The Wilder Side of Food
Brothers use ostrich to launch exotic-game trade
By Teresa M. McAleavy
Originally published in the Bergen Record on May 23, 2004
Peter Monsees/Staff Photographer
Ostrich meat looks and tastes like beef, but contains little fat, say Lance and Todd Appelbaum, owners of Fossil Farms in Oakland. They sell through their website and deliver ostrich and wild game as far as South Jersey. They also sell to wholesalers and restaurants.
Fossil Farms LLC
Owner: Lance Appelbaum
Location: 81 Fulton Street, Boonton
Start-up capital: $100,000
Motto: "High quality, exemplary customer service, and competitive pricing."
Wry wit and deep affection prompted the Appelbaum brothers to call their dad "The Fossil" while growing up in Paramus.
On Father's Day, Stephen Appelbaum would likely get a Fossil watch from his sons, Todd and Lance. For birthdays, maybe a dinosaur relic would be in order.
So when the two brothers set out to launch their own business, raising ostrich and exotic game in 1993 and later selling the meat to restaurants and food wholesalers, there was no haggling over what to call it.
"Fossil Farms made sense because we always called our dad 'The Fossil,' joking around," says Todd Appelbaum, 32.
These days, the brothers value that ability to poke fun as much as the example their father set as a man in business for himself.
"Our dad ran a jewelry business and my mother worked with him, so we always knew we wanted to be in business for ourselves," says Lance, 28. "It's true that entrepreneurs breed entrepreneurs.
The brothers, both Paramus High School graduates, initially set out on separate career paths. Todd studied carpentry at a trade school and Lance was in sales. But a ski trip to Colorado about 11 years ago gave them an idea they could team-up on.
"We were in a restaurant and a waitress came over and said, 'I want you to try something, it's low calorie and low fat,'" Lance recalls. "There was ostrich on the plate, we tried it, and thought it was terrific. Then my brother and I stared thinking, 'We live in the best market in the world for this stuff.'"
The tri-state area did prove fruitful. And today their market is expanding, with about 60 percent of all Fossil Farms' sales coming from customers in wholesale food services, about 35 percent from restaurants along the Eastern Seaboard, and 5 percent (and growing) from individuals via the Internet.
It also didn't hurt that their parents own a second home and some farmland in the Pocono Mountains, where Lance and Todd developed a love of the outdoors as boys. To start Fossil Farms, the brothers put up about $100,000 in savings to purchase stock to raise on the family farm and began running business operations out of the basement of their parents' home in Paramus.
"We always raised animals of some sort on the farm," says Todd, whose love of the breeding aspect of the business is complemented nicely by Lance's affinity for sales and marketing.
The brothers say timing has also helped their business. With the popularity of low-fat, low-carb diets on the rise, the demand for their products, which cost slightly more per pound than beef, has increased. They market the game at food trade shows and have chefs do cooking demonstrations to help spread the word about the virtues of game.
"Our meats are all natural, no hormones, no antibiotics," Lance says. "People are looking for healthier alternatives to beef and in this low-carb, Atikns diet arena, what we offer fits the bill."
And the brothers aren't worried that exotic game will prove a passing fancy.
"At first, some people said, 'You're selling WHAT?'" Lance says. "But the reality is, we're living in an age of more educated consumers, with the Internet and the popularity of the Food Network, people are looking at what else they can eat that tastes good and is low in fat and cholesterol."
Fossil Farms logged 2003 revenue of $1.8 million and Toddd and Lance expect that to climb to $2.2 million this year. Two years ago, they moved their business operations from Paramus to Oakland, and last year, they launched Healthy Pet Cuisine, a sister company that specializes in wild game for dogs and cats.
"Our market right now is pretty much everywhere," Todd says. "We sell on Amazon, through our Web Page, and local; delivery-wise, we go as far as South Jersey."
Ostrich meat looks and tastes like beef, the brothers say, but contains little fat. According to the trade magazine Ostrich News, 1 ounce of ostrich meat has 28 calories and 0.28 grams of fat, compared with 64 calories and a whopping 4.44 grams of fat for beef.
The demand for healthier food and for new restaurant dishes prompted the brothers to offer more wild game. They sell just about every exotic meat imaginable, including buffalo (also called bison), wild boar, venison, elk, pheasant, quail, muscovy duck, alligator, antelope, kangaroo, rattlesnake, even turtle.
"Our customers love it because you really can't go to your average place and get a rack of wild boar," says Fossil Farms customer Natale Grande, whose family owns Il Capriccio, a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant in Whippany. "And we stick with them because they have an excellent quality product and treat us very well."
The Appelbaums say they ensure the quality of their product, in part, by having it inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "It's not mandatory," Lance says, "But we want the USDA inspection."
Demand for their all-natural, farm-raised, antibiotic-free meats has grown so much that the brothers now have other farmers raise most of the game they well, using a special feed formula and other strict criteria. They're also purchasing farmland in Blairstown to continue raising more of their own animals.
"We're growing, but we want to remain a small business," Lance says. "Our father always told us, 'You don't have to be the biggest, just be the best.' That's what we strive for."