Using social media, North Fork Grass Fed gains following without a storefront

Gwen Groocock and Bill Ackermann of North Fork Grass Fed. (Credit: David Benthal)

It’s 9:12 a.m. on a Saturday and a new post just popped up on the North Fork Grass Fed Facebook page: “Porterhouse, bone-in rib-eye, T-bone, sirloin, filet mignon, short ribs and the rest. Selling today, Saturday, 2 to 4 p.m. Message for more info and directions.”

The first response soon reaches the North Fork Grass Fed inbox.

“Will take some filet mignon,” the customer writes. 

The page’s operator, Gwen Groocock, messages back a Cutchogue address, a time is confirmed and locally raised, grass fed filet mignon is waiting for pick up at the rendezvous spot, a private farmhouse flanked by vines and pasture owned by Groocock’s partner, rancher Bill Ackermann. 

“The mystery is only half intentional,” Groocock said with a laugh. “There is no store, there is no farm stand. It’s communication intensive. The business is word-of-mouth and nowadays that’s social media. It started as friends and family and now it’s their friends and family — word is getting around.” 

North Fork Grass Fed was launched in 2015 with four Red Devon cows. It began as hobby for Ackermann, owner of North Fork Viticultural Services, which manages hundreds of acres of private and commercial vines across the East End. Today, his herd comprises more than 20 cows, sometimes as many as 30. The Red Devons, an Old English heritage breed, are grass-feed from day one, starting their lives on a certified Pennsylvania farm. 

“With both North Fork Viticultural and North Fork Grass Fed, it is about growing flavor,” Ackermann said. “The flavor is noticeably bland with grain-fed cattle. If I am going to do something, it’s going to be done properly.” 

Ackermann’s venture into the ranching business was not a random choice. He’s had an interest since helping out around a Missouri cattle farm as a student to pay his way through college. The New Jersey native studied finance and, after graduating, made his way to California, where he worked for tech giants Netscape and Oracle. Burnt out on corporate life, he called it quits in 2009 and purchased his home in Cutchogue with 15 acres of pasture and 10 acres of vines he harvests and sells to local wineries. The home is now a homestead.

The Red Devon heritage cows at North Fork Grass Fed. (Credit: David Benthal)

“When I was a kid, I didn’t watch cartoons. I woke up at 5 a.m. and watched ‘Modern Farmer,’ ” he said. “I was drawn to agriculture and the water, and gravitated toward Long Island. Anything that has to do with the outside is for me.”

After months of research on everything from the right type of cattle to the right breeder to the right variety of grass, he launched North Fork Grass Fed before the cows ever set hoof in New York. The grass-fed diet is not only leaner than its conventional counterpart, but also more flavorful. The cattle Ackermann chose on munch on high-carb Italian and Sudan ryegrass planted at his three pastures in Southold and Cutchogue, which total roughly 100 acres. The herd is moved every few weeks to a fresh pasture. The diversity of plants in each field, plus the rye, amps up the flavor profile. It’s also good for the land, Ackermann said. 

Ranching is a years-long process. It takes at least two years for the cattle to reach roughly 1,400 pounds. At that point, they are processed at a USDA-certified facility in Connecticut and aged for two weeks, a system that improves flavor and tenderizes the meat through a natural enzyme action. Day-to-day, Ackermann checks in on his livestock multiple times, monitoring their grazing and making sure the herd is happy. 

The first North Fork Grass Fed cuts were ready last September. Ackermann and Groocock were the first to sample them, and the tenderness of the meats confirmed that the labor had been time well spent. 

“The very first animal we processed, I purposefully went out and got a store-bought piece of rib-eye, the type we’d all been eating happily from the grocery store,” Ackermann recalled. “As soon as you tasted the farm-raised, grass-fed beef against the store bought, I gave [the store-bought cut] to the dog.”

Each cow yields between roughly 400 and 500 pounds of meat. Available cuts include bone-in rib-eye, porterhouse, T-bone, sirloin, filet mignon, short ribs and ground beef in addition to marrow for bone broths. The first cuts were snapped up by friends and family, but with some left over in the freezer, Groocock, a freelance writer, launched the North Fork Grass Fed Facebook page shortly before Christmas and began selling locally in January. The page is now followed by more than 1,000 people.

The ranch in Cutchogue. (Credit: David Benthal)

“The quality of the meat is outstanding, of course, but their customer service is incredible,” said Southold resident Tim Leitch, who has been buying North Fork Grass Fed products since the winter. “For example, I was interested in short ribs cut longer, like eight inches, to barbecue like the Argentines. Bill literally texted me from the slaughterhouse asking me exactly the size I wanted. They’re just very responsive to their community customers.”

North Fork Grass Fed is also making its way into local restaurants. Chef Greg Ling put North Fork Grass Fed on the menu at Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. in Peconic in April, using it for house-made burgers and Philly cheese steaks. 

“It is a great product,” Ling said. “It is so tasty. I’m always trying to have the best burger out here. The beef that’s local gives us quality control to our burgers.” 

Groocock usually posts to the page on weekends for Saturday and Sunday pickups scheduled in between kids’ lacrosse games, or by appointment during the week. And it is not just for Facebook “friends” either.

“It is meant to be a resource for friends, family and locals on the East End,” Groocock said. “When people come to pick up their beef, it’s fun. We talk for ages and get to know each other. So we become friends.”