In 1838, the land that would soon be officially recognized as Central Texas was ripe, fertile and largely untouched, and the first Swedish immigrant to arrive and make his way in the pioneering country—20-year-old Svante Magnus Swenson—did so just 10 days before the Battle of the Alamo. Swenson opened one of the first general stores on Congress Avenue in Austin, the capital of the newly founded Republic of Texas, but the entrepreneurial Swede didn’t stop there. He also established a small farm east of town that he called “Govalle” (Swedish for “good grazing land”). And he continued to grow his interest in the area by acquiring land in Travis and Williamson counties, as well as in North Texas. In addition, with the help of his uncle, Svante Palm, Swenson became instrumental in bringing thousands of other Swedes to Texas in what became known as the “Swedish Pipeline.”
Christopher (Chris) Swenson, Svante Magnus’ great-great-grandson, is a direct legacy of that pipeline from Scandinavia. Today, Chris and his wife, Emily, continue the family heritage with a business made possible by the grassfed cattle that graze on the family’s SMS Land & Cattle Company Ranch—part of the same land that Svante Magnus bought more than 150 years ago. The Swensons run Svante’s Ranch Direct, a multitiered company that includes an award-winning food truck and a restaurant in Round Rock. They also sell their sought-after beef at a retail store in Round Rock, the Barton Creek Farmers Market and via home delivery.
Chris is quick to point out that things could have developed very differently for the family. After Svante Magnus suffered multiple threats to his life during the Civil War for opposing slavery and secession, he and his family fled to New York City where he lived the rest of his life. His sons, though, returned to Texas and their ranch land in the 1880s. “Our family still operates about 55,000 acres remaining from the original ranch,” says Chris. “The cattle are grassfed and grass-finished, humanely raised and totally natural—the way cattle were raised years ago, before growth hormones and antibiotic-dosed feed became part of the beef industry.”
While it may have been a Swedish pioneer four generations back who made it possible for Chris and Emily to pursue their life’s work, it was their sons who got them into the Austin market. Chris and Emily met in Massachusetts, worked in New York and raised their children in New Jersey. But their younger son Mike undoubtedly caused his parents concern when he dropped out of college to pursue a dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. Older brother Billy had other ideas. He convinced Mike to move back to the family roots in Texas and be part of opening a food truck. The whole family decided to make the move, and in 2012, the Svante’s Stuffed Burger food truck opened, featuring grassfed beef sourced from the SMS Ranch. “Billy was a healthier eater than the rest of us,” Chris says. “He had done the research on grassfed beef.”
Chris says that learning about the benefits of grassfed beef—and how vastly different it is from other beef available on the market—was a huge eye-opener. “The omega-3 versus omega-6 profile alone in grassfed, grass-finished beef is on par with salmon,” he says. The popularity of the Svante’s Stuffed Burger led Chris and Emily to open Svante’s Restaurant in Round Rock, which serves the same burgers as the truck along with an expanded menu of steaks, organic chicken and seafood, and (with a nod to their roots) Swedish stew and meatballs. And the popularity of their meat has grown, too; it has become such a hot item at the Barton Creek Farmers Market that shoppers need to get there early on Saturdays to snag some.
“I think we’ve taken farm-to-table to a whole new level,” says Chris. “We know exactly where our beef comes from; we take care of the animals and do it the right way.”
By Shelley Seale • Photography by Andy Sams
For more information, visit svantesranchdirect.com