New market creation
Prevatte Levy and Curtis launched their business as a food truck. Over that first year, they built the brand and started buying from farmers in whom they believed, testing the supply chain and developing the business.
One of the biggest hurdles they overcame was building trust with farm suppliers and processing partners. As two women, without agricultural backgrounds, entering a male-dominated industry took persistence and patience. And from the start, they were determined to run their meat business differently.
“Jennifer and I didn’t start this business because we are die-hard meat lovers – we were vegetarians for many years,” Prevatte Levy says. “We started it because we care about small-farmers and believe in their ability to be environmental stewards. We care about rural communities in North Carolina and want them to thrive. We are passionate about building a more resilient food community in our region that values people, animals and the environment.”
In the past, few beef cattle were finished and sold in North Carolina, chefs and grocery stores had a hard time getting a consistent supply of local pasture-raised pork, and most lamb came from overseas. Firsthand Foods changed that and, with the help of distribution partners, has brought more than 300,000 pounds of ethically raised meats to market.
Now they support the livelihood of 45 small-scale farmers and have directed over $5.2 million in revenues their way. In 2019, the company directed more than $1.5 million into the local food economy, with nearly 80 percent of revenues supporting small farmers and rural meat processors in its network.
Their triple-bottom-line approach to the industry has helped preserve 9,000 acres of pasture and cropland for local food production, much of which is being grazed using regenerative practices that help sequester carbon and build soil health, and provided 8,000 animals with dignified lives in their natural habitat.
In the end, they have created a new market for N.C. farmers and the Triangle food system. They are helping sustain small, family farms; directing food dollars to rural communities; creating jobs; and preserving farmland and regenerating soil quality.
The founders say their smartest move has been to stay focused on what they do best: aggregation, sales and marketing, and partner heavily for the rest. The wholesale business is mission driven and runs on low margins, keeping meat affordable and maintaining a lean team. On their horizon are more direct-to-consumer opportunities, without competing with their retail markets, and more partners to broaden their geographic footprint.
It takes a village
And so nine years after its launch, Firsthand Foods won the Leadership in Corporate Sustainability Award from the Center for Sustainable Enterprise, where it all began.
The founders share credit for their success with their families and their Firsthand Foods team.
“Our supportive husbands have stood by us at every fork in the road,” said Prevatte Levy. “They take care of things at home. They listen to us. They ask hard questions. And our children, who have had to share their moms with Firsthand Foods, have never wavered in their enthusiasm and pride in the good work we are doing”.
She said they never anticipated that one of the most rewarding aspects of being entrepreneurs would be the ability to become better leaders and cultivate an effective team.
“In the end, regardless of the dollar value, doing this together has helped us become better human beings,” says Prevatte Levy. “And for that, we are hugely grateful.”