Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.
Blake Evans, executive vice president of New York-based food company Cooks Venture, spent 11 years developing a higher-quality broiler.
This new breed of slower-growing, pasture-raised chicken not only tastes better but also has a more natural life than a typical broiler. He explained when the chickens come out of their houses, they come pouring out. He joked it’s like third-graders going outside for recess.
“We let our birds out every morning,” he said. They go into a field and forage for food. Commercial breeds rarely have this opportunity, and he said it’s almost as if their instincts have been bred from them. The difference shows in the meat quality.
“We haven’t lost a taste test,” Evans said. “People can honestly taste the difference. It’s one of the best-tasting chickens out there.”
In 2004, Decatur-based Peterson Industries Inc. appointed Evans its CEO. The Northwest Arkansas Business Journal named him to the Forty Under 40 class in 2006. His grandfather Lloyd Peterson, who founded the company in 1954, died in 2007 at age 94. The following year, Peterson Farms sold its broiler operation to Siloam Springs-based poultry producer Simmons Foods.
In 2013, Evans established Crystal Lake Farms and left Peterson. He looked to differentiate the new brand by “building a better bird from the ground up,” focusing on animal welfare and improving chickens holistically. The company started to let the chickens outside of their houses to be pasture-raised.
Crystal Lake Farms increased sales from about $200,000 in 2013 to nearly $15 million in 2017, Evans said. The fast growth allowed the Decatur-based company to expand quickly, and it added a processing plant in Jay, Okla., in 2015. It had almost 40 farms in Northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma.
In 2017, he sold the company to West Liberty Foods. He remained with the company as vice president of industry affairs and genetic founder until April 2018 before leaving to pursue other interests. He met Matthew Wadiak, the co-founder and former chief operating officer of Blue Apron, and put together a deal to repurchase Crystal Lake Farms’ assets from West Liberty Foods.
“It was a no-brainer,” he said. The genetic line he had worked on remained intact and has since been named the Cooks Venture Pioneer. In March 2019, Cooks Venture announced the food company’s launch rooted in regenerative agriculture and transparency. Wadiak is the founder and CEO. Regenerative agriculture refers to working with nature to use photosynthesis and healthy soil microbiology to reduce carbon. The process could mitigate global warming and create a more beneficial food system.
The company’s operations are based in Decatur and span northeast Oklahoma and Northwest Arkansas, including a nearly 800-acre Arkansas farm and a 33,000-square-foot processing plant in Jay. The recently restored plant is processing about 100,000 chickens per week, and Evans expects production to double to 200,000 by the end of 2021. The plant can accommodate the production increase. The company has about 200 employees.
Evans, 45, said he wears “a lot of hats” in his role. He works in sales and leads live production and genetic operations. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he spends most of his time in Northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma.
Since the pandemic started, the company’s business shifted from 70% foodservice industry and 30% retail sales to 90% retail and 10% food service. It established safety measures to protect its employees, including masks and face shields and sanitizing stations. He said the few employees who’ve contracted COVID had little or no symptoms. And employees could receive a 48-hour test if they thought they came in contact with someone with the virus.
The company doesn’t process beef but sells it through partnerships with cattle farmers that Wadiak has developed worldwide. Evans said Cooks Venture products are available on its website, at Whole Foods Market, through e-commerce companies and “high-end grocery chains” throughout the United States.
Evans resides in Fayetteville with his wife, Kim, and their three children. He spends his free time coaching youth basketball games or attending his daughters’ cheerleading and gymnastics events. He enjoys mountain biking, camping and hiking.