I wake up every morning to the what: soft scrambled eggs and buttery toast, nostalgic eggs-in-a-hole, or a perfect soft-boiled egg with a sunny, bright yellow yolk. Matt O’Hayer, founder and co-owner of Vital Farms, wakes up every morning to the why: our industrial system for large-scale production of meat and eggs is broken. The system’s gains in efficiency, lower cost, and scalability come at the expense of living creatures, and he aims to fix that. O’Hayer, a visionary entrepreneur who built a company with annual sales of just under $10 million from hen scratch with 20 birds, set out to prove that it is possible to produce the highest-quality food in an environmentally responsible manner from humanely treated animals on a commercial scale. He and partner Jason Jones have created a network of small family farms across the US to build a supply and distribution chain that delivers exceptional eggs to grocery stores across the US, including all Whole Foods Markets in the country. Happy hens lay the most delicious eggs: eggs from pasture-raised chickens have rich, bright yellow yolks and whites that stand up in the frying pan and whip up to great billowy clouds for meringue. What you can’t see are the nutritional benefits: compared to conventional eggs, pasture-raised eggs are significantly lower in cholesterol, are twice as high in omega 3s and have seven times the beta carotene. At the 15 family farms that produce eggs for Vital Farms, “the girls” graze on organic green pastures under open skies, roaming, perching and foraging, free to live like birds. We caught up with Matt at Vital Farms Austin to get some insight into what goes into building a successful venture while staying true to what matters most.
What has been your greatest mistake?
So many to choose from! From a business perspective, after building many companies, I’d say that my singleminded focus on growth in earlier ventures didn’t always create win-win-win outcomes. Vital Farms has been built on the stakeholder model championed by John Mackey and the non-profit organization, Conscious Capitalism, Inc. Now my focus is equally distributed among our five key stakeholders: Customers, Crew (employees), Shareholders, Our Farmers and other Vendors, the Environment/Community. As I’ve broadened my focus on this wider constituency, growth and profits have followed.
Tell us about your lucky break?
On the personal side, meeting Catherine Stewart, my wife, has been my luckiest break ever. Working to live up to her expectations of me has changed me as a person.
In business, timing is everything. I’ve had many “great” business ideas that were too early or too late for the market. Building a business around the ethical treatment of farm animals turned out to mesh with our customers’ desire to find food produced from humanely treated animals. As a result, Vital Farms has flourished.
Required reading for every food entrepreneur?
Conscious Capitalism, Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia. John and Raj have written a book that should be required reading for any entrepreneur, food or otherwise. Food Inc. is actually a documentary, not a book. We show this film to all of our crewmembers. It sets the tone for the future of food.
Who is your business idol?
I wouldn’t use the word, “idol,” but I admire Richard Branson. He has been fearless in his pursuit of a wide varieties of businesses and explorations in general, all while having fun and living life to its fullest.
What is your biggest motivator?
I’ve enjoyed building businesses since I was a child. Today, I’m enjoying the process in different ways, including enjoying and supporting the growth of my fellow crewmembers and other stakeholders.
What gets you to work every morning?
The staircase from the second floor to my kitchen table, which is also my desk!
What inspires you?
Seeing hard work and persistence rewarded with success.
Tell your brand story in 5 words.
“Bringing ethically produced food to the table.” It’s five words if you don’t count “to the.” This is Vital Farms’ deeper purpose. It’s what we live by.
What other businesses do you come back to again & again?
I love to farm, cook, travel and sail. Most of my companies are or have been associated with one or more of these interests.
How do you measure success?
If you weren’t running a successful food company, what would you be doing?
I’d be focused instead on one of the dozen or so other companies I’ve got running around my head or actually in operation
What was your first business?
I purchased a paper route for $50 at age eight (a leveraged buy out!). I operated it for four years and sold it for $100 at age twelve. My second business was selling eggs door-to-door in Providence, RI at age twelve and thirteen.
What’s your next big idea?
I could tell you but…
Stay tuned for more about Matt’s culinary inspirations and a new recipe with Vital Farms eggs & chicken! In the meantime, enjoy this film, starring happy Vital Farms birds, and these egg recipes from a piece I wrote awhile back for Edible Austin.
*all photos by Thomas Winslow