Those grass-fed beef dogs originate at Hearst Ranch

It’s been said that hot dogs — like laws—are something you never want to see being made.

But Steve Elzer is glad to know what goes into the wieners he buys from a new hot dog stand near his office—100 percent grass-fed beef raised on the sunny, wind-swept pastures of the Hearst Ranch in northwestern San Luis Obispo County.

“I love the feel, the taste, the pedigree that this meat is free-range,” the 46-year-old movie publicist said between bites at the chrome and ketchup-red Let’s Be Frank stand.

The fledgling hot dog stand chain — two more operate in San Francisco — is among a small but thriving segment of the fast-food world offering grass-fed and other naturally raised meats to the masses.

Others include Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., which operates more than 730 eateries in over 30 states, and Burgerville, which has 39 restaurants in Washington and Oregon.

Those and others are providing a new market for beef and pig ranchers around the country who eschew the widespread factory- farm model and instead raise animals the old-fashioned way in pastures and outdoor pens.
“They’re a big part of our business,” Brian Kenny, a manager at Hearst Ranch in San Simeon, said of Let’s Be Frank. “We’ve been growing with them.”

The Hearst enterprise operates on two ranches on about 150,000 rolling acres on the Central Coast — one in San Simeon and the other near Shandon.
About 3,000 to 6,000 cattle graze the grassland per year, Kenny said, and the animals are all born and raised on the ranch.

The farm began as a calf operation in 1865, but the Hearst family began selling grass-fed beef about five years ago through Aramark, a Philadelphia- based concessions business that provides food for Hearst Castle. The goods were then sold to statewide venues such as the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Since then, its sales portfolio has expanded to local and regional markets.

The Hearst team aims to create a local food system through select partnerships in the food industry, Kenny said, so its founding message of sustainability can reach a variety of markets.

“The collaboration between chefs, distributors, sales and the farm production — it’s harmonious,” Kenny added. “To me, that is where the future of the food industry is going.”

Eateries, shops and other venues that carry its goods include Linn’s restaurant in Cambria, Bernick’s in Paso Robles, Soto’s Market in Cambria, New Frontiers Natural Foods in San Luis Obispo and Hearst Castle, among others.

Kenny would like to see a partnership between Hearst and local schools to serve up fresh beef patties in cafeterias within the next year, he added.

It’s difficult to put a price tag on the market for naturally raised meat since it’s produced on thousands of small ranches across the country, said Jo Robinson, who runs the Eatwild.com Web site. But Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Chicagobased food industry consultancy Technomic Inc., said the market for fast food prepared with such meat is bound to keep expanding, as consumers grow increasingly disenchanted with the industrial model of meat production.

A recent study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that intensive industrial livestock production has yielded antibiotic-resistant bacteria, degraded the environment and devastated rural communities by replacing farm and ranch jobs with poorly paying feedlot positions.

By contrast, operations such as Hearst Ranch raise their animals without growth-promoting hormones or antibiotics and don’t confine their livestock to teeming feed lots.

“In the consumer’s mind, there’s a connection to better health and to better for the environment and to good corporate citizenship,” Goldin said. “It’s just starting, but I think it’s going to be a very powerful movement.”

Tribune staff writer Tonya Strickland contributed to this report.