Ivan Smith knows meat.
And that expertise extends beyond quality and cuts. The owner of Big Bend Market in Red Deer is familiar with the history of his products as well.
“Every piece of meat in here, I can tell you the farmer that raised it and the age of the animal — the whole detail.”
Smith is even contemplating displaying photos of the families that supply meat to his store, so customers gain an increased awareness of the origins of their food.
Those suppliers, most of whom live in Central Alberta, provide Big Bend Market with hormone- and antibiotic-free bison, beef, pork, elk, lamb, chicken, turkey and veal.
“I think we’re the only place that has fresh, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat in all species,” said Smith, adding that bison is his biggest seller.
“Nobody can touch us on the bison products, as far as selection goes.”
Much of that bison is raised by Smith himself. He feeds about 1,200 head, with the herd spread across his own quarter section near Innisfail and another 1,500 acres of leased land.
Smith also custom-feeds and sells bison for other producers.
“I do marketing for probably 30 bison farms within Alberta and Saskatchewan.”
That gives him the volumes needed to attract buyers and gain marketing power.
“I know that some of the meat I sell ends up as far away as Dubai,” said Smith, adding that his bison also goes to a number of restaurants.
Now 35, Smith has been raising bison since 1998. He initially relied on farmers markets to sell his meat, and continues to attend several every week.
But Smith wanted to sell fresh meat at a permanent location, and knew other farm-direct vendors who felt the same way.
He was looking for a suitable location for a shop when Keith and Shelly Baier announced they were closing their Baier’s Sausage & Meats stores. Smith took over the south-side location in Southpointe Common and reopened as Big Bend Market in October 2007.
Sales have since increased four-fold, he estimates.
“It’s so easy to sell quality.”
That’s because consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about what goes into their bodies.
“People are definitely eating healthier,” said Smith.
“Used to be, they didn’t really care where it came from.”
Many customers not only want to know where their meat originated, but how it was raised. Big Bend Market’s success, said Smith, is due largely to the knowledgeable staff he retained from Baier’s and the close ties he has with the store’s farmer-suppliers.
In addition to ensuring quality, dealing directly with producers helps keep costs down, he said. Big Bend Market uses a number of Central Alberta slaughterhouses but has an in-house butcher who cuts and prepares meat for sale.
It also carries a variety of non-meat products, many of which are or have in the past been sold through farmers markets.
Smith thinks Big Bend Market has the potential for continued growth.
“There are so few people that know what we do here,” he said, adding that many don’t realize the range of products available in the shop.
“Because I’m so well known for the bison, a lot of people assume that’s all I have.”
He’s been doing some cross-marketing with Red Deer’s Restaurant 27, in which he’s a partner. That includes recognition in the restaurant’s menu that Big Bend Market supplies all of its meat.
If things continue to go well, Smith said he might open another, bigger location to boost volumes and efficiencies. He’s also been asked about franchising shops elsewhere.
If there is a limit to how much Big Bend Market can grow, it’s probably linked to the number of hours in a day.
Smith puts in about 50 hours a week at the store now, with much more time spent raising and marketing livestock.
“It’s pretty ridiculous,” he acknowledged. “Normally I try to be up by 5 and I generally quit work at 10 or 11 at night.”
But he enjoys dealing with the people on both sides of his business, and is pleased with what he’s created.
“Would I have thought I would have owned a butcher shop? Never in my wildest dreams. Now it’s something I’m really proud about.”