When the beef industry started talking about being consumer focused, Harris Ranch, Coalinga, CA, was already ahead of the curve. In fact, they'd been riding that wave since the late 1970s. Not surprisingly, by 1977 they'd opened their own restaurant and were collecting consumer feedback - daily - from nearly 1,000 diners.

Today, Harris Ranch Restaurant and Inn serves up an array of beef meals to over 1,500 customers each and every day.

"Our biggest paradigm shift was to become consumer focused and consumer driven, not production driven," says Dave Wood, chairman of the beef division at Harris Ranch. "The restaurant is the flagship of our marketing program. By polling customers, it helped us embark in the 1980s on a branded beef program that we continue to build on."

Today, 75% of Harris beef production is marketed as fresh and microwaveable branded products; 15% of that in Pacific Rim countries.

This Year's Recipients The commitment to truly listen to consumers and follow their tastes is what prompts BEEF to give the duo of Dave Wood and John Harris, corporate chairman/owner of Harris Ranch, this year's Trailblazer award.

The Trailblazer award is given annually to a producer (or producers) of foresight whose efforts in the past year were instrumental in pushing forward significant research, programs or projects.

Harris Ranch has "opened the door" for the rest of the industry in the area of new product development, says Chuck Schroeder, chief executive officer of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

"New product development is essential to recapture market share and Harris Ranch has been at the forefront of that wave of innovation," Schroeder says. "Introducing new products is an entrepreneur's game. It requires people who are creative, who are prudent risk takers and who are willing to do things differently. We've been proud to be partnered with them."

Harris Ranch Beef Company made history last January when it captured NCBA's Centennial Award for the "Best New Beef Product in America." The award carried a $250,000 cash prize that Harris and Wood vowed to plow back into beef product research and development.

Harris Ranch Beef's new product is a fully-cooked, ready-to-heat-and-eat-in-seven minutes pot roast. It's made from a beef brisket rubbed with natural seasonings and slow-cooked for 611/42 hours. The natural juices from the beef and seasonings combine to produce dark beef gravy.

The pot roast was one of 53 new products in the competition judged on the criteria of: branded, new, taste, convenience, consistently addresses consumers changing needs, demonstrates sales growth and effectively addresses food safety issues.

Keep Looking For Opportunities In the early 1980s, packers were getting bigger and evolving into the boxed beef business, Wood says. "At the same time, they were creating some niches that we thought we could address as a smaller company. We didn't want to have to compete with them head-on every day in the commodity beef business. So, we evaluated our position here on the West Coast and thought we had an opportunity to introduce a line of branded beef products. Then, we started charting a course," he says.

That course combines integral parts of all Harris Ranch operations. For example, all the diversified parts of the operation work together to form:

Harris Feeding Company. Founded in 1964, a 100,000-head, one-time capacity feedlot that finishes about 250,000 head of cattle a year. That's a third of all cattle finished in California.

Harris Ranch Beef Company. California's largest fed-cattle processor producing nearly 160 million pounds of beef products a year; processing 750 head a day. Beef is marketed under the Harris Ranch label to consumers in Alaska, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, as well as the Pacific Rim.

Harris Ranch produces beef under the USDA Residue Avoidance Program, which guarantees consumers that beef carrying their label contains no added hormones, chemicals or artificial ingredients.

Harris Farms, Inc. A diversified agricultural company started in 1937 by John Harris' father, the late Jack Harris, which comprises 20,000 acres. The farming division produces over 15 different crops in four locations.

Harris Ranch Restaurant and Inn. Built in 1976, it includes a country store and restaurant that serves 500,000 customers a year. The country-style inn has 124 rooms as well as banquet and meeting facilities.

Harris Farms Horse Division. One of the largest breeders and owners of thoroughbred racehorses in California, it's home to over 400 horses.

The Harris organization employs over 1,300 full-time people with an annual payroll of over $25 million a year.

Cattle Supply For The Pipeline When Harris Ranch rolled out its first fresh branded beef product in 1982, it was well aware of the continuous supply of cattle needed to stay successful. Too often, intermittent supply has been the bane of branded beef survival.

"When you need 750 head a day to run through the plant, you need quality cattle year round," says Wood. "That means parts of the year can be tough." Most cattle come from ranches in California, but recently they've started a new program called Partnership for Quality.

"We have a group of progressive producers we've put together that we call select suppliers," Wood says. "In the last year we've put 25,000 cows on the program." Partnership for Quality is designed to be the link between the cow-calf producer at the beginning of the chain, and the consumer at the end.

The two-fold program provides producers with performance-tested bulls at affordable prices. The goal is to produce superior quality feeder calves. Harris Ranch then works with their producers to provide finance information resources, develop herd data analysis and set up baseline performance standards.

Harris Ranch pays a premium for calves produced under the program, along with performance incentives at the processing facility. They also supply producers in the program with carcass data at no charge.

The program, Wood says, is embracing the concepts of branded beef marketing as well as value-based marketing.

The ideal carcass is: * 650-800 lbs. * 12.5-14 in. ribeye * Less than 2.5 Yield Grade * 80% Choice or better (10% Prime) * .4 in. backfat

Facing Roadblocks "Quality and consistency are our biggest challenges," Wood says. "Fortunately, we're able to do our R&D (research and development) in our restaurant. We also do lots of consumer focus groups and our staff goes to consumers in the area for feedback."

There's not just one person in charge of providing R&D for Harris Ranch. "We all do it and it seems to work," says owner John Harris. "We're trying different versions of product to see what works. Often, we send a new product to our friends and associates to see what they think of it."

Although Harris admits it may not be the most scientific method of testing, it seems to work effectively.

In 1993, after nearly 10 years of planning and development, Harris Ranch introduced its first precooked home replacement meal marketed throughout the West called Fully Cooked Beef Tri Tip Roast.

In the next five years, they launched four additional products: Fully Cooked Pot Roast with Natural Gravy, Fully Cooked Western Style Beef Stew, Old Fashioned Swiss Steak with Beef Stock and Tomatoes, and Fully Cooked Boneless Beef Short Ribs.

"We've always been interested in consumers and their need for convenience, especially with precooked meals," Harris says. "Being in the beef packing business, you need to sell all cuts. Since some are undervalued, using them in precooked items allowed us to make them more valuable."

Once you become consumer focused, Wood points out, "You have to take your cowboy hat off and put on a consumer cap. Customers will pay for quality and convenience. And I think it means a lot to them to have someone put their name on the product and stand behind it. It's part of the theme behind our whole program.

"When we put the Harris Ranch name on it, we guarantee it. If one of our customers is dissatisfied with a product, they can take it back and it's replaced," Wood explains. "We pride ourselves on that. It helps build consumer confidence."

If Ed Cox has a customer complaint on Harris Ranch product, he calls Harris Ranch immediately. "They'll send that customer gift certificates right away," says the meat coordinator for 14 of 18 Scolaris Food and Drug Company stores. "Their (Harris Ranch) follow through and customer service is five star."

Cox says that they're currently working on a program where Scolaris store and meat managers are touring Harris Ranch facilities. "Nobody else does that," he says.

Harris Ranch is proud of how it's built relationships with retailers. They're considered marketing partners.

For example, when Harris Ranch introduced Vitamin E into rations to enhance beef's color and shelf life, Harris says they were concerned they'd lose some retailers when passing the costs on. Cuts displayed in a meatcase where color was important were running about 3/lb. more.

"So, we put on a seminar for our retail customers and had Gary Smith (Colorado State University meat scientist) explain how Vitamin E works to reduce oxidation," Harris says. "We showed them (retailers) the benefits from better looking meatcases and fewer rewraps. Since then, we fortunately haven't lost one of those customers."

Retailers have played a key role in helping Harris Ranch move toward the whole home meal replacement market, too, Wood says. In turn, they provide retailers programs to promote fresh and precooked products and share marketing ideas.

"Seventy percent of consumers don't know by 4 p.m. what they're going to serve for dinner that night. We saw that trend coming and saw it taking share away from the retail stores," Wood explains.

So, Harris's move toward precooked products was a natural progression from the fresh branded program. Now, Wood says, "We're excited about the acceptance of our precooked products, both at the retail and consumer level."

Product development and introduction isn't an exact science, Wood says. For every success he admits there are a few failures - like their experience with meat loaf. "It was one of my favorites," Wood recalls. "We worked with it for about a year and thought it was ready to be released. When testing, consumer comments came back that it was the best to the worst thing they'd eaten.

"We probed further and it became obvious that everybody's idea of meat loaf was what their mother made," Wood says. "Some people said it should have a red sauce, some white. Some thought it should have corn flakes, some rice, even bacon on top. We couldn't come up with a meat loaf that was acceptable to a high enough percentage of consumers so we shelved the idea."

What's Ahead? "Now, our goal is to launch two new products a year," says Wood. "We need to continue to develop convenient, value-added quality - and I emphasize quality, beef products. Right now we're behind the eight ball and need to catch up to regain shelf space we've given up to poultry and pork."

Wood believes beef has a wonderful nutritional story to tell but feels the industry hasn't done a good enough job delivering the message. "We need to give people more confidence and more reason to eat beef. We're emphasizing that at Harris Ranch every day. Everything we do is focused on quality and our end consumer," he says.