Fowl Business: Reno food staple loses ranch, moves on

story & photos by JULIANA BLEDSOE

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Hadji Paul’s Chicken & Feed, a longtime staple and favorite in the local food community of Northern Nevada, has just changed hands. You will still find Hadji Paul’s fresh, colorful eggs at farmers markets and on the menus of some of Reno’s most talked about restaurants, but the couple that grew this local egg business over the last six years has lost their ranch and is moving on.

Joy and Paul Schouweiler sold their “fowl business” to their friends and neighbors down the road, who have already taken over as Joy and Paul prepare for their next big adventure.

I met Joy and Paul last spring when their business was booming. Though they hadn’t quite gotten the logistics down on how to make a profit, they were hopeful; they were working with a University of Nevada, Reno development program to expand and, hopefully, get a grant to make production numbers more viable.

Unfortunately, the grant fell through, leaving Paul and Joy unable to purchase the next flock of chickens that could’ve brought them the start of a sustainable income. Left without the means to expand their business, they could no longer afford to keep it running, nor their Ironwood Road ranch toward Pyramid Lake. The property, including the home that the Schouweiler’s built on it, is now up for short sale for $250,000 thousand – almost half what it was worth two years ago.

First the Chicken or the Egg?

Paul says he and his wife got into the egg business accidentally in 2007 when they traded one of their dachshund puppies for 40 chickens from a local feed supplier.

“Well, we ended up getting 100 chickens, and that’s how we started,” Paul said.

Paul left for Iraq in early 2008, where he worked as a contractor for two years. While Paul was away, Joy expanded their flock to 250 birds, and added another 150 shortly after.

“During that time Joy ran the place, and we started producing so many eggs that we didn’t know what to do with them, so she got certified through the Nevada Department of Agriculture,” Paul said. “For the first couple of years, we didn’t have a business license; we just sold to the [Great Basin Community Food] co-op and everything got bigger and bigger.”

This was when the Great Basin Community Food Co-op was in a tiny cabinet on Plumas Street in Reno, but Paul says there was enough of a customer base that demand was high.

“People would call: ‘Are the eggs there yet? Are the eggs there yet?’” Paul said.

When Paul returned to the U.S. in 2010, the couple added another 700 chickens to their flock, and the business model expanded with the increased output. They got a business license and began operating as a legitimate limited liability company (LLC).

That same year, natural grocery chain Whole Foods Market approached the couple looking to feature some local farmers and vendors in its Reno location on South Virginia Street. Paul said they had to take out a million dollar insurance policy to sell their eggs in store, but they managed to take that next step, while Whole Foods became one of their biggest local clients. Then came the restaurants – and the branches of the business spread.

“We’ve got 7 of the best restaurants in town, I’ve got about 500 customers and every time we get bigger,” Paul said last spring. “Every time we get more birds, we get more customers, and we sell every egg, all the time. “

Joy had also begun selling the eggs at local farmers markets where she would get to interact with members of the community that loved their product. Children and adults alike would marvel over the artisanal eggs alongside her jams and baked goods, and Joy would espouse the advantages of what you get from local, mindfully raised chickens.

Fresh from the Flock

The eggs produced by Hadji Paul’s Chicken & Feed are of a certifiably higher caliber than those you might buy from your average big-name grocer, and even their beautiful colors set them apart right off of the bat. Unique varieties of chickens produce eggs of varying sizes and colors ranging from the typical white and brown to hues of pink and blue-green.

The eggs are lovingly collected three times per day, and then washed and refrigerated before being swiftly transported to restaurants and consumers throughout the week. Paul says their eggshells are tougher because they are so fresh.

“Our eggs don’t sit around more than a couple of days,” Paul said. “A store bought egg is probably at east five weeks old on the shelf. When you crack a store-bought egg, it will spread out on a plate; if you crack a farm-fresh egg it will sort of stay upright.”

Hadji Paul’s chickens are fed a variety of fresh, organic food scraps and spent grain from local breweries. The yolks are a bright, vibrant yellow, almost verging on orange, and the flavor is incredibly rich and creamy.

“They have more nutrition,” said Paul. “They’ve been proven to have less cholesterol and higher omega-3s.”

Free-range eggs have also been shown to have a higher protein content than their commercially produced counterparts, and these birds are raised without artificial hormones, steroids or antibiotics. They are able to go out into the sun, scratch around in the dirt and roost and lay as they please.

“It’s very important to [the customers] that we’re raising them humanely, that they have access to the outside, and they’re not in little cages.” Paul said. “I would let them run all over the place, but I’d have a bunch of dead birds, so I’ve got large pens and houses all over the place around here. We try to raise them as humanely as possible and people appreciate that.”

The Human Element

Joy is living with AIDS, which is why she said she first became interested in healthy eating. At one point, she had alarmingly few T-Cells left, which are responsible for maintaining the body’s immune system. Her condition is better these days, and she said that changing her lifestyle to one that focused on wholesome, natural foods really improved her life.

“I would certainly never buy another store-bought egg,” Paul said. “My wife likes to bake a lot, and maybe once a week we’ll have an egg dish. There are some cracked eggs, and we use all those, so there’s hardly any waste.”

Though the customer base was growing, Hadji Paul’s Chicken & Feed still wasn’t earning enough to stay afloat. Paul mentioned then that small farmers weren’t making much money. He and Joy were already stressed in April about having to raise the price of their eggs.

“I’m not getting any younger, and I need health insurance,” he said then. “Everybody needs to realize it’s going to be more expensive because it’s raised by a small farmer, not massed produced by a huge cooperation, and even though it might be a little bit more expensive, it’s all natural, so it’s better for you.”

Fox in the Hen House

The first time I went out to the farm on Ironwood Road, Joy and Paul has just gotten hundreds of new baby chicks. The couple was working with a small business administration program at UNR, trying to get financing to purchase another flock of birds, but this time luck was not on their side.

“We broke the whole business down and did the whole business plan and submitted that to a couple different places, and they just turned us down,” Paul said. “It’s not like we’re starting up; we’ve established business, it’s already running. It’s just my credit that blew it, because if you look at the business and how much money we’ve made over the last three years and the clients we’ve had, no one would turn it down.”

When I returned to Hadji Paul’s Chicken & Feed in September nearly all of the birds were gone and their belongings were laid out for a garage sale advertising that “everything must go.”

Paul said that had he known the attempts at financing were not as sure as they had been made out to be, he would have tried to go about it some other way.

“They have many websites for businesses that are starting up or want to expand,” he said. “We probably could have easily gotten the money, easily.”

Nonetheless, customers on the Hadji Paul mailing list received an email Sept. 25, saying that they were stepping away from the business. The email began by saying:

“Hi Everyone, We are writing today to say goodbye to you all and let you know the new owners will be continuing on with the business from here on out. We again would like to thank you for the great support you gave us and would ask you to do the same for them.”

“It’s not something you want to publicize to everybody that you’re struggling,” Paul said. “Although all farmers are struggling – they’re not making a bundle by any means – any of them that are doing really good are probably getting some grant money or subsidy.”

Paul explained the reason he had pushed so hard because he knew if they got through it they could have sold the business and would at least regain some of their money. The couple worked tirelessly to get the business in the black, but when they couldn’t pull it off, they had nothing left.

“After it happened, we threw in the towel,” he said. “We were already burning out so bad from the whole year we were working on this thing, and suddenly it went south on us, and we were done, that’s it.”

Plucked

Paul exhibited some regret as he talked about how hard they had worked before they finally let go.

“Joy and I haven’t been on a vacation in like eight years,” he said. “You start looking back, and it’s like, ‘wow, is it really worth it?’ She’s stressed about this whole thing. She pushed herself to the limit, and I’m feeling bad about that too. We probably should have hung it up last year, but that’s what drives her.”

The couple has been packing up their house and awaiting the sale. They are saving up to buy a motorhome, and when the house is taken care of, they’ll load up the essentials, including their remaining pets.

“We have three dogs and a couple cats,” Paul said, as one of his mutts sat patiently next to him, snapping at flies. “We’ve still got more than we can really live with, but we’ll take them on the road. We’re not going to give up any of our animals – that’s [part of] us too.”

Joy has been taking the time to focus on her health, and the couple has been helping their neighbors’ transition into the business. Once the house sells they might stay with the new owners for a while they decide what to do next.

“We’re gonna look at several different things,” Paul said. “We might become campground hosts or RV park hosts. I’d love to see a bunch of national parks, take some pictures.”

Paul is hoping that they will have some time to relax and recover from their experience for a while longer.

“If we just sat in here for three months before it sold, that would be the best three months [Joy]’s had in a long time, probably . . . just taking it easy, getting back on her drugs, and feeling better,” Paul said. “I need to go get checked up on too, then I think we’ll be good to go, get on the road, and go find something better. That’s the way you’ve gotta look at it.”

A friendly change of hands for a fowl business

The same phone number that would once connect you to Joy or Paul, now rings in a different house. Nonetheless the name is the same, the eggs are just as beautiful and Hadji Paul’s Chicken & Feed is already changing shape in the hands of its new owners.

Paul and Joy’s friends down the hill bought most of the chickens and the inventory from the farm, and with it, they kept the name that everyone already knew.

“The house was going through foreclosure, and their financing that they were working on fell though, which was unfortunate,” said René House, the business woman of the family that has taken over. “We all discussed it over at the house one night, and decided what we were going to do.”

You might still spot Joy, with her long, salt and pepper hair, selling her homemade wares at a farmers market once in a while, but you are more likely to see House filling the recycled cartons with fresh, colorful eggs.

“I know a lot of the customers were glad that the eggs didn’t go away,” said House after a Sunday of handing out dozens. “There aren’t that many ways to get local eggs in town anymore.”

Four large chicken houses had to be moved to the new property, and the neighbors have worked together along the way for a smooth change of hands. Each empty house had to be moved on a trailer, followed by the fencing, and then the chickens were moved last under cover of darkness.

“It was crazy,” House said. “They would go up to the chickens at night while they were sleeping, so it’s less stressful for them. Even my little six-year-old son was helping them catch chickens and put them in the trailer.”

Though Paul and Joy managed the business by themselves, there are four generations in the mix at the new ranch down the road, and quite a few more hands go into delivering fresh, local eggs.

“Having kids in the mix makes it a little more difficult sometimes,” said House over the phone recently as her children squealed in the background. “It’s a family affair, that’s for sure.”

House’s young son and daughter help out, in addition to her mother and grandmother, making for four generations of women now at the helm of the fowl business.

As they worked towards turning over the business, Joy went around to the restaurants and buyers to let them know what was happening.

“She has really helped us out with the transition,” House said.

Flying the Coop

As Joy and Paul get ready for their next adventure, House and her family are focusing on the next big move for the egg business. They are now offering non-genetically modified eggs to the public.

“Joy started it, actually, when the owner of Campo asked her if she would raise non-GMO eggs,” said House. “We bought those birds which had just started to lay when we got them. Then other restaurants found out and wanted them, so we ended up changing a whole other batch of our chickens to non-GMO.”

These eggs were so popular in the restaurants, that they were made available to the public as well, with which sales have also been successful.

“She’s really happy that the business is still going,” said House about Joy. “They [both] worked so hard.”

House and her mother, Paula Taylor, both say they appreciate how much goes into starting up a business, as opposed to walking into one that is already off the ground, because Taylor has owned businesses before.

“We’re very grateful for what they have given us,” Taylor said. “They have always been our friends.”

House and Taylor are both happy that Joy and Paul now have some time to relax, and support them on their future endeavors.

“They’re really looking forward to having some time together without having to work to death,” House said. “She looks so much more rested.”

Although Paul is disappointed, he is looking forward to this new chapter.

“We feel really good about what we did. I would have liked for it to end differently, but I guess it’s meant to be,” Paul said. “We’ll find something that’s better for us; something that’s easier and fits into our lifestyle.”

Despite the setbacks, he is even still considering farming.

“We’re gonna drive [the motorhome] from place to place, visit some places that we’ve been thinking of semi-retiring to,” Paul said. “Then maybe get a small place and get 12 chickens, have a cow maybe and grow your own stuff, just a small little version for yourself. That’s what everyone should do.”

Though they are moving on from the egg business, Paul and Joy have made a lasting impact on the community and the local food movement.

“Mark [Estee] from Campo gave us a word of encouragement; he told us that we were the stars of the local food movement for the last three years. Well I don’t know about that,” Paul said. “But we helped everybody out. It’s a whole piece of the puzzle that everybody needs to realize: local, local, local, whether it’s food or otherwise. It’s just a whole mindset everybody needs to get into. Help the little guy cause the big guys are taken care of by themselves.”

Paul shared his advice with anyone trying to start a small business in Reno – especially one centered on providing local food.

“Don’t be afraid to jump in there, because there is a strong food movement here and it’s a good one, for the size of the community,” he said. “You’ve got strong restaurants that are really starting to back it good. Just get your money; we undersold ourselves for too many years. You’re working hard, and don’t look at as ripping anybody off, because you’re producing a product that is so much better than the store.”

Joy and Paul held a fundraiser online through giveforward.com that just ended on Nov. 4. Though only seven donations were recorded, Paul and Joy raised $1,000 toward the purchase of their used motorhome.

Joy and Paul summed up their good-bye best in that farewell email: “Thanks again, it was a pleasure bringing you the Best Damn EGGS in Reno, NV.”



Categories: LOCAL FOOD MOVEMENT