There are many words that could be used to describe Nolan Ryan: tough, intimidating, feared, dominating. In a career that stretched from 1966 to 1993, Ryan was one of the best pitchers to ever play the game of baseball. Thanks to a fastball that routinely topped 100 miles per hour, he still stands as the all-time strikeout leader with 5,714 K’s and threw more no-hitters – seven – than any other pitcher.
With that kind of resume, would you call Nolan Ryan tender? Try telling that to Robin Ventura, the Chicago White Sox third baseman who once infamously charged Ryan on the mound and ended up in a headlock as Ryan rained punches on his head.
When it comes to Nolan Ryan’s All-Natural Beef, however, tenderness isn’t just a word that’s thrown around. Every steak that bears his name is guaranteed tender, and those steaks have to go through a rigorous set of standards to even make it to the consumer.
“Only about 50 to 60 percent of the cattle that are evaluated under our guidelines meet our qualifications and actually go into our program,” Ryan says. “I think everybody hopes for a consistent eating experience, and that is our goal, and our customers expect that consistency when they purchase our product.”
Over an approval process of several years, he notes, Nolan Ryan Beef became the first USDA-certified all-tender program. While the company does not do the beef slaughter or processing, it oversees the aging process for each steak out of its warehouse. Every cut of beef is aged for a minimum of 14 days before it is sent to a customer’s warehouse or restaurant.
Currently, Nolan Ryan Beef is distributed throughout Texas and Louisiana. It’s a popular brand at retail stores in major Texas markets like Dallas-Ft. Worth, Austin and Houston, and the foodservice side of the business has grown thanks to some new national chain accounts. In addition to the all-natural beef, the company, headquartered in Huntsville, Texas, has expanded into grass-fed beef products as well as further-processed items like beef franks, patties and sausages.
Ryan’s exploits as a baseball player and later as an executive (he’s currently the CEO of the Texas Rangers) are well known, but he has been involved in cattle production for almost as long as he has in baseball.
“It’s something I always wanted to do and had an attraction to,” he explains. “Baseball afforded me that opportunity, so I’ve been ranching in Texas now right at 40 years. It’s been a big part of my life.”
Ryan, no stranger to building a successful team, isn’t the only cattle veteran in the company. Charlie Bradbury, CEO of Nolan Ryan’s All-Natural Beef, has an animal science degree from Texas A&M University and has worked for several breed associations. He was working with the Beefmaster Breeders United when he first met Ryan, who is a Beefmaster breeder and sat on the Association’s Board.
“I was chairman of their Long Range Planning Committee,” Bradbury explains. “They asked us to look at what was going on in the marketplace that was impacting their ability to sell bulls to commercial cattlemen.”
The Committee at that point saw the impact of brands like Certified Angus Beef, which had made Angus beef a premium item. They looked into a branded beef program of their own to help bring attention to the breed. Beefmaster cattle are a cross between Hereford, Shorthorn and Brahman cattle and were bred to produce well in the harsh Texas climate.
“They were looking for what might help bring attention to our program versus somebody else’s program,” Ryan says.
To help with the marketing and branding standpoint, the Committee asked Ryan if he would lend his name to the project. After doing the due diligence and gathering some investors, Beefmaster Cattlemen LP was formed, which owns the rights to the Nolan Ryan Beef name.
Bradbury says that the decision to pursue tenderness was a priority to fight a misconception that cattle raised in Texas and the southern United States has tenderness problems.
“We had done a lot of research on the palatability and tenderness of these cattle, and we knew that really wasn’t true in general, but there are cattle within the population that are tough,” he says. “We felt if we were going to make any headway using cattle produced in these environments with those breeds that worked really well to adapt to the environmental conditions, we were going to have to address that perception head on.
“That’s why we took that approach and wanted to eliminate tenderness as one of the issues that buyers gave as a reason not to buy our product,” he adds.
There isn’t one silver bullet that can guarantee tender cuts of beef, but Nolan Ryan Beef takes a HACCP-like approach to preventing a bad eating experience by doing a lot of little actions, from the feed lot to the aging process.
The cattle are not allowed hormone implants or antibiotic injections within 100 days of harvest in order to eliminate a stress that could lead to tougher beef. The company also requires high-voltage electrical stimulation on every carcass. Bradbury notes that electrical stimulation accelerates the aging process and burns up the lactic acid left in the cells.
“It will impact tenderness as much as 10 to 15 percent if it’s done correctly,” he points out.
In order to make sure it is done correctly, the company requires packers to certify that the carcasses have been stimulated with the correct combination of voltage, frequency and amperage. In some cases, he says, the company found that plants would turn down the voltage and amperage for electric stimulation in order to avoid slowing the speed of the production chain.
Nolan Ryan Beef also uses infrared technology to scan each ribeye at the grading stand and use the results to predict the tenderness of the carcass. The technology is very accurate in determining if a carcass is going to be tender.
“It’s a useful tool for us,” Bradbury says. “It’s a way we can evaluate every carcass that otherwise meets our requirements and predict whether it will be tender or not. If it is predicted as tender, then it’s accepted and specified into our certification program.”
The final step is the 14-day wet aging process, which is also part of Nolan Ryan Beef’s USDA certification program.
“It’s not any secret weapon,” Bradbury says. “It’s all based on a lot of Checkoff research that’s been done in the last 15 or 20 years. You just have to do all these things. If you do, you come up with a pretty tender, consistent product.”
While the principals in the company are experienced cattlemen, it has been a learning process to learn about the science of producing a quality beef product. They consulted experts like Dr. Gary Smith of Texas A&M and Colorado State University, Dr. Keith Belk of Colorado State and Dr. Russell Cross of Texas A&M.
“It was an ongoing process that took a couple of years to put everything into place and have a feel for it,” Ryan notes. “It’s been a learning process for me.”
Expanding the brand
Since rolling out the all-natural, antibiotic-free steaks, Nolan Ryan Beef has grown its product range to include sausages, patties and hot dogs. That growth has largely been customer-driven. Retailers had so much success with the Nolan Ryan brand in the fresh beef department that they looked to add it to other areas of the store as well.
“We found what we thought were really good recipes for fully cooked, smoked beef sausage, and we found a vendor that we thought could do a good job of meeting our expectations,” Bradbury explains.
That line of smoked sausage products proved to be very popular in Texas and inspired the company to move into frozen, fully cooked burger patties. Once again, they gained a loyal following and allowed Nolan Ryan Beef to carve out a spot in the frozen foods aisle.
The next product release was a departure of sorts for the company. Nolan Ryan Beef participated in a number of tasting events, seasoning the steaks with a special blend from a local seasoning company. Customers started asking about the seasoning, so it introduced steak, fajita and barbeque seasonings as well.
The introduction of beef franks was a natural extension, considering Ryan’s baseball career. Bradbury points out that the Texas Rangers are among the leaders in sales of hot dogs among all major-league teams, and Ryan is involved in the team’s ownership.
“They sold 1.6 million hot dogs in their stadium, and we felt those ought to be Nolan Ryan Beef hot dogs,” Bradbury says. “We got busy and came up with a really good all-beef frank recipe and a way to get them made we thought was excellent. We presented them to the right people, and there was a very rapid acceptance.”
Nolan Ryan Beef is now the official hot dog and official beef of the Texas Rangers, starting with this season. The hot dogs are also available in other foodservice and retail venues as well.
Similarly, Nolan Ryan Beef was approached by customers looking for a grass-fed beef program, which led the company to look into that sector.
“It’s of course a very different production process and supply chain — everything’s very different about it,” Bradbury says, “but we’ve been very successful with our initial roll-out of that product.”
The biggest challenge with grass-fed beef — for any supplier — is the fragmented supply. Whereas Nolan Ryan Beef’s all-natural cattle are finished in Texas, the grass-fed cattle come from all across the United States. The type of cattle, and even the type of farmer, is an important factor in determining the overall quality of the grass-fed animal.
“The same cattle that produce a real high-quality grain-fed beef product are not the ones that produce a very high-quality grass-fed product,” Bradbury explains. “You have to find cattle that will mature on grass and finish on grass. They’re generally going to be a smaller-framed animal.”
“You’ve got to find someone who is a really good grass farmer and understands how starches work in grasses versus proteins,” he adds. “On top of that, we’re trying to produce quality fresh grass-fed beef 52 weeks out of the year, never frozen. That’s another challenge, finding producers who are capable of storing forage and then feeding it in the winter months.”
More than just a name
While there are many products in a grocery store that bear the name of a celebrity, few take as active a role in the company as Ryan does. He produces cattle used in the beef program at his ranch, and his time spent in front of the camera has made him a natural spokesman.
“The cattle business is a passion of mine,” he explains. “I take a lot of pride in the products that we produce and the quality of the product. I want to be involved in the discussions and the decisions that are made.”
Along with the number of products offered, Nolan Ryan Beef has also grown its distribution range. Last year, the company began supplying steaks for Johnny Carino’s Italian restaurant chain, which has 65 locations in seven states. Along with locations throughout Texas, it introduced consumers in Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana and Missouri to Nolan Ryan’s All-Natural Beef. The chain added a 12-ounce Tuscan Ribeye steak and a 12-ounce Oak-Grilled New York Strip to the menu as a result.
There are plenty of opportunities to utilize the Nolan Ryan name and grow the brand even further. For instance, Ryan also played for the New York Mets and the California Angels, two potentially lucrative markets.
“We get e-mails from people in Southern California wondering where they can buy Nolan Ryan Beef,” Bradbury says.
Fortunately, not only is Ryan’s name well-known among the public, but it is also highly regarded.
“When we do focus groups with consumers, the one word that people tend to associate with Nolan Ryan is ‘trust,’” Bradbury says. “That’s a pretty powerful tool for a brand spokesman to have. We think people all over the United States are interested in buying quality natural beef, and they’d like to buy it from somebody that they trust.”
While there isn’t a set timeframe, both Ryan and Bradbury would like to see the brand go national, and the strong foundation is already in place to make it happen.
“We’re a small company, so we take baby steps,” Bradbury says, “but if you take enough of those steps, you’re going to get somewhere.”