Southwest CEO bringing Wild Idea to Minneapolis

If Josh Resnik has his way, a Wild Idea will soon gain traction, and market share, in Minneapolis.

Resnik, a resident of East Calhoun, is the new CEO of the Rapid City-based Wild Idea Buffalo Company. The company raises grass-fed, free-range organic buffalo on roughly 25,000 acres near the Black Hills, slaughters the animals on the grasslands where they graze, then sells the meat online, at groceries and in restaurants.

Founded in 1997 by the husband and wife rancher team of Dan and Jill O’Brien, Wild Idea has thus far done the majority of its sales online. But Resnik hopes to increase the profile of the company’s buffalo meat (also known as bison) in groceries and restaurants, with particular attention paid to the Minneapolis and New York City markets.

Resnik, who recently finished a 14-year stint as a marketing director for General Mills, said Wild Idea’s focus on Minneapolis is more than a product of convenience.

“You’ll see with a lot of successful small food companies that they’ll build up by focusing on a couple key markets,” he said. “Minneapolis is a good fit because you have the right consumer here who cares about where their food comes from, and you have a strong sustainability ethos city-wide.”

A key cog in Resnik’s strategy is to establish Wild Idea’s product at local farmers’ markets. This year, the company will have the only bison meat booth at the Mill City Farmers Market, and Resnik said he hopes Wild Idea will be able to expand into Southwest farmers’ markets within the next year or two.

Wild Idea founder Dan O’Brien said he never envisioned himself as a meat purveyor. He got into the bison game in part to keep his ranch financial viable, in part because he became keenly interested in restoration of the Great Plains ecosystem.

“You don’t have to spend much time thinking about the Great Plains ecosystem before you realize how crucial buffalo are,” O’Brien said. “They’re a huge piece of the puzzle in terms of how the plains react to their grazing.”

The natural grasses on which South Dakota buffalo graze are integral for Wild Idea in two ways — one, they suck carbon from the air, thereby contributing to soil health and efforts to limit the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (O’Brien claims that his company has a net negative carbon footprint); and two, the grasses result in a meat product laden with omega-3s, a family of fatty acids that cannot be synthesized by the human body but are vital for normal metabolism.

While Dan understands Great Plains ecology inside and out, his wife, Jill, knows food.

“The native grasses themselves are what contains the omega-3s, so grass-fed buffalo are high in them. You are what you eat, and it all starts with the grass,” she said.

The O’Briens are quick to point out that over 90 percent of bison consumed in the U.S. and Canada are produced in a feedlot-style system, which is a model they adamantly oppose for ethical and nutritional reasons.

Though bison has less fat than beef no matter how it is raised, feedlots typically negate many of the health benefits of raising buffalo naturally by grain-finishing the animals during their final months in hopes of supplying a more consistent product.

“The carbohydrates and fats that are in those grains gather around hearts and waistlines,” Dan O’Brien said.

Furthermore, Resnik and the O’Briens deny that grain finishing yields tastier meat than Wild Idea’s more natural methods.

To make the point, Resnik said: “When I went back to Connecticut for Christmas just before I started up at Wild Idea, I brought some meat home. My dad was laughing, thinking it’d be all gamey and weird tasting, but ended up blown away by how good it tasted.”

Wild Idea’s effort to expand comes at an appropriate time, as the U.S. market for bison has expanded exponentially during the last decade.

Though the bison market remains miniscule relative to beef (the average American now eats more than 65 pounds of beef each year, compared to barely one-tenth of a pound of bison), the number of buffalo slaughtered under state and federal inspection has more than doubled since 2002, according to the National Bison Association.

The challenge for the Resnik and the O’Briens is to expand without compromising the company’s core principles. Unlike most feedlots, Wild Idea doesn’t artificially inseminate any of its buffalo, making it difficult to ramp-up supply in response to increased demand.

“The fertility of wild animals has to do with meteorological conditions, so if we have a rough winter, (birth rates) might go down,” Dan O’Brien said. “But that’s natural, and we look at this as part of a huge, huge cycle that oscillates.”

And even if it means having to scale-back their plans to increase the profile of Wild Idea in Minneapolis, Dan and Jill O’Brien insist that their principles will always come first.

“There is no compromise there,” Jill said. “We’re more interested in our final product than making money. The motto is to eat meat, but less of it, and at a higher quality.”

Reach Aaron Rupar at arupar@mnpubs.com.