This is the meat of our operation," AgLocal co-founder Naithan Jones jokes as he descends into the basement of the Historic Theatre Building in Mission.
Meat is the backbone of Jones' startup, AgLocal, an online platform connecting producers, wholesalers and retailers of humanely produced meats. About 200 farms, distributors and retailers across the United States have already signed up.
Jones developed the idea while working at the Kauffman Foundation. He ran it by his wife's family — farmers in western Kansas who don't produce meat — and his brother, who is a chef. They liked the idea, and Jones quit his job to start AgLocal. While networking, he met his co-founder, developer Jacob McDaniel.
"The reason I'm doing this is that it's hard, and I want to be remembered for something that meant something," Jones says. "And I realize this is bigger than me. This means something to other people — clearly, by the amount of attention the company has gotten without having any outbound PR. All the support we get, it's moving."
Jones and his crew — seven employees and two contractors — have developed a catchy slogan: "Power to the meat lover." It's a mantra that clearly resonates. In April, months before AgLocal's official launch, Fast Company published a glowing profile of the young business. More outlets — Mashable, NPR, TechCrunch, Forbes — followed with equally positive stories.
One early fall afternoon, Jones gives The Pitch a tour of his subterranean office space. AgLocal's business director, Katie McCurry, works at a computer station as a TV glows behind her. On this day, she and her co-workers are focused on the October 5 launch of AgLocal's "EatClear" campaign — a push for restaurants to offer more sustainable meat — at the American Royal.
Jones believes that carnivores want more transparency: Where did the beef on their plates come from? How was the cow raised? And he believes that they're willing to pay more for the knowledge, wait a little longer for their food to cook, and eat a little less if they know they're consuming a better product.
"We think that's going to be a trend that doesn't go away," Jones says. "And we think convenience is now giving way to empowerment. If I'm putting this in my body, how do you care about me? And so you're seeing these menus now with at least one farm option."
In a marketplace dominated by factory farming and fast food, Jones says, "the people who are producing our food don't care about us." He goes on: "They don't care if it's packed full of carcinogens and disgusting hormones or if my kids are going to be dealing with things that generations prior didn't deal with as far as illness and pathogens."
Jones wants to change that ambivalence by giving consumers a platform, via Twitter and the hashtag #EatClear, to address restaurants directly. AgLocal monitors the hashtag and attempts to connect those restaurants with farms using sustainable models.
"It's our way of giving a personal touch to consumers who want to see this changed," he says. "The #EatClear is almost like calling 911."
In late October, AgLocal launched its first online marketplace, with about 20 San Francisco and Kansas City restaurants (including Westport Cafe and Bar, Bella Napoli, the Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange, Renee Kelly's Harvest, and Remedy Food + Drink) participating. The decision, Jones says, to start in San Francisco was based on that city's "mature sustainable-food movement."
"It's almost low-hanging fruit to get users," Jones says. "And they're going to be our most willing participants as far as test users, so we're going to get a lot of data from them about what's right and what isn't right."
The company plans to use feedback from the Bay Area to tweak AgLocal for a city-by-city rollout.
"Best-case scenario: 18 months before the product is just ubiquitous," Jones says. "By that time, we're able to support all of the demands; no matter what city you're in, we're able to match it to supply."
After that, he says, AgLocal could become the "Amazon of meat." The online bookseller allowed indie book publishers to compete with the big guys. He wants to do the same thing for meat producers. He says he can help bridge the gap for the "ag of the middle," the producers who are too big to sell directly and too small to participate in the commodities market.
"AgLocal has the unique ability to match all of that supply to the market, which isn't happening right now," Jones says. "It's an opportunity to build something beautiful for these folks."
AgLocal's beginning may be on social media and in restaurants, but its future is in a mobile app. "In the epic cage-match battle between consumer and restaurants, we ultimately decided that we could serve the consumers by being where they are and scale it that way," Jones says. "So we [will] eventually create an app that goes direct to the consumer. But right now, if we scale it to restaurants, we're essentially where consumers are."