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March 18, 2011 at 5:35 AM

Thundering Hooves silenced, so where’s the grass-fed beef?

Thundering Hooves, the Walla Walla ranch known for its 100-percent grass-fed beef — and sales of other organic meats and poultry — has ceased operations. Like many on the company’s mailing list, I got the memo this week from Joel Huesby, the visionary behind the fourth-generation family business. His Thundering Hooves newsletter marked “Final Edition” carried this explainer:

“Due to unfortunate financial circumstances Thundering Hooves LLC is ceasing all operations immediately. We are extremely sorry to inform you with this news and for any inconvenience this may cause you. There may be a limited amount of inventory that will become available. Check the website for updates. Thank you all for your business, your confidence in us and our products, and your friendship.”

What followed was an outpouring of love on the company’s Facebook page and a veritable e-mail stampede from Eaters who sent me links to the newsletter, crying: “What happened? I loved my Thundering Hooves meat!” “So sad to hear about this. They provided great tasting sustainable meats.” “Any idea what’s going on here? We love Thundering Hooves and will be very disappointed to see them go!” There was also this astute observation from a friendly vegan who wrote, “I figure if even a vegan has heard of these people, they must be pretty popular around here.”

Close your eyes, vegans: there’s the beef. Joel Huesby, in his meat locker at Thundering Hooves.

[Seattle Times/Alan Berner]

As Washington’s premier grower and producer of sustainably raised beef, fed on pastureland that’s been in the family for over 100 years, Thundering Hooves has been the marquee-name on many a Seattle restaurant menu. For all the reasons why, read this informative case study. Or take a couple minutes and let Joel explain:

As for the whys and wherefores that led to the closure? It’s a long story, told in short via Seattle Times-affiliate the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (read it here). But the story I want to know, is this: With Thundering Hooves silenced, where’s the grass-fed beef? I called a few of the company’s biggest fans — the chefs and restaurateurs who’ve come to rely on their product — to find out.

Where’s the grass-fed beef? Hiding under this two-fisted Secret Squirrel BBQ Burger made with ground beef from Long Valley Ranch — a special this month at Blue Moon Burgers.

Charlie Olson of Blue Moon Burgers has been using approximately 800 pounds of Thundering Hooves beef at his shops in South Lake Union and in Fremont since switching from Oregon’s Painted Hills all-natural beef a year ago. “Joel’s the kind of guy you meet and you just want to buy beef from him,” says Olson. His stuff was wonderful stuff. We used them until they stopped delivering about six weeks ago.”

Since then, Blue Moon customers have been enjoying Long Valley Ranch’s pasture-grazed beef from Oregon — available at local retailers including Metropolitan Market, Madison Market and Tacoma Boys, as well as Uwajimaya — where you can sample Long Valley Ranch beef this Saturday at the flagship store in Seattle from 11 a.m till 4 p.m.

Olson says he’s ultimately looking toward sourcing his beef from a different ranch for each store (a third Blue Moon is slated to open in the Joule building on Capitol Hill in June). “You get to the point where one rancher, in a sustainable-ranch format, can’t supply you with the amount of beef you really need,” he says.

Grass-fed beef is offered as an “upgrade” at Uneeda Burger in Fremont. The meat is 100 percent Wagyu (Kobe) beef from Whidbey Island’s Crescent Harbor, says chef/owner Scott Staples, whose classic burgers are made with ground meat from Painted Hills. His Restaurant Zoe and Quinn’s Pub — sold Thundering Hooves beef until recently. “I heard they were having supply issues,” Staples told me, which was one of the reasons he chose another purveyor when Uneeda opened in December.

So, what’s on the table at Zoe and Quinn’s now? It’s pasture-raised Walla Walla grass-fed beef, says Zoe’s chef de cuisine Daniel Newell. Beef from neighboring ranchers that once supplied cattle to Thundering Hooves — whose short ribs and beef tongue had long been a staple at Staples’ restaurants. Thundering Hooves’ local distributor, Corfini Gourmet, “had a sense something was going to happen, so they started to talk to other ranchers,” explains Newell. Those ranchers had been breeding cattle sold to Thundering Hooves, who’d “raise and graze them,” Newell says.

“Corfini brokered a deal for the cattle to go to slaughter,” not on the Huesby’s farm, where they’d been processed on-site at the company’s own USDA mobile unit, but at a Stanwood processor. Though the beef he’s using no longer bears the Thundering Hooves label, Newell insists “it’s basically the same thing.”

Ray’s Boathouse is famous for seafood. That said, the menu has long touted the Thundering Hooves brand. “All of our steaks in the dining room, all of the lamb patties for the [upstairs] cafe,” came from the company, says executive chef Peter Birk, who stopped using the beef at the end of January, once word was heard regarding trouble at the ranch. “It was a great relationship,” says Birk. Once distribution became an issue, however, “We needed to take care our of our business — and our customers.”

Like Blue Moon’s Olson, Birk turned to Long Valley Ranch to provide beef for the Boathouse. The burgers now served at Ray’s Cafe are made with certified organic grass-fed beef from Skagit River Ranch.

Skagit River Ranch, in beautiful Sedro Woolley.

Sourcing local beef has been no picnic, Birk admits. When Ray’s first made the switch from Nebraska beef to Washington product, he turned to Vashon-based Misty Isle Farms. “They had a big push on the market and then they disappeared.” When he turned to Thundering Hooves, “it worked fabulously” — until now.

“On the flip side, we feel very comfortable with George and Eiko” Vojkovich, owners of Skagit River Ranch and familiar faces at area farmers markets. “We feel like we can have a long relationship with them,” he says. “We chose them because they’re Washington based and we’ve already had a good relationship — having bought their pork and eggs. For us, it’s just a natural extension into a different product.”

Extending a small family farm into a big market certainly has its challenges. But it also has its joys, says Birk, “We’ll be going back and forth between Long Valley and Skagit River Ranch,” for beef. “At some point in the near future, we’ll be able to do that a little more easily than we can now.” Meanwhile, “Eiko is squirreling away her well-marbled steaks for us.”

So, who’s a fan of grass-fed beef? And where, do tell, do you find it?

Eiko, seen moooving some beef and other products humanely raised at Skagit River Ranch, chats with a customer at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market.

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