Feeding frenzy

by Lawrence Aylward
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Dave Alwan pitches the sharks on "Shark Tank." (Photo: ABC Kelsey McNeal)
Dave Alwan pitches the sharks on "Shark Tank." Alwan says the show transformed his business, Echo Valley Meats.
(Photo: ABC Kelsey McNeal)

Dave Alwan took his spot in the very long line. The owner and founder of Echo Valley Meats in Bartonville, Ill., estimates there were about 5,000 people in front of him.

It was a Friday night in May 2012 in Culver City, Calif., near Los Angeles. The people were lining up outside a Holiday Inn, having traveled there from around the country to audition the following day for the fourth season of the ABC reality television show “Shark Tank.” Some had cots, chairs and even mattresses to sleep on.

“It was like Woodstock,” Alwan recalls.

Alwan, a diehard fan of “Shark Tank,” flew from Chicago to Los Angeles earlier that day to take a shot at appearing on the show. While all the people in line were from different walks of life, they had one thing in common: They knew that getting on “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs try to convince five wealthy tycoons to invest money in their business ideas, could change their lives and businesses forever.

Alwan waited… and waited…and waited in line. By morning, there were about 10,000 people, he estimates. After 17 hours of waiting, Alwan finally got his chance to make a short pitch to the show’s producers.

His pitch drew some interest. Alwan was asked to make a 20-minute video about Echo Valley Meats’ day-to-day operations and send it to producers. They told Alwan they would be in touch if there was further interest.

He would have to wait once again – and this time with great anticipation.

Building the business

Dave Alwas has operated Echo Valley Meats since 1998.
Dave Alwan has operated Echo Valley Meats since 1998.

The 46-year-old Alwan began Echo Valley Meats, which processes and sells specialty products such as hickory-smoked hams, summer sausage, steaks and smoked brisket and other items, in 1998 after branching off from his family’s multi-generational business, Alwan & Sons Meat Co., in Peoria, Ill. Alwan is a third-generation farmer, cattleman and meat processor who learned much of the business from his grandfather, Mason, who began the family company with his brother in the 1940s after emigrating from Lebanon.

“I know the business from conception to consumption,” Alwan says.

Alwan purchased a retail facility from his family’s business to get started. In 2000, he upgraded the facility with technology-rich processing equipment while converting to federal inspection. Within the first year of business, Alwan scored a large contract with Swiss Colony, a mail-order retail company, to process 150,000 summer sausages.

Business was decent, with sales increasing annually. In 2008, Alwan added an online mail-order component to help expand the company. In 2010, at the advice of his peer Wally Mulica, the owner of Belmont Sausage in Chicago, Alwan decided to forego USDA inspection and co-pack his products to be shipped over state lines. Mulica told Alwan that he should find the best processors to make Echo Valley’s products and that Alwan should concentrate on his strongpoints – sales and marketing.

“He’s very likeable and a great salesperson,” Mulica says of Alwan.

Soon after, Alwan teamed with Klement’s Sausage Co. in Milwaukee to process his summer sausage, Belmont to produce his spiral-sliced hams and UW Provision in Middleton, Wis., for steak cutting. Alwan took his colleague’s advice and focused on selling and promoting.

Echo Valley Meats also still makes its own products, which the company sells from its small retail shop in front of its 12,000-sq.-ft. plant. The company also does a solid catering business. With annual sales of about $1.25 million at the time of his “Shark Tank” audition, Alwan saw an opportunity to improve the company’s online mail-order sales of $180,000. If he could get on “Shark Tank,” tout his products and maybe even get one of the show’s rich titans to invest in his business, Alwan knew his online sales would soar.

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