When customers want more of your product, you usually find a way to make more as quickly as possible to meet the demand. Not doing so would be bad business—unless your product is boutique beef. Building a herd of cattle with specific genetics and replicating or improving upon them from one generation to the next requires patience. One genetic modification in the breeding process can take several years to manifest in the offspring, and the rancher needs to hope it is a change for the better. That’s why you still can’t buy an A Bar N Ranch steak, fourteen years after the outfit began breeding Wagyu and Angus cattle in North Texas.
A Bar N Ranch founders Gregg Allen and Van Nichols aimed high to secure their first restaurant partnership in 2014. They brought some beef along for a a meeting with a sous chef at Fearing’s, inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Uptown Dallas, and found chef Dean Fearing on his way out the door. They convinced him to stay for a taste, and Fearing’s began serving A Bar N Ranch tenderloins as a special soon after. The restaurant added strip steaks, ribeyes, and the occasional brisket the following year. Then in 2018, it added the steaks and the tenderloin to the nightly menu. This is a great story about a partnership between a chef and a producer, but it also shows just how long it took A Bar N to increase its herd size to provide the steaks required for just one restaurant. Katie Allen Bolner, chief marketing officer for the company, explained that “we waited until our quality was very consistent.”
The story of A Bar N is also something Fearing was thankful to have as he worked the dining room. “We had this local ranch that was raising local Texas Wagyu,” he said. That prospect seemed impossible to him when he was still the chef at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, the restaurant he left to open Fearing’s in 2007. Back then, his out-of-state customers would tell him they were looking forward to trying famous Texas beef, and he had to give them the bad news that the steaks likely didn’t come from a Texas ranch. With A Bar N, he said, “We are finally getting back to what Texas was and should always be—producing great beef.”
It was the A Bar N inside skirt steak served on the Fearing’s lunch menu (since replaced by smoked brisket on the fall menu) that impressed me. Unlike the more-tender outside skirt, often used for fajitas, inside skirt steak from commodity beef is tough. This one was buttery tender, with some white flecks of marbling still visible in the rosy slices of beef. It was fantastic, and quite the opposite of the phenomenon Texas Monthly restaurant critic Pat Sharpe refers to as “Wagyu, schmagyu.” She loves Wagyu beef, but she has gotten used to disappointment in restaurant Wagyu steaks when comparing them to Prime beef ones on the same menu, so she often avoids Wagyu, especially if it comes at a huge premium. She has a point, since you don’t always know which producer is supplying the restaurant (it’s fine to ask the chef if the ranch is not listed on the menu). Even then, you have to trust that the restaurant is being honest.
I recently had an odd Wagyu-related experience at an Austin restaurant. The folks at A Bar N supply beef to the Emmer & Rye Hospitality Group. I had dinner at the group’s namesake restaurant, hoping to find A Bar N’s bavette steak, also known as sirloin flap (I now know I should have gone to the group’s restaurant Hestia for that cut), but I found a “Texas Wagyu ribeye” as the only steak on the menu that evening. What arrived at my table was quite obviously a Denver steak, which has a distinct rectangular shape. It was enjoyable, though not from A Bar N and not a decadent as a ribeye, but the ribeye showed up on my bill. I protested. The manager offered a discount for the difference between the two cuts without argument, but then told me the discount was given in goodwill due to “the confusion.” He insisted I had just eaten the most oddly shaped ribeye steak of my life. If I hadn’t known the difference, as many diners wouldn’t have, I would have left the restaurant thinking I’d just eaten a Wagyu ribeye. I may have muttered “Wagyu, schmagyu” the next time I saw it on a menu.
But I digress, and I now take you to the green grass and rolling hills of the A Bar N Ranch in Sherman, an hour north of Dallas. (The company is based in nearby Celina and also has a ranch there.) The calves come from Angus cows bred with black Wagyu bulls and, because of the crossbreeding, are known as F1 cattle in the ranching industry. Most have the black hides of their mothers, but a few get the reddish tiger striping from their Wagyu bloodlines. Ranch coordinator Cade Nichols, son of cofounder Van Nichols, explained that the crossbreeding is the perfect compromise to get the heavy marbling from the Wagyu and the faster growth from the Angus. “The feed efficiency is terrible” on full-blood Wagyu, he said, which is beef-speak for “They take too damn long to get fat and cost too much to feed in the process.” All of the A Bar N cattle are fed at Morris Stock Farm in Gruver and are slaughtered at about two years old. Right now, the percentage of the company’s F1 crosses that grade as Prime or higher is 85 to 90 percent.
Nichols said the business is continuing to hone its herd genetics, seeking bloodlines that will provide smaller white flecks of marbling throughout the meat. We drove from pasture to pasture in his truck, with Allen along for the ride, as well as the head of meat sales, Al Havens. They were all excited to share the news that A Bar N was ready to make a big jump in production. With all the new calves in this year’s crop, they plan to process three thousand head of cattle in 2023, which will double their projected 2022 output. That means they may be able to reopen their online store so the public can buy raw steaks, which are currently only available to smaller restaurants. “If a Del Frisco’s wanted middle meats from us, we’re years away from that,” Havens said.
Growing the herd is slow going because the business focuses so closely on having the right genetics, but it also requires customers for cuts of beef outside of the familiar steak cuts, known as the middle meats. For a beef company to make more steak, it needs someone to buy all its ground beef. A Bar N supplies that to all the Front Burner restaurants in North Texas, including Whiskey Cake, Haywire, Ida Claire, and Sixty Vines. I polished off the juicy cabernet burger at Sixty Vines after telling myself I was only going to eat half. Son of a Butcher in Dallas and Plano makes all its sliders with A Bar N ground beef, but I’d suggest sticking with the Classic, with American cheese, dill pickles, and comeback sauce. As for A Bar N’s briskets, Derek Allan’s Texas BBQ was the lone customer in Fort Worth, but since it closed, the only place to get A Bar N brisket is on the Fearing’s lunch menu. The company would love to find another barbecue joint to buy from it, but that’ll cost you $5.50 per pound.
Wondering if I could tell much of a difference between A Bar N’s Wagyu ground beef and commodity ground beef, I brought home a burger made with each from Twisted Root. The Wagyu upgrade is $3.25 per burger, and it’s worth it. Before digging in, I shared bites from both with my eleven-year-old son. The Wagyu was obviously superior, but as I was about to grab it for my own plate, my son beat me to it as he said, “This one tastes like steak!”
A Bar N is growing, and it can produce a whole lot more beef than many of the boutique Texas Wagyu brands out there. It’ll be close to catching bigger operations like Rosewood Beef by the end of next year (Rosewood processes 3,600 head per year), but it has maintained its quality up to this point when it would have been more financially beneficial in the short term to expand quickly. A Bar N has built the model of a Texas Wagyu brand that can counter some of that “Wagyu, schmagyu” smack talk.