In 1994, Robert Rebholtz Sr., the founder of Agri Beef Co., now the most well-known purveyor of premium meat in America, was waiting for an in-bound flight from Japan. On a jumbo jet over the Pacific Ocean, with their seat belts securely fastened, were eight full-grown Wagyu bulls and 30 Wagyu cows, a breed of cattle known for its intense marbling and buttery flavor — today likely one of the most expensive, and delicious, items on any steakhouse menu.
When they landed in America, the cargo signaled the foundation of Snake River Farms (SRF), named for the river that flows from Wyoming to the Pacific Ocean, passing through Idaho, where the river’s namesake valley serves as the grazing grounds for SRF cattle. But the animals also represented a huge gamble. In the ‘90s, the term “foodie” hadn’t yet registered in the national consciousness, and paying a premium for quality meat was a concept foreign to most Americans.
In the world of competition BBQ, like those events sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, Snake River Farms briskets have become a key ingredient to the success of teams both nationally and internationally, according to Annella Kelso, who heads the company’s BBQ program.
On the other side of the table, where the cloth bleaches from checkers to bright white, restaurants like French Laundry, where people expect to pay a premium for quality, serve SRF beef as one of their main courses.
But in Japan, the quality of Wagyu was well known. (The term “Wagyu” translates literally to “Japanese cow.”) However, there were limitations: it’s an island with finite land for grazing, and ranchers import most of their feed, which inflates cost. “So [Rebholtz’s] thought was, ‘I can do this in America. I have the land and ready access to feed,'” said Jay Theiler, who has has been a key part of the SRF program for the past 16 years. “‘And then I can export it back to Japan.’”
However, the last step of this process was interrupted in December of 2003, when a single cow was found in Washington state to have BSE, also known as Mad Cow Disease. Japan, at the time the largest importer of American beef, according to the US Meat Export Federation, banned the import of American beef for the next two years. The whole of the Idaho-based business was in jeopardy. So over night, Agri Beef had to rethink the business and look inside the US, where the market was dominated by commodity beef and imported McDonald’s burgers. In retelling, Theiler’s coworkers joked that he was going around “selling a bag of snakes.” Theiler and his colleagues began by traveling throughout the major foodservice markets of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, visiting restaurants and chefs that were serving high-quality beef. He’d come with Wagyu in hand, to compare cuts, and would offer an unconditional guarantee: if a restaurant or chef didn’t like the product after serving it to their guests, they could return it.
Now, over a decade later, Theiler says he hasn’t met many top chefs that haven’t heard of Snake River Farms.