Meat snack marvel

by Steve Krut
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Vermont Smoke & Cure continues to grow as a gourmet meat snacking leader. 
When Chris Bailey was a college student and then later managing organic farms, he held some strong views about the way livestock were being raised, the harm their production could do to the environment, and even what foods he should stay away much so that he became a vegetarian for the next six years.

But today, the 48-year-old CEO of Vermont Smoke & Cure is pioneering a new movement. From his base in Hinesburg, Vermont, he has taken meat processing to new levels of acclaim. Vermont Smoke & Cure has moved to the cutting edge of the gourmet meat snack industry. The company takes its commitment to reducing its environmental footprint seriously and is bolstering the agricultural community in the Green Mountain State.

“We want to grow the business so we can grow our impact,” Bailey explains. “We’ll likely never be the biggest, but our goal is to influence others to do things along those lines.”

Doing things right is almost an understate-ment for this fast-rising entrepreneur. The reality is that in a few short years the business has transformed from an independent retail meat shop that operated out of the back of a gas station into a processor with a growing national reach. Today, the firm’s products can be found in over 3,500 retail stores ranging from supermarket chains, club stores, health food stores and, beginning this month, in all Target stores.

Traditional Roots

The roots of this story go back to 1962 when a French-Canadian named Roland LeFebvre opened a small meat shop in South Barre, Vermont, aptly named “Roland’s.” His specialty was using family and traditional recipes for his products. The small retail shop served customers within a 10-mile radius.

By 2005, Bailey had left farming, earned an MBA and worked in various marketing and general management roles. When he got the chance to return with his young family to Vermont to join a sister company with a mission to help revitalize the local agricultural economy, he took it. That job soon evolved into a role that gave him the opportunity to start working at Roland’s smokehouse and he realized its potential.

Vermont Smoke & Cure offers a variety of meat snack flavors including BBQ, Beef, Cracked Pepper Beef and Pork and Chipotle Beef and Pork. 

Prior to his work on the farms, Bailey spent many years as a professional cyclist, competing in multi-day events where convenience snacks and healthy foods were needed. As a smokehouse manager looking at meats available on the market, he saw that most were not nutritionally sound and they lacked taste. They were too fatty and too salty for athletes so he set out to make a better meat stick.

He experimented constantly in his home kitchen and developed a healthier profile and introduced new taste blends into the basic meat snack stick. In 2010, he launched them in stores across Vermont and in most of the Whole Foods stores in New England. By 2012, business had grown so much that a new facility was needed. He looked at a former cheese factory that was for rent and dove into expanding the business.

“It was a 22,000-sq.-ft. space within a building that our landlord was able to buy at the right price,” Bailey recalls. “We had to gut the entire structure to redo the refrigeration, add a smokehouse, and make many changes over the next eight months to transform it into an efficient meat processing facility.”

In 2015, rapidly growing sales demanded that Bailey expand the facilities. During this expansion, he tapped into the expertise of suppliers to upgrade the operations, including Taunton, Massachusetts-based Harpak-Ulma Packaging, whose engineers worked with the company to design a faster, more efficient packaging line utilizing automated box filling and a robotic loading system. Meanwhile, technical input from Canton, Massachusetts-based Reiser enabled the firm to improve its slicing, stuffing/linking and hanger line capabilities to increase the yield of its snack stick production.

Not content with just operating an efficient plant, Bailey also sought to minimize the environmental impact of operations. He began working with partners to secure solar-generated electricity and the company is now supplied with over 50 percent of its electricity through solar power generated within 20 miles. His Vemag smokehouse system recaptures exhaust heat and utilizes thicker than normal insulation to save over 10 percent of operating energy. He worked with the statewide energy efficiency utility to incorporate energy savings in lighting, refrigeration, steam and water.

Bailey continued to expand purchases from local farmers by buying cider from local orchards and maple syrup from a single farm for brines used in curing and flavoring his bacon and ham.

Last July, he brought on Ross Fenderson, an experienced marketing specialist, to lead marketing efforts as part of building a full leadership team to help move the company to national prominence. Fenderson is now leading the go-to-market strategy for a new line of craft sausages that will include a product featuring one of the world’s most-awarded cheeses from nearby producer, Jasper Hill Cellars.

As part of the investment transaction before the 2015 expansion, Bailey put in place a stock option plan to involve and reward the ideas and skills of his growing work force, which now includes 72 workers. “We pay our employees competitively,” Bailey notes, “but since they have a vested interest in the company, they are even more engaged to help us keep improving.”

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