Chickens are soulful animals, Phil Tompkins says.
“They walk up to you and talk to you,” he says. “They want to interact with you. They’re like a cat or dog, except they’re a chicken.”
That vision of affability, along with the animal’s more obvious role in the food chain, is one of the reasons that Tompkins and his wife, Jenn, who describe themselves as homesteaders living in western Pennsylvania, decided earlier this year to start a business called Rent the Chicken. For $350, the couple will deliver to customers a pair of egg-laying hens, a coop, a supply of food and a water dish for a rental period typically lasting from May through November.
Rent the Chicken is one of a handful of backyard-chicken rental businesses that have cropped up in states around the country, including Michigan, Massachusetts and Maryland. They join what is known as the sharing economy, a growing category estimated at $3.5 billion that includes companies offering products or services without transferring ownership.
Most such businesses fall into two categories. There are so-called peer-to-peer businesses, like Airbnb, RelayRides and SnapGoods, which allow people to rent out their houses, cars or just about any other possession they might not be using for a short time. And there are those like Rent the Chicken and the couture-rental service Rent the Runway that follow a more traditional model in which a business owner buys goods and rents them out.
The enthusiasm for backyard chickens grew partly out of the local food movement.
For those who think the best way to ensure high-quality ingredients is to oversee the growing process personally, tending to egg-laying chickens seems a fairly natural extension of cultivating gardens.
As their ranks have swelled, hen tenders have received online advice from sites like BackYard Chickens, a service that helped popularize urban poultry and which has a thriving message board (nearly 900,000 posts on incubating and hatching eggs alone). But even with all this information, many newcomers don’t truly understand what chicken-rearing entails.
“You saw people on Craigslist who had these chickens they were trying to get rid of,” says Leslie Suitor, co-owner of Rent-A-Chicken, a business based in Traverse City, Mich., that has no connection to Rent the Chicken in Pennsylvania. “They didn’t know what they were doing.”
Suitor, who founded her company in 2009 with her husband, Mark, saw several problems bedeviling chicken owners. One was that they were often accidentally buying rooster chicks, which, of course, did not produce the desired eggs and made a disquieting noise. Some owners also incorrectly assumed that they would start eating organic, farm-fresh eggs for breakfast the morning after they brought home chicks, not realizing it can take several months or more for hens to mature and begin producing them.
Suitor’s company avoided these problems by delivering only hens in their egg-laying prime.
“They get the payback right away,” she says, adding that many customers grow attached to the rental birds and eventually buy them at $20 each.
Renting-to-own is not the most economical approach to raising hens. Building a coop and buying a pair of chicks from a feed store can run as little as $100 to $200 by some estimates — less expensive than a summerlong rental. The point, however, is not to save money but to test a risky purchase before making a commitment.
As Tompkins of Rent the Chicken puts it, “We allow someone to chicken out if they don’t want the chickens.”
The chicken-rental companies also provide expertise. “Our customers can read all the books and learn it on their own,” says Douglas Cook, education director of Land’s Sake farm in Weston, Mass., which rents for two-week terms, “but they want somebody like me who can answer all their questions and talk them through the whole thing as a coach.”
The Tompkinses operate in the Pittsburgh area, and the Suitors cover a roughly 100-mile radius from Traverse City, but both routinely receive requests from around the country.
Because hens can’t be shipped very humanely or economically over long distances, the Suitors will begin licensing the Rent-A-Chicken name to farms in other parts of Michigan and in Illinois for a small fee. By next spring, they hope to extend their reach into the Chicago and Detroit areas, among others, via these partnerships. (Not all cities and counties permit chickens, so prospective customers should check local laws before ordering.)
This licensing model is a reasonable approach, says Arun Sundararajan, a professor in the Stern School of Business at New York University who studies the sharing economy. But it’s susceptible to problems.
“They run a higher risk of bad consumer experiences,” he says.
This is because the partner farms may have excellent chicken-raising skills but may lack customer service abilities.
“It’s likely to be a new consumption experience for most people,” he says, “so you have to hold their hands.”
Customer service has been a top priority for Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss, founders of Rent the Runway, which also offers a nontraditional service: clothing rentals. The role of their customer service specialists has changed over the past four years from explaining renting logistics to offering fashion advice and pep talks.
“We’ve found this kind of hand-held service is really what a customer needs to build comfort and trust,” Fleiss says.
She and Hyman, like others in the sharing economy, see themselves as providing an experience, rather than just a dress or necklace. That’s true of the backyard chicken business as well.
“We’re in this new age where it’s gone from the accumulation of things to the accumulation of experiences,” as Hyman sees it. “If it’s more efficient to rent a certain portion of your barnyard animals or your clothing or furniture, you’re going to do that. If you don’t need more items to create those experiences for you, you’re probably not going to buy them.”