Pel-Freez is truly a hidden gem in Northwest Arkansas with a fascinating history. The company started as a backyard rabbit farm in California in 1911 and by the 1950s had grown into the largest rabbit meat supplier in the United States. In the early years of the worldwide biomedical community, there were no life science catalog companies to supply random animal tissues needed for critical experiments, so researchers began going straight to the source and calling the rabbit meat company to meet their needs.
David Dubbell, the previous Pel-Freez President, and his family were able to brilliantly leverage these one-off requests for rabbit byproducts and grow the business into a sophisticated biomedical supplier. This journey included several highly successful biotechnology spin-off ventures, including Pel-Freez Clinical Systems, one of the first HLA-tissue typing companies in the US.
“While the company once thought of itself as a rabbit meat supplier where the biological tissues were the byproducts, today we think of the company as a biomedical supplier with the meat as the byproduct,” commented Brian Bonk, president and CEO who purchased the Pel-Freez businesses in early 2020. The new Pel-Freez owner sees significant growth potential in both the Food and Biological Divisions, each unique niche businesses with untapped opportunities.
A Niche Business in the Biomedical Space
When asked to share his vision for the future, Bonk responded, “Before zeroing in on Pel-Freez, I spent the last two years traveling around the country, meeting with hundreds of business owners and searching to acquire the perfect under-the-radar, enduringly profitable, niche business in the biomedical space. Pel-Freez is truly a hidden gem. It’s highly unusual for a life science company to remain independent and stay profitable for as long as Pel-Freez has.”
Bonk said Pel-Freez has few, if any, competitors for most of its products. This speaks to the uniqueness of Pel-Freez’s product lines and the strength of its long-standing customer relationships.
Biological Division Success
The Pel-Freez Biological Division provides essential reagents to a diverse customer base consisting of many of the world’s top pharmaceutical, vaccine and diagnostics companies, in addition to hundreds of smaller life science firms and academic laboratories. Breaking into this customer base in such a highly regulated industry can take years, but once validated as a supplier and part of their protocols, these relationships become gifts that keep on giving. Longstanding supply relationships with key customers drive new product development ideas, which comes full circle and strengthens the supplier relationship.
Several of Pel-Freez’s most successful product lines have grown this way and the new Pel-Freez ownership brings ample resources to continue to fuel this growth trajectory.
Exploring New Lines of Business
Pel-Freez does not perform any medical or laboratory testing--in fact, they are not even regulated by the FDA. Their niche is as a raw material and reagent supplier to the companies on the front lines developing life saving pharmaceuticals, vaccines and tests. “We are always open to exploring new lines of business to continue to serve our customers’ needs and the needs of the biomedical community,” shared Bonk.
Animal Welfare A Top Priority
Pel-Freez does not perform any testing on its rabbits, and they abide by strict animal welfare standards. Bonk explained animal welfare is a top priority for Pel-Freez – they undergo numerous external audits in this regard and are continuously looking for ways to improve their quality and animal welfare protocols. “As off-putting as it can be to think about, the reality is that animal byproducts are widely used and are simply necessary for the production of life-saving medicines,” he continued.
“Even in Cambridge, MA, where I’m from and where many of the world’s largest biotech companies perform cutting-edge research in shiny glass towers, many have no idea that the supply chain for their critical reagents traces back to an Amish rabbit farm in Missouri. Pel-Freez strives to make sure as little of the rabbit goes to waste as possible and we take great pride in knowing that our work saves human lives.”
Revitalizing A Hometown Arkansas Brand
The company has had a longstanding, albeit under-the-radar, presence for nearly 70 years in downtown Rogers. “Since opening a stand at the DTR Market (Downtown Rogers Farmers Market) and a small retail storefront out of our shipping warehouse, countless people have come up to me and told me how their grandmother/grandfather/uncle/aunt/cousin used to raise rabbits for Pel-Freez, and we are trying to do more community outreach to nurture these ties and revitalize a hometown Arkansas brand,” said Bonk. "Many people here knew about Pel-Freez but didn’t even realize we were still in business!”
Promoting a New Twist on Rabbit
Most people who try rabbit love it, but if you didn’t either grow up eating it or discover it in culinary school, you probably have no idea what to do with it or where to get it – it can be a very intimidating protein. To lower these barriers, Bonk has been partnering with local chefs to showcase local recipes and restaurants. Their goal is to offer one event per month promoting a new twist on rabbit. They partnered with Three Cents an Acre and Ozark Beer Company for a wildly successful, sold out, rabbit gumbo event. They are looking forward to their next event which will feature rabbit barbacoa tacos in partnership with Yeyo’s. Down the line there will be rabbit pizza, rabbit jerky, rabbit pates and much more!