Those clucking and squawking noises that seem like they're coming from your neighbor’s backyard are probably not your imagination. Suburban and urban chicken-keeping has exploded during the pandemic, driven by the sustainable food movement and more people staying at home with time to care for poultry.
Over the past year, live chicken sales in many places across the country have risen by double digits. Ideal Poultry, the largest backyard chicken supplier in Texas, saw a 50 percent boost in sales last spring. Maryland saw a 26 percent increase in live chicken sales. Although not every municipality allows residents to keep chickens, a surprisingly large number of towns and cities (including New York City) do permit the practice, with some restrictions.
Business has likewise been booming for Cleveland, Ohio-based Cutest Coops, a purveyor of high-end chicken coops resembling stylish buildings. This year, revenue for the company climbed roughly 400 percent to $2 million.
Timing of the growth spurt in the market makes sense. Long before COVID-19 set in, people have shown increasing interest in sourcing food from places much closer to home, and supporting more ethical practices in farming and the raising of livestock. Demand swelled even more after lockdowns kept people home, allowing them to devote more attention to food supply chains. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) memberships, for instance, rose by a staggering 579 percent in the early days of the pandemic.
At the same time, COVID outbreaks affecting food producers, such as fruit and vegetable growers in Southern California and a Tyson Foods plant in the Midwest, helped to increase prices. Economic struggles, or possibly disinterest with traditional employment, may have encouraged some people to try their hand at making money by purchasing their own hens and selling eggs.
We spoke with Cutest Coops founder and CEO Kathy Hughes about how her business and others like it fared during the pandemic, as well as how the push has impacted small-scale farms. Here’s our conversation:
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Business of Business: First off, what is a luxury chicken coop?
KH: I think the fun part about Cutest Coops is that we are changing the way people view chicken-keeping because it becomes more of a lifestyle as opposed to this process or another thing to do. A luxury chicken coop is going to make chicken keeping easy. It's very similar to any other hobby, if you get the right equipment, the performance level is higher. You get more enjoyment out of those things.
When I decided to just start the company, it was because of a lot of pain points that I had with my own chicken coop. I couldn't find an answer in the marketplace. At the time, I was running a family business. I was very busy, and I had a small child. I have my parents, I'm a wife, there's so many things going on. I wanted to develop a line of chicken coops that basically allowed for chicken-keeping to just be super simple, efficient, and quick. The way we've situated basic things about a chicken coop like the nesting boxes or how to open the run door, these are all in locations that you don't actually have to enter your coop. You won’t need to change your shoes or soil your shoes.You can just do it on the go, right. Like if I'm coming home, I run over there, I grab it, I go, or vice versa. That was the spirit of how a lot of the products were developed.
BB: That's the luxury aspect of it? is that you don't have to physically enter the chicken coop?
KH: The luxury aspect is the actual unit itself. All of our units are very tall, you can walk inside of them, some of them have storage and some of them have porches. I have a ton of clients who actually have put small refrigerators inside of them.
BB: What are people using them for?
KH: I think at the outset, the reason people are looking into chicken keeping it's pretty obvious. It's things like they would like some eggs for their family, or they're just looking to maybe have a more organic and sustainable lifestyle. Over time, what they find is that this hobby becomes something that is actually very beneficial on a lot of levels. It's quite fun. Chickens are really quirky, and so it's fun to entertain your guests, your family, and your friends.
BB: Do you think that has been behind your growth during the pandemic?
KH: Yes, I think that the pandemic has absolutely accelerated our growth. I heard many times, especially toward the beginning of the pandemic, “I've always wanted to do this and I finally have the time."
I thought that was kind of interesting that the pandemic was affording people the time to do things on their properties that they had already desired to do.
Now, I am a business person. I recognized the trend of chicken keeping prior to the pandemic, and candidly, the same is true with Farmhouse style homes. People have more gardens at home where they're trying to raise their own food.
BB: There's kind of a hodgepodge of different regulations when it comes to chicken keeping in different cities and suburban areas, and obviously there's a lot less hurdles when you give the rural areas. How are you navigating them? What are some of the challenges?
KH: Our clients typically are doing the due diligence to figure out if they can or cannot have chickens. I have found that a lot of people are actually going to their various municipalities and kind of leading this charge. They’re saying, “we want this and they are taking it on themselves and changing regulations.”
Have you had situations where people have really invested in getting a coop only to find out that they can't have one where they live?
KH: I have been fortunate to not have that situation.
BB: How many groups have you sold, so your first year of operations and odour projections for this coming year.
KH: This year will be our second year. The company was founded officially in June of 2019. I started showing prototypes in January of 2019. That was just to get consumer feedback before launching. I'm very happy and fortunate to see how far we have come in those two years.
We've sold hundreds of coops at this point. We've even sold through Tractor Supply Company and Wayfair. Predominantly, we sell directly to consumers. That is by far my favorite space because I love the idea of really getting in touch with what the consumer needs directly. In terms of our projections, we are on track right now to bring in a couple million dollars.
BB: What about this marketplace more largely?There's been a huge push for homesteading in the middle of the pandemic. Can you speak to some of the issues that you're seeing in that space?
KH: I think a very obvious challenge has been the supply chain in general. Wood prices are up and sometimes it’s hard to get your hands on wood. That has been a real challenge. But that's Business, right?
BB: Do you have concerns that your product and products like yours are putting pressure on small-scale farmers?
KH: No, I really do not. We have mostly recognized our typical consumer as grocery shoppers.
I think that the demand would almost increase because once you're exposed to the beauty of egg production on your own property, then you go into the winter months and your chicken stops laying. I’d imagine you're more reluctant to go to a grocery store and purchase it. As a matter of fact, when I've done it in the last year, I think I had to buy eggs a couple of times because my chickens aren't laying as many eggs as we used to. During that shortage, I opted to support small farmers. I think exposing children to that is also a wonderful long-term impact as well. Let's say they're growing up around chickens and fresh eggs, when they're older, they're highly likely to seek out those small farmers markets as opposed to just your average everyday sources.