holding but also significant bank debt and kind of got to the stage of wanting to step back. Dad had always wanted to finish beef cattle so they converted from dairy farming to beef finishing, which is not the way that things normally roll in in New Zealand. After five years he started then getting recognised by some of the meatworks as having a superior product, but also farming in a way that they wanted to show their clients from overseas that, ‘Hey, this is a good way’.

I was working as a lawyer in New Plymouth didn’t have a mortgage so pretty much said pay me a minimal salary and, and I’ll quit my job and launch the business. So I started myself and then a full time butcher. My brothers have their own careers, they sort of sit on our advisory board chip in possibly more often than is welcome.

 

As brothers do.

Yeah. Yeah [laughs]. It’s good having that you know that support. Both of them are in quite high-level roles in commerce and governance. So definitely have skills that they bring to the table and connections as well.

 

Mike van de Elzen         Photograph by Babiche Martens. www.babichemartens.com

 

 

It’s long been the aim for New Zealand farmers and growers to get more value from their produce. Was that the motivation for you?

Yeah, and then also the intergenerational piece as well. How can we use the skills that we’ve all acquired to keep the farm in the family for generations to come.

 

To be honest there were costs that we didn’t appreciate and didn’t really estimate.  It’s probably in the millions of dollars to build a successful direct-to-consumer business. But it also has relatively low barriers to entry.

 

Why did you choose the direct to consumer model? That’s quite costly.

It costs a lot and, to be honest, had costs that we didn’t appreciate and didn’t really estimate.  It’s probably in the millions of dollars to build a successful direct-to-consumer business. But it also has relatively low barriers to entry. You know, if you’re thinking about supermarket and export sales, then you’ve got stricter food licensing and regulations. So to begin with we hired a home kill butcher shop, so our only cost up-front was a website and brand design.

 

How did that work out?

We got the offer completely wrong! We thought we’d sell quarter and half animals which is 50 kilograms. We then tried to send that by frozen delivery truck into apartments in the middle of Auckland where people didn’t have a chest freezer, let alone, you know, access. And so, yeah, there were definitely issues that we corrected reasonably quickly. We’re onto website number two and brand number two. But obviously covid has helped the direct model.

 

You’re in supermarkets now. I guess you had to invest in a proper butchery?

Yeah, we’ve got a facility in New Plymouth now which we continually seem to outgrow.

 

What other changes did you make?

We’ve been working hard to find a sweet spot for utilising the whole carcass. We all enjoy a steak but that’s only two percent of the animal. So utilising the full carcass and really honoring the commitments of the work we’re doing on farm that, that’s what really led us to the drive into the supermarkets and focus on small goods. We sort of, we think of ourselves as a meatball and sausage business really.

 

And that’s where your partnership with Michael van de Elzen comes in, right?

We met Mike at Fieldays [in 2016]. We were doing countless shows, getting people onto our online database selling product. One of my own hairball ideas was to sell hot pies at Mystery Creek. You know, it’s always raining and can be quite cold so a pie would be good right? We horrendously underestimated demand and how long it would take to cook pies. So we started stealing the celebrity chef ovens that they had in the food area to cook more pies.

Mike was there getting ready for a slot on the stage, and he was like, ‘whose are all these pies?’ He was kind of intrigued and liked the taste and over the next few months we sort of firmed up the commercial side of it.

 

Beetroot and beef is the hit?

Yeah, that was the hero one that we launched first with Mike. And we’ve just given it a birthday because we just refreshed it. But we’ve also added a roasted capsicum and a kimchi, so all have half a cup of vegetables per pack as well as the beef component. And we bind it with ancient grains, so things like quinoa, chia seeds. We’ve relaunched that for summer, which is obviously prime burger season in New Zealand. Time to fire the barbecue up, eh?

 

It’s definitely a journey. You know, we have people come in and like, ‘Oh, what’s the system for this?’ and I’m like, ‘a system? Good idea! Let’s design one’.

 

The cost of farming sustainably just keeps going up, but also the demands from consumers keep going up. How are those costs recovered? How do you reward yourself for sustainable practices?  

It’s about tapping into the right model and right market. We need to remind ourselves less is more. So on farm we have very low stocking rates which means that a lot of the costs that a typical farm are kept low.

It also ties back to my early point about an intergenerational business. We are trying to find the long-term partners and long-term customers that appreciate our values so that we are not forced into a race to the bottom or just producing for the sake of it.

Ten years on, are you still happy with your decision to throw in the law and become a farmer?

My wife reminds me, ‘Oh, remember when you quit your job that you didn’t actually tell me that you were quitting and then sold it to me that, you know, I’d be my own boss and would be able to meet for lunch a lot, you know, and things would be great?’ We’ve definitely had our fair share of challenges.  I would say that the challenges are changing as the business grows. We’ve got over 20 staff now that work across two shifts. We operate Sunday to Friday, day and night. But I guess what excites me now is the international growth of the business. I’m off to Taiwan in a week to present a whole new range over there.

 

Looking back what would you change?

I would definitely do it again but do it differently. I’d want to capitalise the business properly so you can try a few more innovative things. Not to be afraid to bring on outside investment to help deliver that dream a little bit sooner.  Asking for help opens a lot more doors and opportunities.

And I would probably place a bit more emphasis and effort on myself. The founder is a key person. If you are not performing, the business isn’t performing. So, bringing in that sort of middle management support when the business is able helps share the load and helps you focus on your own health and well-being so you turn up each day to be the best for the business and your team. So I’ve been focusing on getting match fit this year – having a young child as well over the last few years is certainly a good reason too.

It’s definitely a journey. You know, we have people come in and like, ‘Oh, what’s the system for this?’ and I’m like, ‘a system? Good idea! Let’s design one’.

Listen to the full interview on The Feed podcast!

Get a recipe from Mike van de Elzen using the capsicum burger patties

About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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