Brian and Mary Heffernan knew that starting a meat processing business would be challenging. “Nothing is easy,” Brian quips. “If it were, everyone would do it.”
This wasn’t the first business they started and grew, let alone the first agriculture or meat business. Silicon Valley professionals-turned small town Northern California ranchers, they’ve grown their flagship brand, Five Marys, into a powerhouse of small businesses fueled by great products and transparent, relatable stories.
From a humble ranch and trio of historic storefronts nestled against the mountains of Fort Jones, Brian and Mary—together with their four girls all named, naturally, Mary—produce, process, and sell their meat directly to customers across all 50 U.S. states. They raise, finish, and harvest Black Angus cattle, heritage Berkshire hogs, and Navajo Churro lambs on their sprawling ranch.
In between, they share their story with a loyal following on Facebook and Instagram, teach what they’ve learned via M5 Entrepreneurs, serve patrons at the M5 Burgerhouse, sell branded goods at The Farm Store next door, and host guests on their ranch. Despite a full plate, they’re hard at work building up the ag, farming, and local Fort Jones communities daily.
Over the course of their journey, Brian and Mary have bootstrapped their businesses and controlled their destiny from start to finish. This hard work has helped them to craft their brand, develop markets, and retain control over their message and product. “Nobody cares as much about your brand as you do,” Mary says. Maintaining control over each element of their brand has been vital to their success—from raising animals to building an e-commerce sales machine and vertically integrating meat processing into their operations.
Rather than depending on an outside meat processor for a key part of their operations, Brian and Mary built a brick and mortar fabrication facility five miles from their ranch. They control the carcass aging, breakdown, cutting and wrapping, and shipping of their finished products to their customers. A missing component of this process was a humane and thoughtful harvest. They wanted to harvest their animals on-ranch—in a natural environment, on their watch, with their own people, and to provide the same care and attention to this part of the process.
Brian and Mary’s final step in vertically integrating their operations was implementing a Friesla Mobile Harvest Unit. They use the purpose-built trailer to 1.) harvest animals on their ranchland and under USDA inspection, 2.) draw the hot carcasses down to a safe, USDA-required temperature, and 3.) transport the carcasses to their fabrication facility for dry aging and craft butchering. Owning the MHU also enables them to support neighboring farmers and ranchers by providing USDA-inspected meat processing services and increasing direly-needed processing capacity for their broader community.
GAINING A GUIDE
Implementing the MHU into their operations was more of a marathon than a sprint. Considerations ranged from building a great team to site preparation and working with government regulations, especially the USDA. “Gaining help to get the MHU up and running under USDA inspection—and to keep it operational—was key,” Brian said. Friesla’s Technical Team served as a guide in the process: writing and helping implement their HACCP plans, engaging with USDA inspectors, and helping them gain their Provisional and Permanent Grants of Inspection.
Driven by Mary’s mantra “You can do it!”, Brian and Mary successfully worked through the process, crediting Friesla with helping them bring their harvesting vision to fruition. “While the process wasn’t easy,” Brian said, “Friesla was the right partner to help us work through it. They shared the load—from figuring out equipment and workflows to paperwork and regulatory compliance. Their support gave Mary and I confidence that we could get it done.”