Quality raw materials are the prime ingredient for success in Erik and Shannon Duffy’s sizzling, small-scale food production business.
Tender Belly co-founder and chef Erik Duffy knew he was onto something when he began experimenting with a dry-cured, cherrywood-smoked bacon recipe unlike anything else on the market. When other chefs agreed Erik's swine was superior, his brother, Denver-based co-founder Shannon Duffy, offered up his last $600, which was enough for 120 pounds of pork.
That first batch of bacon sold fast, and the brothers reinvested their earnings into another round. By the end of the year, they'd grossed $400,000. Four years later, Erik had relocated from Arizona to Denver, and profits totaled $4.4 million.
How can costly cured meat be so viable? Tender Belly bacon sells for about $10 per pound at most stores, or double or triple what most other brands cost, Shannon says. You get what you pay for: big flavor and honest ingredients.
"We use real maple sugar and eleven all-natural, hand-rubbed spices," says Shannon. "We use juniper, too, and the salt's subtle."
Curing is another point of distinction. "Most store-bought bacon is pumped; it sizzles and pops and looks like a wet noodle," says Shannon. Tender Belly Bacon is dry-cured. "We pull about 15 percent of the water content out of the bacon, so it looks like a nice, dry-cured steak and won't shrink when you pan cook it."
The juiciest trade secret of all, though, lies in the quality of the Duffy brothers' hogs. The duo deals with heritage-breed pigs. "That means older, true animals that aren't made in a test tube or genetically modified like commodity pigs," says Shannon.
Tender Belly relies on a network of small family farms based in their home state, Iowa, and Colorado who engage in small-scale meat production and abide by high ethical standards, forgoing gestation crates, growth hormones, and antibiotics.
"We know they people we are dealing with," says Shannon. "These are generational farmers who like to do things right. They could easily change their practices, but they wouldn't."
The Duffy brothers maintain an arms-length relationship with all of their farmers – even those across state lines -- by checking in regularly and visiting the farms at least twice a year. During these visits, they'll observe the pigs' chow, too.
"A pig's diet is just as important as a human's," Shannon says. Tender Belly pigs don't eat animal bi-products. Rather, they're fed a vegetarian diet of soy and corn, and later in life they're given acorns, peaches, apples, and sprouts for flavor.
Tender Belly hogs are healthy, happy animals -- and that makes for higher-quality, better tasting meat. "We also care about keeping the small family farmer going, and about not letting big corporate farmers take over," Shannon adds.
Meat is processed and cured at plants in close proximity to the pig farms of origin. Then it's shipped to Tender Belly's new warehouse in Globeville, near the National Western Stock Show grounds, before final distribution.
"The pigs are generally processed and packaged on Thursdays and 95 percent of the time we have the meat here in Colorado on Friday morning," Shannon says. Seventy-five percent of it is in restaurants within 48 hours of it being processed, and consumers can expect to see it on shelves in less than a week. The brothers snagged the Snooze account last April, and also sell to local favorites like Mercantile and ChoLon.
What started as a regional operation has grown into a nationwide powerhouse reaching Chicago, New York and Texas, one of the brothers' biggest markets. The Duffy brothers now sell about 25,000 pounds of fresh pork weekly, including their special bacon, ham and whole pigs and parts, too.
Challenges: "We are growing fast, which means we deal with something new everyday," says Shannon. "For us, the challenge is managing and understanding that growth, and keeping up with demand without compromising the integrity of our product."
Opportunities: Shannon wants to fatten the Tender Belly catalog. "Expanding our retail products. You can't only sell bacon, and now we're ready to grow the retail package line by moving from bacon and hams to sausages, Canadian bacon, ground pork and packaged and marinated pork chops -- all of which we'll be selling in stores and online."
"We've also discussed buying our own farm someday," he adds, "and a restaurant is always in the back of our minds."
Needs: Partners in pork. "Good people to work with," says Shannon. "We don't own any individual farms; we buy pigs from farmers whose practices are in line with our core values, and we're always in need of more farmers."