Denver eateries turning to Tender Belly's pampered pigs

Denver eateries turning to Tender Belly's pampered pigs

Date: Friday, November 18, 2011, 4:00am MST Kathleen Lavine | Denver Business Journal

Tender Belly owners Erik and Shannon Duffy eat Carbonara a la Panzano Tagliatelle with house-cured pancetta, Grana Padano and cracked black pepper topped with a fried egg. The dish is made with pancetta from Tender Belly. At right is Panzano’s executive chef, Elise Wiggins.

Tender Belly’s business model might be called “hogs for hire.”

Erik and Shannon Duffy contract with some of Denver’s top restaurants to have pigs raised exclusively for them on Iowa family farms. Tender Belly then produces bacon, pork chops and other products that the brothers deliver — to be resold in mostly pricey dishes.

It’s not the standard food-service model. Matt Vawter, sous chef at Fruition restaurant at 1313 E. Sixth Ave., said he’d never heard of such a personalized produce service before Erik Duffy knocked on his door in June.

Tender Belly — which has about 120 restaurant clients in Colorado, Arizona and Las Vegas — grew its revenue from $400,000 in 2010 to an expected income of more than $1 million in 2011. And it will expand into consumer goods in January, offering packaged bacon to high-end grocery stores in its existing territories and San Diego.

“What we found out was the clients didn’t even know they wanted it because they didn’t know they could get it,” said Shannon Duffy, who pushed his brother to turn their bacon-making hobby into a full-time business after Shannon lost his computer sales job in May 2010. “We don’t know of another company doing what we’re doing at all.”

Tender Belly launched in the Phoenix area, where Erik Duffy had moved to raise pigs before finding out that partners in a proposed farm venture didn’t have the money they’d promised. So, he worked on a dry-cured bacon recipe, found that chefs he knew were begging to use it and began sourcing the meat out of Iowa.

The Duffys set standards for how the animals are raised, fed and put down. Tender Belly pigs aren’t confined, and they and eat a vegetarian diet, which helps to spread fat throughout their tissue and leads to a better cut of meat.

When Erik Duffy moved to Denver this year to be in the same city as his brother, he started knocking on the doors of some of the most well-reviewed restaurants in town. Rather than just offer a taste or look at his product, he would give them full-rack samples of meat and tell them they could sell it as a special that night without having to pay him anything.

“It was a big up-front cost,” Erik Duffy said.

But Tender Belly quickly found fans. Restaurants got compliments from customers, ordered their supplies and caught the attention of other high-end eateries that wanted to do the same. Today the client list includes some of the most well-known restaurants in the Denver/Boulder area, such as Elway’s, Vesta Dipping Grill, and Frasca Food and Wine.

Vawter admitted he had to think twice about ordering the Tender Belly product, which Erik Duffy estimates can cost restaurants three times the typical price of commodity pork. But after watching the overwhelming reactions of customers to his pork dishes, Fruition switched from factory pork purveyors to Tender Belly in June.

“It gets people to order the pork more frequently,” Vawter said.

Elise Wiggins, executive chef of Panzano at 909 17th St., loves working with Tender Belly because she can order specific breeds of hog known for having a lighter fat that keeps the meat more moist. Customers have noticed the change in recent months, she said. “They’ll say they love the bacon,” Wiggins said. “It’s just one of those subtle changes where people say, ‘I love this,’ but they can’t put their finger on why.”

Ready to expand

The Duffys started the company, which also has an Arizona distribution center, without taking out a loan. Now they estimate they’ll have to spend about $100,000 in the next 12 to 18 months to package and distribute their products, and to grow the number of stores that carry them.

With that investment, they hope to begin hiring more people, Shannon Duffy said. They plan for slow regional growth, not a national push, in the next two to five years.

Tender Belly is looking to capitalize on two growing consumer pushes: one for gourmet pork, and the other for meat and vegetables that aren’t produced and distributed in a mass-market fashion, but instead made without hormones or other such unnatural substances, and by small family businesses.

“I am supremely confident that it’s not just a trend. This is absolutely, 100 percent sustainable,” Shannon Duffy said. “We literally call farmer Steve and go to his farm and pick up pigs ... People love it.”

Ed Sealover covers government, health care, tourism, airlines and hospitality for the Denver Business Journal and writes for the "Capitol Business" blog. Phone: 303-803-9229.

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