Before 2020, the Noble Premium Bison brand was unknown on the Canadian market. But suddenly, in those wild early months of the pandemic, the Millarville-based company started showing up on store shelves.
Now, two years after its retail launch, Noble’s bison products are available across Canada in major grocery retailers like Safeway, Sobeys, Co-op, and Costco. With its smart marketing and high-quality product, Noble Premium Bison seems to be a bit of an overnight success, but the brand’s quick rise is actually the result of years of industry experience from partners Kelly Long and Doug Griller, and a carefully laid-out business plan.
Before getting into how Noble became one of the largest bison companies in North America, it’s important to know a little about the Canadian bison market. While bison has become a familiar menu item on restaurant menus in Alberta because of its ties to the land here, most of us still don’t include it on our local grocery lists, largely due to price and an unfamiliarity with the meat.
Bison had a brief burst of popularity in the 1990s when it was billed as a leaner and more diet-conscious alternative to beef, but according to Long the market crashed completely in 2000 and keen bison entrepreneurs have been trying to build it back up since. “Bison is indigenous and the original regenerative animal that roamed not just in Canada but across North America,” Long says. “There's so much history and stories that go with bison. People look back at it and think of bison as being a sort of heritage meat.”
Both Long and Griller have been part of that move towards creating a sustainable bison market. Griller has been ranching bison for decades, and Long - who has a background in business and marketing - founded Carmen Creek Bison with her husband in the early ‘00s and eventually sold that company because of challenges in the market. When Griller approached Long to join forces to help move his supply of product in 2016, she knew that her marketing skills and his bison supply could make for a very successful company — if they built it in the right way.
Successful food brands often come about when a producer has a great product that becomes popular, forcing them to scramble to ramp up production and distribution to keep up with demand, but Noble flipped that narrative around. Taking what she’d learned from running Carmen Creek, Long started by selling into the European market, gradually building up her supply (in addition to Grillers’s ranch in Saskatchewan, Noble draws from some other Canadian bison farmers, with everything processed at a facility in North Dakota that doesn’t deal with other species of meat) so that everything would be good to go by the time she approached big retailers.
Eliminating the typical “figuring things out as we go along” phase, Noble was able to make such a splash in what seemed — to the public at least — like a relatively short time. “We needed to have our supply locked in,” Long says. “We wanted to make sure that we had a very consistent program and that's what we worked on first.”
The other obstacle that Noble is fighting is the public’s lack of knowledge when it comes to choosing cuts of bison and cooking the protein. Long says that over the course of her bison career she’s encountered many potential customers who have refused to even try the meat, assuming that it will have a strong flavour. There’s also the issue of the price — since bison is produced in much smaller quantities than beef it tends to be more costly and many consumers are afraid to make the investment on something that they have less experience with.
“One of the things we've done is we've tried to educate,” Long says. “Bison is a little bit richer and sweeter, but it doesn't taste wild and gamey. It's got a very similar profile to beef.”
Noble is continuing to push the message that bison is a healthy and sustainable high-value protein, while offering tips for cooking right on each package so that customers can get the most out of their cut of choice. The company offers everything from ground bison, which can stand in for other ground meats in burgers, pasta sauces, and chilis, to both grilling and marinating steaks, and cuts like brisket.
Long says that she doesn’t expect bison to eclipse beef sales within her lifetime, but that both home cooks and restaurant customers are becoming more comfortable with bison. With Noble’s increased presence in grocery stores, that market is likely to grow.
“It's becoming more mainstream,” she says. “When companies like Sobeys and Costco have us on their shelf, it is not as much novelty as it used to be. When people take it home and try it a few times they get excited and want to include it in their weekly rotation.”