Some folks claim, with a grin, that bacon is one of the four major food groups. Certainly, the success of one local company might tend to support that opinion. Tender Belly, headquartered in Denver, has achieved a level of popularity that any business would envy. Co-founders and brothers Erik and Shannon Duffy started their enterprise in 2010 at the height of the recession, so the timing was not auspicious.
According to owner Shannon, “Erik and I were both out of jobs and tired of working for other people.” Erik says, “I had dreams of raising pigs and selling pork. I started making bacon on my own. It came to two directions—we could go on our own, or work for someone.” Erik had been experimenting with bacon recipes. “I played around with it in my garage, like Steve Jobs. I gave it to some of my chef buddies and got positive feedback. So, we said, “Let’s sell some bacon!”
Erik’s background consisted of training at a culinary school and working as a chef in Arizona and then Colorado. As for Shannon, well, “I bussed tables at Outback Steakhouse,” he quips. In fact, he had been managing global accounts and selling IT hardware and software as well as selling building supplies before the economic downturn.
But these are Iowa farm boys, and they know their way around the animal business. “Our grandfather and uncles were in the hog business,” says Erik, so they knew where to start. “We started beatin’ the phones, taking trips to Iowa to sample products. It was a ton of research and time to figure out who we wanted to work with,” says Shannon. They knew they could not sell just bacon, because you need to get the whole animal—and utilize it. They started with one hog farmer in Arizona. Now they buy from 250 family farms in several states across the central and southwestern U.S.
The farmers they buy from have been raising pigs for generations, and are dedicated to doing things right. These hogs are raised in the best of conditions: Access to the outdoors; No crates; All-vegetarian diets with plenty of water; No antibiotics, growth hormones or animal by-products; humane transportation. Erik explains, “We use heritage-grade animals—these guys are the real deal. It takes 3 to 4 months longer to get to market, which means the farmers have more work, more expense. There’s more chance for the animal to get sick. But slower tastes better.”
So just what are heritage-grade animals? The two breeds described on their website are Berkshire and Duroc. For Berkshire, the flavor and texture of this pork is what sets it apart. It’s best described as having a distinctive, rich, buttery taste with unparalleled juiciness, tenderness and depth of flavor. Duroc is a hardy breed, happy and healthy in cold and warm climates. The meat is typically dark red and maintains lots of moisture for good fat marbling. The hogs are never put in farrowing or gestation crates, and they have a quality vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and hormones.
Sustainability is another important factor. The farms the brothers choose are close to processing plants to cut down on transportation. They promote sustainable feed, and select farms that rotate crops annually. They ship their products in insulated, biodegradable wrapping, and continually look for ways to improve. “Nose to tail” is defined on the website: “Every animal’s life is precious, so we try to sell the whole hog whenever possible. We believe in waste not, want not, so we use every piece of the pig—nose to tail. It keeps us creative and at the forefront of the culinary scene.”
Erik adds to this, saying, “One bad day is our goal. We want them to have just one bad day! They have access to sunshine, dirt, they get to root, to be what a pig is supposed to be. They are not confined.”
One of their signature offerings is the “Bacon Every Month Club,” a sure hit for those who can’t be without this staple. According to Shannon, “It’s an option for people, and it was a natural thing to do. We wanted to get the product to the people. We started with only one flavor. We now have Signature, Habanero, No Sugar, and we just came out with the coffee flavor, Java Blend.” They start with a dry-rub of fresh ingredients and is slow-cured for a full 12 days, a process that nets rave reviews from users. Of course, all your other favorite cuts are available—racks, loins, tenderloin, porterhouse, fresh ham and more.
The restaurants that use their pork are too numerous to mention. They sell to about 1,000 establishments in the U.S., and about 100 retail locations, mostly in the southwest U.S.
There are a few points they would like readers and customers to know. “We could have grown faster, but we’re doing it our way,” Erik says. “We’re real. We’re doing exactly what we want and how we want to do it, and we’re not compromising in any way.”
Retail Locations: Listed on the website include Tony’s Markets and Alfalfa’s Markets among several others. The list is updated regularly.
Restaurants: Where Tender Belly Pork products are served are also listed on the website.
Products: Bacon (of course), hams, franks, sausages, pancetta, prosciutto, uncured ham, unfrenched ribs, belly, strip loin, tenderloin, St. Louis ribs, and—the whole hog. Prices start at about $9.95 per pound for some items.
Tender Belly: Supports athletes like professional triathlete Ben Hoffman, professional skier Dash Longe, and kart racer Nolan Payne, among many others.
Joy Lawrance is a freelance writer in Golden. She writes regularly for the New West family of publications. And she loves bacon.
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