MIDDLEBURG, Va. — A cheery fire warmed the glass-walled conservatory of the Goodstone Inn in Virginia’s horse country, as diners sampled the featured wine and meats on the menu of the evening’s farm and vine dinner series.
Tender veal-cheek tortellini floated in a delicate consommé flecked with herbs, followed by braised short ribs enshrined in a rosemary demi-glace atop smoked celery root and a potato confit.
Waiters rushed to refill glasses with wine from a local vineyard, and the hotel’s Belgian chef demonstrated a technique for perfectly removing the top of an egg, which he used as a base for serving an oxtail ragout with truffles.
What made the meal unique was the source of the meat. From veal cheek to oxtail, it was supplied by Blackwater Beef, a company whose name is known around the globe, but for something other than gourmet provisions: as the world’s most famous, and notorious, private security contractor.
The venture is an attempt at brand extension by Erik Prince, the well-connected founder of Blackwater, which began supplying private security services to U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade ago. The company’s initial success with Defense Department and CIA contracts was followed by a series of scandals, including the 2007 Nisour Square massacre in Iraq, in which Blackwater contractors killed more than a dozen civilians. Criminal litigation related to the shooting is still working its way through U.S. courts.
Prince, a former Navy SEAL and the brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, was accused of hiring mercenaries, a term he resents. “They’re not mercenaries,” he said in an interview last year. He was not charged with a crime in connection with the deaths.
Yet dogged by controversy, he first rebranded Blackwater as Xe Services, and then sold the company to new owners, who sought to distance the business even further from the tainted Blackwater name by christening it with the bland name of Academi.
Yet Prince never gave up on his core belief that the private sector can take on many of the tasks ordinarily done by uniformed troops. In more recent years, Prince has turned his attention to other ventures, including Frontier Services Group, a Hong Kong-based logistics and aviation company working in Africa.
Controversy still follows Prince, who has even figured in the Russia investigation headed by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is reportedly looking into a January 2017 meeting in the Seychelles between Prince and Kirill Dmitriev, the head of a Russian investment fund. In congressional testimony, Prince said he was there to talk with UAE officials, and the encounter with Dmitriev, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was more of a last-minute meeting at the bar.
But nothing of that controversy was discussed at the communal dinner table last week in Middleburg, a city just over an hour’s drive from Washington that advertises itself as the nation’s “horse and hunt capital,” where upscale coffee shops and restaurants are decorated in fox-hunting themes and express support for the military. Middleburg is also where Prince owns a lavish estate that is now dedicated to his latest business venture.
Prince is still pursuing his military interests, however. Last year, he wrote a lengthy op-ed in the New York Times, arguing to turn a large part of the war in Afghanistan over to private contractors. He spent the next month running around Washington, PowerPoint briefing in hand, trying to sell his proposal. Yet despite a seemingly sympathetic president in the White House, and his sister in the Cabinet, Prince’s proposal has so far not gained much traction.
Compared to the public blitz Prince conducted for his Afghanistan plan, his turn to raising Black Angus cattle on his farm here was done with little fanfare. He hasn’t kept it a secret — Blackwater beef has a website for direct sales, including a subscription plan, and a Facebook page advertising the schedule of a food truck emblazoned with the Blackwater logo — but neither has he publicly promoted it. A recent cover story in Middleburg Life magazine featured Brett Miller, the head of the ranch. Prince is mentioned only in passing, described by Miller as operating “a company in Africa building infrastructure there, trying to get water to communities to better the lives of the human race…”
Of course, it’s easy to see why Prince, who was nowhere to be seen that day on the ranch, might want Miller as the public face of his beef business. A soft spoken Wyoming native and a former bodybuilder, Miller cultivates his cowboy image. In an interview at the ranch just before the dinner, he wants to discuss beef, not politics, and he speaks enthusiastically about the cattle he’s raising on Prince’s farm.
Sitting upstairs in a large hall above the office, with a disco ball hanging above (Prince built the space for family gatherings, though it’s been used most recently for a cattle ranchers’ event), Miller talks about his vision for the business. “The reason I like Black Angus is because of the genetics,” he said. “They grow fast, they’re efficient cattle, they have smaller frames so your weight isn’t all in bone.”
The beef business isn’t easy, Miller acknowledges. The margins for selling to restaurants are horrible, he says, and selling direct to individual consumers isn’t always practical. So, he’s turned in part to a subscription business, where consumers can order home delivery. A “Howdy Y’All Starter Beef Box” goes for $79 plus shipping, or at the high-end, for $1,995, subscribers can get quarterly deliveries of a “Rancher ½ Beef.”
“I’m actually probably selling more than I expected. But selling it in different ways than I expected,” Miller says. “I thought my subscription leg of business was ingenious and the door would just be knocked down with people wanting to subscribe and that hasn’t been the case. There’s a good number, but that hasn’t been the case.”
What has been a hit, he says, are Blackwater beef sticks and beef jerky. “People are insane for that,” he says. Another success has been the food truck, which is essentially a mobile marketing platform. “People taste the meat and they’re like, ‘Oh, well. Geez. Yeah. I want to get some more. I want to buy some more.’ And same thing with the beef sticks and jerky. It’s like they taste it and they’re like, ‘Well, what else you got?’” he says.
The company’s food truck made its debut earlier this year at a four-day skydiving event at Orange County Airport, according to Emily Miller, Brett’s wife, who handles marketing. “What that is is basically all the jumpers from the CIA, the FBI, you know, the intelligence agencies,” she said.
But the business isn’t just focused on customers from the military and intelligence communities. At one point, Blackwater Beef was even advertising a goat yoga event. “That was Emily’s brainchild,” Brett Miller said laughing, noting that he and his colleague were teased about the event (which was ultimately canceled due to cold weather and lack of space.
The dinner at the Goodstone was also Emily Miller’s idea. There were no signs of Prince at the dinner, though at the center of one of the tables was a nameplate for Stacy Prince, Erik Prince’s wife and a former Blackwater spokesperson. Her chair remained empty throughout the meal, however.
Prince, who was recently seen in D.C. eating a beet salad, did not respond to request for comment on his new venture.
In some respects, the Blackwater beef venture is a reminder of how deeply divided the country has become. In Middleburg, Prince is a welcome neighbor, not a pariah like he is in some Washington circles. At dinner, Mark Betts, the hotel’s owner, lavished praise on the Blackwater founder.
Betts, who previously hosted a book party for Prince, calls him “a great American and a good businessman.”
If Prince is a bogeyman to some, Brett and Emily Miller make for a charming counterpoint. Funny and open, they are aware of, but don’t seem bothered by, the politics that swirl around their boss. Talking about a recent trip to Washington, Miller recalled visiting Prince’s most famous relative.
“Well, I think that wherever Erik’s sister works, Betsy DeVos, she’s the secretary of education, she says she is going to rent the food truck for the day and feed the building,” he said. (A spokesperson for the Department of Education told Yahoo News she wasn’t aware of any time that a food truck has been or would be invited to the building.)
Miller sees other big things for the business. Blackwater Beef could cater local agricultural events, like the Cattlemen’s Association, or even weddings. “We could do high end. It’s not our forte, though. But we could appeal to a much more economic wedding reception with the food truck and the catering.”
He also wants to expand the food truck business, both in number and reach, even sending a truck to Washington, D.C. He envisions a restaurant chain called BWB, short for Blackwater Beef, Blackwater Burger.
The ultimate question is whether the Blackwater name can sell beef, or at least not turn people off. Justified or not, Prince’s business ventures, from armed crop-dusters to a security training school in China, are all scrutinized.
Just how tarnished is the Blackwater name depends on who you ask. At the reception before the dinner, the head of a prominent Washington-based nonprofit who was staying at the hotel for a brief getaway, had signed up for the dinner on a lark. Told that the dinner was featuring Blackwater Beef, his eyes opened wide. “You mean, that Blackwater?” he asked.
Even Prince has acknowledged the Blackwater name took a beating. “The Blackwater name got so tarnished and so blown out by one event in Iraq,” he told a UAE newspaper earlier this year. “In the Iraq war, the anti-war left went after the contractors.”
Yet Prince has also always believed that his ideas — and the Blackwater brand — will ultimately prevail. While the successor to Blackwater fled the name, Prince embraced it, retaining rights to use it. According to friends, he strongly believes it can be resurrected. Another venture Prince launched this year, Blackwater Ammunition, is more in line with his business experience.
Some of his previous attempts to market the Blackwater brand didn’t end well, though. The Blackwater Pro shop in North Carolina, which sold Blackwater-themed clothing and gear, closed after less than a year. And the domain for the Blackwaterbrand.com website, which also sold gear emblazoned with the Blackwater logo, is now up for sale.
Would the Blackwater name stop people from buying the beef? “We’ve had our own debates whether it helps or hurts,” Miller said, “but I think it helps immensely.”
Miller says the Blackwater name ultimately won’t harm the company. “It doesn’t matter what business — my contention has always been I don’t care what business you’re near. You’re always gonna have haters,” Miller said. “There’s a certain percentage of the population that doesn’t want to do business with you for whatever reason.”
There are more than 6 million people in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, which provides more than enough potential customers, says Miller. Maybe Blackwater Beef is fine with alienating those who dislike what Prince represents, and the vegetarians are already out of the equation.
Yet back in Washington, Prince is still a frequent target. Earlier this month, the Daily Beast reported that Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee want him to come testify again as part of the Russia investigation. And stories on Prince’s latest security ventures continue to get regular — and typically negative — media coverage.
Miller, however, is unfazed. “Erik has his group of people that don’t like him,” he said. “There are liberals that don’t like him. But it’s not to the degree that he thinks it is.”
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