By Gregory Daurer | Oct 10, 2022
Charcuterie and artisan meats
When Nelan co-founded Elevation Artisan Meats, he and his partners processed all the meat themselves in Denver. They took on the preparing, filling, aging, and packaging. It was a good -- but laborious -- start for the business, as detailed in a profile in 5280 magazine.
The company made its reputation by making salamis infused with herbs and either wine or beer: Calabrese Salami containing Calabrian chiles and white wine; Fennel Pollen Salami infused with red vino; and even Barley Wine Salami flavored with a barrel-aged ale. "We've definitely had some people follow our lead and put beer in their salamis after we got popular," says Nelan. Additionally, there are whole muscle meats like coppa and lonza. And the spreadable salami, nduja: "That stuff is amazing," says Nelan. "It's really a special product."
But in order for the company to increase its sales and the distribution of its products, Elevation had to look beyond the borders of the state itself. Now Nelan says of his line of food, "It's made in several places, but a lot is done in Chicago and we do a lot of work out in Pennsylvania." He adds, "Colorado doesn't have the facilities we need, quite honestly, to support our growth."
Funding turned out to be the biggest factor in the company's decision to seek contract manufacturers elsewhere. "The meat industry is extremely expensive," says Nelan. "We would have needed at least $25 million to build a place big enough to support us. But our sales don't justify that kind of a spend, if that makes sense. It was a no-brainer for us [to seek outside help to prepare our recipes]."
Additionally, in order to meet Safe Quality Food (SQF) certification -- which "gives you a green light to be able to sell to any customer across the entire country," says Nelan -- the cost runs upwards of "a quarter-million dollars a year to maintain" a facility's good standing. "That really moved the needle," says Nelan, in terms of seeking contract manufacturing.
Apparently the decision is paying off. "Last year, we did $1.7 million in sales," Nelan says. "This year, we're looking at close to around three." While Colorado is still the company's primary sales driver, Texas and the Pacific Northwest region have developed into profitable markets. "[HEB's] Central Market has been a pretty good customer," says Nelan of the Lone Star State. There are accounts at Whole Foods and Costco, as well. And the company works with about a dozen different distributors across the country, presently. "We have at least one customer in every state," says Nelan. "We ship pepperoni to Hawaii."
Those accounts include more than just stores selling commonly packaged portions to consumers. "We make a lot of products that specifically get marketed to food service restaurants, hotels for banquet chefs, weddings, that kind of stuff," says Nelan. Some of those salamis weigh six pounds each.
Prior to outsourcing its production, the company's Calabrese Salami was a winner at the Good Food Awards in 2018. Nelan says of the salami, "To me, it's fruity, light. It's not too spicy. It goes well with anything really. Best on pizza, in my opinion."
Nelan was still working as a butcher at Tony's Meats and Market in Centennial when he started Elevation. Then, he got laid off by the company. "It was the best thing that ever happened," he says. "It gave me all the time to spend to focus on this." Today, Nelan counts Tony's as one of the company's accounts.
And Nelan recently traveled to Seattle to help a distributor there introduce the company's products to different accounts across the Pacific Northwest. "The distributor services Alaska for us," he notes.
Good food mixed together with good people: That's what makes the business worthwhile for Nelan. "You know, the industry is really cool," he says, discussing his favorite aspects of his trade. "And the people all understand each other's struggles. For the most part, everybody supports each other. And we all just want to work together, do good business. So, the people I've met are definitely the best part."
Challenges: "Growth is really hard to pay for," Nelan says. "Cash flow is tough when you're just growing constantly. I would say, honestly, the hardest part is just managing all the inventory as we keep growing."
Opportunities: Nelan says, "There's a ton of opportunity for us to continue to grow nationally."
Needs: "More distribution," says Nelan.