You never know where a hobby like fossil collecting might lead you. Just ask Robert McDade, CEO and founder of Natural Selections Inc., who started collecting fossils and minerals as a hobby. He followed that path into petroleum engineering, and began buying and selling geology specimens at flea markets. Then he met a fellow seller who was marketing preserved alligator heads. Now McDade sells not only alligator heads himself, but a complete alligator meat product line as well.
"It started as a hobby," McDade says. "I was a mineral collector, collecting fossils and meteorites. I'd been interested in the oil industry for ten years, met some professional engineers, and eventually went for a degree in Petroleum Engineering," he explains. "My wife is a geologist, and we took some trips to Mexico, visited some mines, and bought some specimens there. We kept what we wanted and sold the rest at a flea market in New Orleans." And then fate stepped in, he says. "At the flea market, we met a gentlemen who sold alligator heads."
At the time, the preserved and finished heads were a new product, and even now are considered a hot novelty item. But there's no shortage of supply, McDade notes. "Some 95 percent of the finished heads we sell come from alligator farms," he says. "The gators are farm raised, grown for both their hide and their meat. We buy the meat, the feet and head." However, it is not a business for the faint of heart, he notes. "It's a long and messy process, but worth it," McDade says, "as preserved alligator heads are a curiosity item."
Wholesale prices can be as inexpensive as $4.95 for the smaller heads, but retail prices can vary. "The farther you go from Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the more the price can increase," McDade says. Head sizes start at about five inches and can go up to 21 inches in length. "But those are usually the wild alligator heads," he notes. The smaller heads can retail in New York City for $15 and up," he says. "Our retailers usually enjoy a 200 to 300 percent markup."
McDade and his associates have their efforts down to a science. "We do the work ourselves outside the city of New Orleans. The time frame for ending up with preserved heads from start to finish is about a month," he says. "We go to the alligator farms, pick up the frozen raw heads, and put them in 'the juice', a barrel full of a formaldehyde solution." Workers can fit a couple of hundred heads in a barrel. The curing process takes a couple of weeks, and staffers keep checking on the progress. "The complete processing method is a trade secret," McDade says. Once completed, they then trim the heads, cut the back, paint it black, prop the heads open and let them dry in the sun. "That takes another week or two," he says. "Then we sort them by size and ship them out."
"This is a regulated industry, overseen by the department of wildlife and fisheries," McDade notes. "Each animal has its own unique registration number. This way we can track it back to the farm from where it was raised, and assure buyers it was not taken from the wild." There's a lot of paperwork involved, but McDade believes it is all for the good. "It gives the customers a secure feeling that it's all regulated." Sold under his own "Alligator King" brand, McDade is proud of his heads. "We have a specialized product line, and we stress the quality of the product," he says. "We like to say our items will outlast the purchaser."
However, the preserved heads are just part of the business of Natural Selections. "We also have a full line of alligator jerky, a novelty item that's very popular," he says. "It comes prepackaged and is non-refrigerated," McDade notes. "The flavors available include Cajun, barbecue and mild. It comes mixed with either beef or pork." McDade is also excited about an upcoming offering. "In about three or four months, we'll be launching a 100 percent alligator meat jerky." Alligator teeth are also a popular item, and Natural Selections offers several products incorporating them. "Single alligator teeth can be turned into key ring items," he says. "We also carry necklaces, and have about six different types in our inventory. They wholesale from $2.50 to $5 each, and again, our retailers enjoy a three time markup." McDade is also developing a line of alligator themed T-shirts. "We're fine tuning the colors and pricing right now," he says. "We hope to be ready shortly, just in time for the Christmas season."
Taking his business to its next logical step, McDade is about to open his own Alligator Museum on New Orleans' Magazine Street, about two miles from the French Quarter. The facility will feature crocodile and alligator fossils from his own collection, as well as alligator themed folk art, print art, Americana, ashtrays, salt and pepper shakers, and scientific artifacts. One of the centerpieces of the museum will be McDade's own 50 million year old alligator fossil from the Green River Formation in Wyoming.
Clearly, McDade is a man with a passion for what he does, and it is reflected in his product line and attention to detail. He sells mostly wholesale, and buyers can request a simple two page sell sheet, or visit his newly updated website, www.naturalselectionsinc.com. His main customers include bait & tackle stores, hunting shops, swamp tour outposts, Cajun restaurants, nature and science stores, trading posts and gourmet outlets. The small gator heads are currently his bestseller. "They're an easy purchase, and everyone knows someone who'd like one," he says.
Natural Selections requests a $100 minimum order, and usually ships in one to two business days. "We have a number of longtime wholesale accounts, and haven't lost any customers," McDade says. "I believe this shows that all our accounts are very satisfied with our products."
For more information:
Natural Selections Inc.
1401 Distributors Row, Suite A
Harahan, LA 70123
Toll Free: 800-246-5984
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