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Article appeared in issue 5, 2022

The Tale of John Stone Beef

John Stone Beef has evolved from a small rural butcher to a provider of premium beef to high-end restaurants around the world

The tale of John Stone Beef is not a usual one. It involves a number of twists and turns over the course of 68 years and has its roots in a farm in Devon in the UK.

These days, it provides the very best cuts of Irish beef to high-end restaurants around the world. But the company only came to Ireland in 2003 when it joined forces with the Irish beef producer Kepak.

A seventh-generation butcher, CEO John Stone, can trace his roots to Devon where his great great grandfather, Clement Stone was a butcher and a farmer. John’s father, Tim, was also a butcher and John learnt his trade working for him in the family shop in Highgate, London. 

In 1954, John’s father bought an established butcher shop, E. Russell Ltd. in Smithfield Market in London. While the business operated, at first, exclusively in the UK, in the 1970s, an opportunity arose to export to France. Lacking an export licence, E. Russell Ltd. joined forces with a Scottish beef processor, Willy Donald and a new company, Donald Russell, was created. By the 1990s, this business was exporting beef around the world, as far as Singapore and Hong Kong.

When the BCSE crisis hit the UK and the European Commission banned the exportation of British beef in 1996, the company began to look abroad and approached the beef producer Kepak in Ireland. They struck up a partnership and it began producing beef from Ireland in 2003. It rebranded to John Stone Beef in 2012 and has remained in Ireland ever since.

John Stone Beef is now based in Ballymahon, Co Longford, and Kepak owns 45% of the company. “Kepak allows us to select the very best meat, which is then brought to our dry ageing facility in Ballymahon,” explains managing director, Tim Stone, the son of John Stone. He points out that up to 90% of the meat is rejected as only the best is used. “It’s a great partnership because it allows us to consistently get the best quality meat for our products.”

Dry ageing, which is an essential part of the process at John Stone Beef, serves to improve the quality of the meat. “We dry the meat gently by controlling the airflow, humidity and temperature and this concentrates the flavour,” says Tim.

The beef is held for a month at considerable expense. During this time, it loses moisture as it evaporates in a chamber. In fact, only high-quality selected grades of beef can be dry aged as the process requires cuts with large, natural deposits of marbling and natural fat cover.

“It all goes back to our philosophy of picking the very best quality meat and then dry ageing it for 28 days. This has led to our reputation around the world for premium quality. People know if it’s John Stone beef, it’s going to be the best.”

Approximately 25% of the business is in Ireland in food service, with the meat being delivered directly to high-end restaurants and hotels, such as the Ivy and Pichet restaurants in Dublin and Adare Manor Hotel in Co. Limerick. The majority of its meat, however, is exported around the world to 25 countries. Nearly all of this is in food service. Its only retail outlet is in Switzerland.

Like most companies at the moment, John Stone Beef is feeling the effects of inflation, with rising fuel and input costs. “We’ve had to re-evaluate and take a look at how we’re spending money and where we can make cuts in order to sustain the business, but it’s something that all businesses are doing at the moment,” says Tim. “I’m confident that we can weather the storm. We’ve been lucky to build up a worldwide business over the years with a great reputation.”

Changes in eating patterns too could potentially be detrimental. “Veganism is not a threat to us, as only about 2% of the population are vegan,” he says. “Flexitarianism, however, is because instead of eating meat five or six times a week, people are eating it three times on average.

“On the flip side, they’re eating better than before, which means they’re looking for premium quality meat, which works to our advantage. Not only are they going for a better-quality product, but they also want to know the history of the product: where it came from and how the cattle were reared. In addition, they’re concerned about whether it’s sustainably produced. All of this is beneficial to us.”

Sustainability is a huge part of the business and John Stone Beef is a proud member of the Bord Bia sustainability programme Origin Green. “We’re committed to the Origin Green programme which is the only one in the world and it’s important to us,” says Tim, adding that all of their cattle are grass fed.

“Grass is the most sustainable possible diet for cattle. It’s an easy winner over the grain-fed regimes in other countries where the abuse of resources like water and fertilisers has led to environmental catastrophe.”

In addition, the company has enacted a number of environmental initiatives. It practices rotational grazing which involves subdividing fields into smaller pastures so that cattle intensively graze one area, while another recovers. The long, ungrazed period allows the grass to recover and, crucially, to grow deeper roots. This draws more nutrients from the soil, protects against soil erosion, and sequesters carbon.

John Stone himself is now 81 years of age and still oversees the business. He’s seen trends come and go, and weathered recessions and numerous disasters. His philosophy has remained the same however, and is still at the heart of the business. “We’re doing exactly what my father was doing over 50 years ago when he started off,” says Tim. “We’re striving to give our customers what they want which is consistency. They want to know that the premium quality beef they receive is the same from week to week, and that is still our aim.”

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