Before Lenny Lebovich moved from Ukraine to Cleveland at the age of 2, he already had roots in the food business. In his small hometown, his grandfather ran the only grocery store in the neighborhood.
"You could say it was in my blood," he says.
Last year, the 1991 Beachwood High School graduate launched PRE Brands (pre-brands.com), a grass-fed beef company with products now sold in Giant Eagle stores across the Midwest. This January, the beef landed in all local Heinen's stores and will expand even more in the coming months.
Sourcing from around the world, PRE developed what they call a 15-point Obsessive Pick process that focuses only on animals being raised GMO- and hormone-free. Even the name recalls a time when natural was the status quo, Lebovich says.
Grass-fed beef became a hot ticket in the United States around 2003 amid a wave of meat-related health scares. Ten years later, sales of grass-fed beef surpassed $400 million, a 25-percent uptick over the decade. The added punch of its omega-3 to omega-6 ratio continues to attract buyers.
Factors such as breed, age, meat color and fat content all are carefully considered when selecting beef for PRE's blends. The extra lean but still juicy ground beef, for example, clocks in at a mere five percent fat and a whopping 80 mgs of omega-3.
"Today's consumers are asking a lot of questions," says Lebovich. "Those who are willing to be transparent with them and can build their trust are having success."
A lack of transparency also was part of the reason the former investment banker gave up Wall Street. When he was ready to get out of the trading game, Lebovich was recruited by his Indiana University roommate, whose family owned the Chicago-based meat operation Ruprecht Company.
He officially joined the company in 2002, and two years later, with Ruprecht's financial backing, Lebovich and his old roommate co-founded the meat company Sommers Organic, where he delved even deeper into the world of meat sourcing before finally going off on his own.
When it came time to lay the groundwork for PRE, he spent several years traveling around the globe to meet with farmers in New Zealand, Australia, South America and across the United States in order to seek out what they consider the top 10 percent of meat. One of their largest suppliers is New Zealand's Silver Fern Farms, a cooperative of 16,000 farmers. Meat is transported to a processing facility in Chicago, where PRE oversees all operations.
"We want to make sure we control everything every step of the way," says Lebovich.
If PRE hopes to shake up the meat industry, look no further than your local grocery's meat aisle, where the bright green, vacuum-sealed packaging and the deep red-purple beef stand out among the rows of plastic-wrapped Styrofoam. Lebovich developed the aesthetic when considering how often regular buyers can only see a fraction of what they're buying. PRE's clear wrap offers a 360-degree view of the meat.
"Oftentimes, it's the single most expensive thing they're going to buy that week, but when they take it home a lot of people are pretty disappointed," Lebovich says. "We figure if we're going to expose ourselves to this kind of consumer evaluation, then we have to really raise our bar."
In 2014, a survey by the Institute of Food Technologies showed purchases of natural products up by 25 percent and non-GMO products up by 23 percent. As interest in clean food continues to rocket forward, the demand for grass-fed beef like PRE also expands.
"All the growth is coming from this segment because consumers are looking for alternatives to conventional products," says Lebovich. "We want to give them something they can have confidence in."