Raising the Steaks: Kunoa Cattle Delivers Local, Grass-Fed Beef to the O‘ahu Market
How the Hawai‘i cattle ranch began supplying O‘ahu’s supermarkets, restaurants and schools—something Hawai‘i ranchers have been trying to do for two decades.
Fête showcases Kunoa beef in seven of its dishes, including the steak tartare, topped with a quail egg.
Editor's Note: After this story was published in HONOLULU Magazine's August issue, Bobby Farias left Kunoa Cattle Co. to start Hawai‘i Meats.
Bobby Farias, a third-generation rancher and president of Kunoa Cattle Co., meets me in a conference room in downtown Honolulu. We’re in a building where Sun Yat-sen once raised funds to lead a revolution in China. Sun’s brother, Sun Mei, with a 3,900-acre ranch in Kula, Maui, sold many of his cattle to help finance the cause. The location’s history is purely coincidence—Kunoa’s public relations agency is housed here. It’s not the pastoral landscape of the ranch, where I had hoped we would be, or even the slaughterhouse out in Campbell Industrial Park—with the life and death of beef laid bare, standard opening scenes for a story about beef. But then, with a slogan like “Our food is our future” and a company name that means “stand free,” Kunoa’s cattle are really a means to an end, like Sun Mei’s more than a century ago.
For when Farias talks about beef, he talks about building Hawai‘i’s food security, how healthy cattle mean healthy soil, which is really the foundation of healthy everything, and how ranchers manage more open space in Hawai‘i than any private landowner (overseeing the equivalent acreage of two islands the size of O‘ahu)—so really, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to our ranchers?
Of all the food that Hawai‘i imports, beef seems the most absurd. The Hawai‘i Cattlemen’s Council estimates we import around 90% of the beef we eat, and ship away about 75% of Hawai‘i’s 120,000 head of cattle. As in literally ship: The live animals are loaded into containers on boats (and some on planes) and sent across the Pacific.
Hawai‘i ranchers once supplied all of Hawai‘i’s beef, but they relied on importing grain to do so. When ranchers on the Mainland figured out how to raise and deliver beef more cheaply and more conveniently (boxes of steaks versus whole carcasses), Hawai‘i’s last major feedlot folded in 1992. We lost our taste for grass-fed beef, so Hawai‘i’s calves were shipped out to where grain was plentiful and cheap. And then, like the photo of Marty McFly’s present, each piece of Hawai‘i’s beef infrastructure began to disappear as we changed what used to be: The slaughterhouses, the butchers, the distribution.
Bobby Farias at Kunoa Cattle’s O‘ahu facility in Kapolei.
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino
In the past five years, however, Kunoa has achieved what Hawai‘i’s cattle industry has been attempting over the past 20—delivering local, grass-fed beef to the O‘ahu market, from supermarkets to schools. Until Kunoa, nobody was able to do it all—different companies supplied some restaurants, a few supermarkets, and no single ranch had anywhere near enough beef for all of O‘ahu’s schools. And now, you’ll find braised Kunoa beef cheeks showered with caramelized fennel and lemon zest at Fête, Kunoa top sirloin steaks at Times Supermarkets, Kunoa beef in Redondo’s hot dogs and Zippy’s chili, Kunoa beef bars (like fruit leather, but made of beef) sold at 7-Eleven, and Kunoa beef stewed with ‘ulu in Kaua‘i and O‘ahu public schools. For the school contracts alone, Kunoa will supply about 400,000 pounds of beef a year.
To do this, Farias sacrificed living on his ranch on Kaua‘i, leaving behind the open space, his horses and cattle, to move to Makakilo where his cattle dog, Hina Iti, trained to sort cattle since she was 3 months old, now waits for him to come home. It occurs to me, seeing Farias in his cowboy hat, brass-buckle belt and leather boots, carrying a leather folder carved and fashioned by his saddlemaker—presenting the flair of a champion roper despite being in the farthest place from a rodeo arena—that in a decade of talking to more than a dozen ranchers, a Honolulu PR office has never been the setting.
“We try to have our business designed around the way business is done,” says Farias. And business is done on O‘ahu, where most of the consumers are.
SEE ALSO: First Look: Fête
Bobby Farias, president of Kunoa Cattle, points above the herd at the Kaua‘i ranch.
photo: courtesy of kunoa cattle co.
Back in 2005, Farias didn’t have any cattle of his own, but he was still ranching—as a developer and manager. He built properties on large tracts of land, but left most of the space undeveloped. He ranched cattle on them for the agricultural tax breaks and became Kaua‘i’s largest calf broker, sending weaned calves to the Mainland for whatever price was offered—as low as $264 per calf and as high as $860.
In a bid to take some control of their destiny, some of Hawai‘i’s ranches and processors—including Parker Ranch, Kuahiwi Ranch, Maui Cattle Co. and Hawai‘i Beef Producers—made a commitment to keep cattle for the local supply. But, as many of them have said at one point or another in the past decade, they were barely keeping afloat. In 2010, Michelle Galimba of Kuahiwi Ranch told me: “There are a lot of half-solutions out there. [I’m] working to connect all the dots. … Just from after you’re done raising the cow, there are 14 critical points where you can totally mess up bringing a live cow to the supermarket shelf. On 14 points they all gotta be jammin’. There’s no room for error with fresh meat.” About five years later, the system was running more smoothly and she was locally selling almost all of Kuahiwi’s 900 animals. But with more ranchers doing the same, now it was the slaughterhouses that were jammed. Since then, she has scaled back to keeping about half of her cattle in Hawai‘i. “It’s less nerve-wracking for us to diversify,” she says.
Keith Unger, president of the Hawai‘i Cattlemen’s Council, says, “For livestock it’s like turning the Titanic,” a simile a lot of ranchers like to use. A calf born today for the local market won’t be sold as a steak for almost three years, which makes ranchers skittish. What if the slaughterhouse can’t accommodate it? What if there’s a drought, exactly what happened—for six years—after Maui Cattle Co. committed to keeping its beef here? What if fickle consumers decide to ditch beef and go Beyond Meat? You could see the appeal of shipping calves to the Mainland.
Kunoa cattle ranching on Kaua‘i. Kunoa ranches more than 3,000 cattle on more than 4,000 acres on the island.
photo: courtesy of kunoa cattle co.
In 2015, Jack Beuttell, recently graduated from Duke University with two masters—one in business and one in environmental management—partnered with Farias, moved to O‘ahu and told people he was going to buy a slaughterhouse. If people thought this was another case of a recent transplant backed by big dreams and little research, they could be forgiven. Farias says O‘ahu’s slaughterhouse was $600,000 in debt and processed only eight animals a month. It was so beleaguered that the co-op that owned it appealed to the state to acquire the facility. Support for a bill to do that failed. Even Farias needed convincing.
Five years later, the facility’s staff has grown from 15 to 51 and ramped up processing to almost 400 animals a month. Kunoa has convinced businesses to buy its beef in part by behaving like the large Mainland meat corporations it hopes to wean customers away from. It buys other ranchers’ cattle to meet demand (Farias is proud to say that Kunoa pays more for an animal than Mainland companies) and is the state’s only single-owner vertically integrated cattle company, with its own ranch and slaughterhouse. This is how Kunoa supplies about 30,000 pounds of beef a month for Zippy’s, all of Kaua‘i’s public school needs and half of O‘ahu’s.
Farias says Kunoa tried to bid for 100% of O‘ahu’s public schools’ beef needs, but “everybody got spooked. ‘You’re crazy. You’ll never be able to,’ they said. Why are you guys betting against me before we even started? I’ve never failed yet. I’ve never tried yet, but I’ve never failed yet. If you don’t have calluses for the business, then you better get out.”
In 2011, Zippy’s was actually using local beef, sourced from Kuahiwi and about a dozen other ranchers on Hawai‘i Island, but then stopped. “There wasn’t good continuity,” says Farias, “and at some point Zippy’s had to make the choice to get the commodity beef they can depend on.” Now the restaurant uses Kunoa and about 27,000 pounds of beef from another local producer, Hawai‘i Beef Producers. “What got Zippy’s to think local again, is that Kunoa’s model is to aggregate … to help us not run out.”
Farias says, “order from us just the way you order from Cargill,” the largest privately held company in the U.S. and one of North America’s largest beef processors, producing almost 8 billion pounds of beef a year.
Kalbi marinated steak from Fête.
Listening to Farias talk, it’s easy to imagine Kunoa as a big, slick operation. It has raised $5 million from investors, hired a CFO who previously helped run Hawai‘i Gas, and has that downtown Honolulu PR company. But “they’re still a small business,” says Robynne Mai‘i of Fête. “We’re hanging in there with Kunoa as they’re figuring things out.” Initially, she didn’t want to give up Fête’s “grain-fed, delicious meat” sourced from the Mainland. But Farias, a childhood friend (“we used to go to Kaua‘i every summer and spend two weeks with his family,” she says), convinced her to give the beef a chance.
At first, it was inconsistent, given that Kunoa was buying beef from various ranchers. Or the shanks would come in whole, a problem since Fête’s chefs don’t keep chainsaws in their knife collection. But ever since Kunoa has ramped up its buying and is able to better sort through the beef to deliver what restaurants want, Mai‘i says the consistency has improved. Things have also gotten better since Kunoa hired Bryan Mayer, a butcher who developed a training program for Fleisher’s Craft Butchery in New York and a member of Team USA for the 2020 World Butchers Challenge (no, it’s not a sequel to Game of Thrones). Mayer speaks the language of restaurant chefs. “Kunoa wants to do big things,” says Mai‘i. “And it’s hard to service the restaurants if you don’t have a good butcher on hand.”
Now, Fête serves Kunoa beef in seven of its dishes, including the gochujang-marinated New York strip steak; the Chaz burger, with a half-pound custom blend of ground beef; and a steak tartare, the trimmings from the strip steak chopped and mounded under a raw quail egg, flaky salt and fried shallots.
As I’m writing this, I realize that I’ve been talking for hours with people about beef and we’ve said little about how it tastes. Buying and eating local beef underscores the fact that—for those who are privileged—no longer do we eat purely to survive or just for the flavor: We choose what we eat to reaffirm what we believe in, what we fight for, what we want to remember.
Kaleo Schneider, owner of Buzz’s Steak House, says she switched to Kunoa’s beef for its hamburgers to support the local economy and to support a sustainable business. “Climate change is going on,” she says. “I drove a biodiesel vehicle 20 years ago, so I’ve been concerned about this a long time.” It’s only later that she says, “the hamburger tastes fantastic.” Most of the steaks at Buzz’s, though, are still imported corn-fed beef because people equate premium steaks with tenderness, and it’s hard to achieve that same quality with cattle raised solely on grass.
But tastes can change: Bluefin tuna, once reviled for being too pungent—it was usually ground into pet food—has become one of the most valuable fish in the world. So now that local beef is in most of the public schools in the state, a new generation will grow up tasting grass-finished meat. Maybe there will be a day when the concentrated flavor of a grass-finished steak will be prized in the U.S., the way a ropy steak from an old, muscular animal is relished in Spain. There’s also a growing market of consumers bullish on local beef—they turn to that as a way of opting out of industrial agriculture, with its confined feeding operations that rely on hormones and antibiotics to keep animals alive, while taking a toll on the environment.
Kunoa beef shines in the burger at Buzz’s Steak House.
Farias takes it one step further—asserting that the way Kunoa raises cattle is not just better than the confined feedlots, but actually good for the environment. He employs a grazing strategy popularized by biologist Allan Savory, whose TED talk on holistic resource management garnered almost 6 million views. “It’s a regenerative agriculture farming method,” Farias says. “It’s a carbon sequestering method, not a carbon exhausting method.” As in, it has the ability to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, potentially reversing global warming. These ideas of Savory’s are controversial among other scientists. But Kunoa is convincing enough to have attracted investors including the Volo Foundation, which supports “science-based climate solutions” and Sustainable America, an environmental nonprofit whose mission is to build sustainable food systems.
“I think Hawai‘i’s going to solve some of the ranching and meat issues that the rest of the world is facing because we’re coming at it from a clean slate,” says Farias. “Concentrated animal feeding operations are not going to be the answer.”
Someone once told Farias that O‘ahu, as the gathering place, “is where the idea is going to come from. People look to Hawai‘i to solve their problems. They’re overworked so they come here to relax. They need to heal, they come here to heal. That’s on all fronts. How does Hawai‘i merge all that—working at Bishop Street and [negotiating] some of the most expensive deals going on, but doing it in an aloha shirt?”
More than a hundred years ago, Sun Mei came to Hawai‘i for work and opportunity. He became a rancher and businessman, then sent for his brother, Sun Yat-sen, to attend school in Honolulu. It’s said that here, Sun Yat-sen’s exposure to Western ideals and its history fomented his ideas of China’s sovereignty and modernization. A few years ago, Beuttell joined Farias in Hawai‘i to build the Islands’ food security and provide an antidote to a world that had perhaps modernized too much, too fast. Whether they achieve what they set out to, we won’t know until the cows come home.