How I Did It
VIDEO  •  HOW I DID IT

'Why Did I Stay In When Everything Was Pointing Me to Get Out?'

Stephen McDonnell, founder of Applegate, an organic meat producer, explains what happened after the original bacon smokehouse he bought burned down in 1988.
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Video Transcript

00:07 Stephen McDonnell: And I was like, "Okay, this is the end. I mean, it's burnt to the ground. It's over."

Stephen McDonnell is the founder of Applegate Farms, an organic meat company.

The company started as a bacon smokehouse in New Jersey; Stephen bought it in 1987.

00:23 McDonnell: I had made the decision that I needed to be an entrepreneur because I had gotten turned on to it in another company and needed to but something. But I wasn't sure at the time what to buy, but I knew I had to do something on my own. And so, I looked around and checked out all these different companies and I found this dinky little smokehouse called Jugtown Mountain Smokehouse in 1987, and ended up buying it. It was pretty run down. We started building it, and really just tough stuff counting every penny. We work and work and work and we build it up and one day I was away on vacation, came back, and the place had burnt to the ground.

Jugtown Mountain Smokehouse burned down on September 16, 1988, when 2,000 pounds of bacon caught on fire.

01:17 McDonnell: I was in complete shock. I mean everything that I had been building, everything that... And there was only like four employees. I mean, we were maybe 300 thousand in sales annually, was shattered. And there was a point when Doris who as a 60 year old bacon slicer who had been with us a couple years was standing next to me and I was like, "Doris, well, what are we gonna do?" And she just looked at me without saying anything. It's like, "What do you mean what are we gonna do?" And I knew in her eyes what she meant. And we kept going. When the place burnt down, and from a monetary standpoint, everything spelled run. I didn't. And you don't know why at the time, you don't. You kind of move. You just start moving to rebuild.

Stephen rebuilt the company.

02:19 McDonnell: Upon reflection of why did I stay in when everything was pointing me to get out, I realized at that point that we were about something more than just having a successful small meat company. In fact, we were trying to change. We wanted to change and had the audacity even think we could change, which was extraordinary, the way Americans think about eating meat. And we became at that point, without even knowing it, we became mission based and purpose based. And that alters almost every decision you make. And we changed the name from Jugtown because it sounded like we were distilling booze in Appalachia or Western Jersey, called it Applegate which was a farm that was actually very close to where I was raising my family. We became virtual. We got rid of all our assets. We realized that we were really focused on a brand and having a relationship with the consumer. We started sending our products to other people to make it to our specs and it started coming back. And I was like, "Oh my God. This stuff tastes better than the stuff we were making." And as a result, we have hundreds of thousands of animals, and thousands of farms, and now thousands and thousands of customers, who are all connecting to eating sustainable meat. So, the greatest inflection of why we are what we are today is because of that fire.

Today, Applegate meat comes from 1,000 farms across the country.

In 2012, it had $200 million in sales.

Last updated: Dec 18, 2012