Born in the Bronx, New York City, Frank Tufano, and his family later moved up to Westchester, where Frank spent the majority of his adolescent years. Like most teens, Frank was more interested in maximizing leisure time over discovering and pursuing a solid career path. As such, Frank spent most of his early life playing video games.
“I was literally playing until I was in my early 20s,” Frank told me. “That took up most of my time. Later on, I fell into bartending as well as personal training. I went to college on and off for a few years, but I never graduated.”
Frank’s life changed as he began to develop some serious health issues after taking a pharmaceutical drug called Accutane. Accutane is used to permanently treat acne (I took it myself), but there can be negative side effects including damage to the liver. Treatment with the drug usually comes with regular blood screenings to ensure everything is okay.
“Because of the health problems I started getting, I had to change my diet drastically,” Frank said. “And through that nutrition research, I discovered the importance of high-quality animal foods. I got so into it that I decided to start a YouTube channel to share the information I’d discovered. After three years of making videos, I had built up quite a following. I realized that people didn’t have access to quality animal foods, so decided to fix that problem myself.”
Frank was able to convert his YouTube audience into customers for his new venture, Frankie’s Free Range Meats. Regardless of your opinion on Frank’s content or whether you’re a carnivore (like me), vegan, or somewhere in the middle, Frank’s move here is smart. Building a community or an audience before starting your business is the ultimate cheat code to the game of business. For more on this topic, see our article with Aaron Marino of Pete & Pedro.
Of course, deciding to start an online business is only the first step. There’s much more work to follow that decision. That said, starting an online butcher shop that sends high-quality meat direct to customers’ doorstep only adds complexity to an already difficult endeavor. It stands to reason, then, that Frank has had his fair share of challenges.
“Most butchers are multi-generational or have been at it for dozens of years,” Frank explained. “We didn’t have any of that experience or those relationships. So in the beginning, we had a difficult time sourcing product and getting them for a price at which we could sell them affordably while making a profit. That’s a continuous struggle to this day, especially when you compare us to these old-timers who own millions of dollars of ranch property and farms, slaughtering their own animals.”
In the early days of Frankie’s Free Range Meat, it was problematic for them to get the right orders from their suppliers. Frank continued, “We had farms send us liver instead of marrow bones, 10,000 invoices not showing up, overall delay after delay because we didn’t have established relationships with the vendors.”
Frank honestly admits that many initial orders were lost and that he’s surprised the business didn’t go bankrupt. During one particularly hot week in July, Frankie’s Free Range Meat had to refund almost every order that was sent out. “This was a combination of the weather and our not-so-perfect packaging choice,” Frank explained.
“We quickly learned to use dry ice and styrofoam coolers,” Frank told me, “like everyone else had been using. Although we still ship fresh [not frozen] meat on occasion, we realized it was not a realistic expectation for ourselves and our customers. Now that we have decent sourcing, and our packaging is perfected, we are looking to move out of our ridiculously cramped shared space in the Bronx. It is nothing short of a miracle that we were able to build this business out of nothing.”
Frank’s experience points to the tenacity and tough skin one must have to succeed in any business. Considering what Frankie’s Free Range Meat has been through, plus the relatively constant online beef he deals with from other YouTubers (usually vegan channels), it’s clear that tough skin is the name of the game for Frank.
One other attribute that’s helped Frankie’s Free Range Meat get through the tough times has been their commitment to quality. I noted this commitment while watching some video addresses to their customers. In one, Frank explains that they wouldn’t be selling a particularly in-demand product because they couldn’t find a supplier that was up to the right standards.
“People often say that I talk negatively about grain-fed beef because I sell grass-fed,” Frank told me. “But I could have made much more money selling commodity grain-fed beef that other people are selling. Since I have an understanding of nutrition, I couldn’t allow myself to sell people a product that I am not comfortable eating for my own health. Our emphasis on that level of quality results not only in a healthier product, but it tastes better too. And our customers notice that immediately. All we have to do is send them one package and they won’t order from other companies again.”
Frank explained to me that there’s a severe lack of quality meat products available, particularly in the United States.
“American customers want ‘cheap, quick, easy,’” Frank said. “So we try to work within that framework, but will never skimp on the quality. We are currently more affordable, higher quality, and have better customer service than most other companies like us. The reason we are able to do so is simply that we don’t make as much money as everyone else. I figure, ‘Let’s make people happy. Then the money will come.’”
Frank’s Free Range Meat survives largely due to its small team of two, with some occasional side help including developers for the website.
“My business partner handles most of the meat processing and actual kitchen work on a day-to-day basis,” Frank told me. “I come down on the days we are filling orders and help package them to send them out. Outside of the physical day-to-day labor, I manage the website, from developers to designers, and update products as well as sales on a continual basis. I run all of the marketing, including advertisements and social media handles, which takes up a lot of my time. I am also the sole customer service representative, answering all emails and contacts about orders and issues with our products. On top of all of this, I maintain my YouTube channel, making videos every day, and on occasion, featuring products for Frankie’s Free Range Meat.”
I don’t know about you, but that’s not a workload I’d be up for.
Frank says that most entrepreneurs don’t truly understand what makes for good customer service. I must say I agree. Customer service isn’t about always being right or having amazing processes and template responses. It’s about humility and admitting when you’re wrong. What’s more, he reiterates the importance of a great product. After all, a company isn’t just logos, sales, and credit card fees. It’s about what you deliver to the people you care about.
“You have to sacrifice the bottom line and, in many cases, lose money to retain long-term customers,” Frank told me. “On top of that, you need to be confident that you’re bringing a product into a market that is reasonable. We made Frankie’s Free Range Meat because we know you can’t get our products or quality elsewhere.”
Frank’s final piece of advice is to listen to your gut.
“I wish I would have listened to my gut instinct more,” Frank said. “I questioned some problems along the way, but I never pushed the issue. Not listening to my gut instincts ended up costing us a lot of money over the course of the following few months.”
While still a young business, Frankie’s Free Range Meat is growing and on track for true success.
“We are getting a new facility,” Frank said. “And we’re finally hoping to become a real business. Right now we lack branding, organization, as well as a true identity. As soon as we put a few more pieces together I think we will attract a lot more customers–and potential investors.”