Charting the Success of Exotic Meat Purveyor Fossil Farms

Opened by two brothers in 1997, the Boonton-based company has grown to become one of New Jersey's primary sources of farm-raised exotic meats.

Ostrich taking in the view at Fossil Farms. Photo by Clay Williams, courtesy of Fossil Farms

In 1995, Paramus natives Lance and Todd Appelbaum were on a ski trip to Breckenridge, Colorado when they tasted bison and ostrich for the first time. “I just fell in love with it,” recalls Lance Appelbaum, CEO of Fossil Farms. “Growing up, my brother [Todd] always wanted to be a farmer, and I always knew I wanted to run my own business. Right then and there, we realized this is what we’ve gotta do.”

Two years after the trip, the Appelbaum brothers opened the Boonton-based Fossil Farms, now one of the state’s primary sources of farm-raised, all natural exotic meats such as alligator, antelope, buffalo, duck, elk, rabbit, guinea hens, Poussin, squab, venison, wild boar, Piedmontese beef, quail and pheasant.

Not that it was easy. When the brothers opened Fossil Farms in 1997, it was a 13-acre ostrich farm challenging well-trodden (beef/chicken/pork/lamb) protein terrain. “People laughed at us,” says Appelbaum. “This was pre-organic, pre-natural food movement.” His solution: hoof it (so to speak). “I did what I called ‘The Grind.’ I went to everyone that would listen to us. I went to chefs in New Jersey and asked them ‘Hey, we’ve got this product, ostrich, it’s 97% fat free, low-cal, high protein, would you like to feature it as a special on your menu?’ Every single chef said yes.”

Part of it was timing. “We were really involved in this farm-to-table movement before it was popular,” Appelbaum says. But growing up in Bergen County didn’t hurt, either, with working farms and New York’s culinary scene each within an hour’s drive. In fact it’s no coincidence restaurant-savvy Appelbaum ended up much more open to chef input than other suppliers at the time. “I learned [the business] from a chef’s point of view,” he says. Also no coincidence, many of Fossil’s 38 employees are professionally-trained and/or former chefs. “The best people to really talk to other chefs, or educate consumers on these products, are chefs”

That chef-supplier dynamic has proven critical to Fossil’s growth. “A lot of our chef-clients became friends. We learned from them. They’re asking me ‘What else can you do? You guys are doing such a great job with this, can you do venison, quail, can you get me this, can you get me that?’” To accommodate the demand, Appelbaum began sourcing from like-minded farmers. “I’ve developed a lot of relationships over 21 years,” he says. “Every single farm, it’s the same mindset, the same caring for animals that we do,” whether it’s Piedmontese beef from the Midwest or Hawaiian-raised antelope.

Bison roaming the field at Roaming Acres. Photo by Lance Appelbaum, courtesy of Fossil Farms

Fossil was so successful that by 2008, the brothers split the business, with Lance handling supply and Todd manning the 118-acre Roaming Acres farm in Lafayette, raising ostrich, bison, Berkshire pig and emu. “[The farm] is like a scene out of Jurassic Park,” Lance laughs. “Part of our success is because of the diversity of our business,” he continues. They sell to restaurants in NJ like the Hill in Closter, Viaggio in Wayne and the Washington Inn in Cape May, as well as Eataly in New York. They have an on-site retail market, and an online store where consumers can get chef-quality product shipped direct. “It’s like a meat candy store for adults.”

Fossil’s lifeblood seems to hinge on their willingness to challenge the status quo, and that includes seasonality, something they’re challenging increasingly. “Everybody thinks game meats are popular in fall and winter, which they are,” says Appelbaum, “but the astonishing thing is restaurants offer it in the spring and the summer,” items like venison loin and wild boar burgers. The call for protein diversity is so strong, Fossil’s fielding requests from steakhouses looking to rebrand. “They call and ask us: ‘Help us reinvent ourselves!’”

Agritourism was a natural next step. “This year we started to open up our commercial corporate kitchen one day a month for a dinner. We invite chefs from all over the state. We call it the Sunday Supper Club. Two months ago, we had Anthony Bucco from [the upcoming] Felina in Ridgewood. He came and did a six-course dinner.”

Game animals beware: it was a success, and Fossil has more dinners to come, including one with Andre deWaal (of Andre’s in Sparta) on October 21. It’s called “Duck to the 6th Power.”

Fossil Farms Market & Kitchen is located at 81 Fulton Street in Boonton. Tickets are still available to “Duck to the 6th Power” dinner, as well as Fossil corporate chef Ben Del Coro’s “Trufflepalooza” on December 16th. 973-917-3726

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