Claire Herminjard, a dynamic 30-year-old with a big open smile, is perhaps not who you'd expect to find running a beef company -- that is, if you believe in stereotypes, Texas ranchers, and feedlots. But then again, the boutique meat company she co-founded, Mindful Meats, is not your run-of-the-mill meat company. Instead, it's a socially-mind business founded on two principle goals: "First, we want to get animals out of confinement and second, ensure a high quality protein source for us humans, that's free of antibiotics," says Herminjard.
Herminjard, co-founder and CEO of Mindful Meats, started her career as a sales executive for Salesforce.com here in the Bay Area. "My time at Salesforce was incredibly humbling. I learned so much [about business]," she says. Yet even back then she was a on a mission. Having majored in Public Policy and social entrepreneurship in college, she always knew she wanted to found a business for good and for her life to have a clear purpose.
She grew up in North Carolina, surrounded by big grocery store chains. When she arrived in the Bay Area and experienced the organic food scene, Herminjard realized that there was a big disparity across the country around access to high quality food. She started to explore the local markets, meeting farmers and even working at Tomatero Farms' market stand. "I soon realized how happy and warm I felt. This was all about enjoying life, people and food," she says.
By this time she had left Salesforce and was working at a local start-up, learning how to build teams along the way. On nights and weekends she would spend hours reading about food production methods and learning about the damage being done by monocultures -- the practice of using large swathes of land for one crop year after year instead of fostering biodiversity.
She even tried being a vegetarian after reading about animal food production, grain fattening, the use of hormones and antibiotics, and the greenhouse gas issues caused when too many animals are concentrated in a small area. By 2010, after seeing a friend with a heart condition research the benefits of grass-fed over grain-fed beef, she started to hone in on building her own meat business.
"Livestock eat 80 to 90 percent of commodity crops grown in the U.S.," she says. "98 percent of soy crops are GMO and cattle are being fed this along with sugar beet pulp, corn and cotton meal." It soon became clear to Herminjard that she wanted to start a meat business that was outside of the system: pro-diversity and organic, even down to the grain being fed to the animals. She learned that "grass-fed" is not a regulated claim and only if meat is labeled "American Grassfed" does it stand for anything.
In 2011, she started to assemble a team, bringing her co-founder on board: Stephen Goldmann, an entrepreneur and consultant in the food industry. They determined that Mindful Meats would attempt to become the first Non-GMO Project verified beef. This meant that the cows in their program would be raised with an avoidance policy for genetically-engineered feed crops. This is a claim that entails testing every batch of feed at high risk for GMO contamination -- even if it is certified organic -- that comes onto their ranchers' farms.
Their endeavor ultimately proved successful after working with the Non-GMO Project and a chicken and an egg producer to lobby the USDA to allow their products to be labeled and marketed as non-GMO. In June 2013 Mindful Meats became the first beef company in the United States to achieve Non-GMO Project verification status.
Herminjard and her team don't raise cattle themselves. Instead, they work with dairy farmers who are looking to sell their cows once their milking life is over -- usually at around four years of age. "I meet and hand-pick every cow we process, and yes, that's hard, but knowing that they are going to be slaughtered for meat anyway, makes it slightly easier. Our very first 'lady' was called Gaia and I wear a piece of her hide around my wrist to this day," she says.
What does she look for when she meets these "ladies", as she calls them? "Healthy, bright animals with great bodies and no visible defects or marks."
And she takes just as much care choosing the ranchers Mindful Meats work with, encouraging rotational grazing techniques that benefit the environment and foster carbon sequestration. Any animal that has to be treated with antibiotics is no longer allowed to stay in the organic system, and, of course, their feed is carefully monitored to ensure compliance with the Non-GMO labeling standards.
Today, Mindful Meats is the exclusive beef supplier to San Francisco favorite Bar Tartine, as well as to many others, including Parallel 37 inside the Ritz Carlton. "Their beef is absolutely delicious," says Cortney Burns, co-chef at Bar Tartine. "It has an immense amount of flavor, largely due to the fact these are dairy cows who have lived a full, happy life grazing on grass. This full, sustainable, life cycle feels right to us."
Home cooks can purchase one pound packages from a range of grocery stores, especially in the North Bay, with plans to expand to San Francisco retail outlets soon.
What's next? "We are in the process of closing a new round of funding that will bring the total we have raised to $1.1 million," says Hermijard. "Our vision for the next few years is to break into schools and hospitals. The young and the sick need a clean, high quality, source of protein and we can deliver that while staying true to our goals."