Brothers in bacon
Jan. 5, 2016
by Lawrence Aylward
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Brothers Erik and Shannon Duffy run Tender Belly in Denver and sell bacon and other pork products to foodservice and retail.
The way Shannon Duffy tells it, it was his brother’s bacon recipe that helped save his bacon. It was 2010, and Duffy had just lost his job selling building supplies in the Denver area. The timing of the firing couldn’t have been worse. Duffy had just gotten engaged and was getting ready to close on a house. He needed a paycheck.
From the parking lot of his former employee after he was just fired, Duffy phoned his younger brother, Erik, to give him the news. He also told him, “It’s time that we make your bacon recipe work.”
Shannon was talking about Erik’s recipe for curing bacon. Erik, a trained chef living in Scottsdale, Ariz., was trying to break into the food industry with the recipe. Anecdotally, Erik’s recipe had received rave reviews from his peers. Shannon, aware of Erik’s plight, believed he could help his brother market the bacon with his business savvy and selling skills. Besides, he needed a job.
“When I got fired, I figured it was as good a time as any to go into business with my brother,” Shannon says.
The business began slowly, with Shannon working the phones in Denver and Erik using his chef connections in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area to get restaurants to try the product. They touted what they believed was a top-shelf recipe processed from top-flight hogs. The Iowa-born brothers sourced Berkshire hogs from family farms in Iowa, Arizona and Colorado raised with no antibiotics and hormones. They called the business Tender Belly (more on that later).
“With my brother’s chef connections, he was able to get the bacon into a lot of chefs’ hands that had a following,” Shannon says.
Tender Belly’s sales were $6.5 million in 2015.
Several weeks into the business, Tender Belly garnered its first restaurant sale in Arizona. More sales followed. The brothers used the money they made to buy more hogs to process.
Meanwhile, the chefs liked the bacon so much that they listed “Tender Belly bacon” on their restaurants’ menus. The more consumers who ate the bacon, the more they asked for it at other restaurants. Word-of-mouth promotion did wonders for the business.
“It gave us a lot of clout,” Shannon says.
Fast-forward to now. Shannon and Erik have set up their burgeoning business in Denver and sell bacon and other pork products to foodservice and retail. Shannon says Tender Belly’s sales were $6.5 million in 2015, an increase of $2.5 million from 2014.
There is something about Erik’s bacon recipe that has clicked with consumers. It calls for bellies to be rubbed with maple sugar and eight secret herbs and spices. It is then dry cured and cherry wood smoked – the entire process taking 16 days.
“The way we are making bacon has been done before, but it’s not the common way of brine curing,” Shannon explains. “It’s a little more hands-on and boutique. It has a nice, punchy flavor that doesn’t taste like it was watered down. Erik just nailed the recipe.”
It is also more expensive, selling for $7 a pound to foodservice operators and $10 to $14 a pound at retail. But the price hasn’t hindered sales – buyers view it as a high-end product that loses less water weight when cooked because it is dry-cured.
Erik's recipe for bacon has clicked with customers.
Initially, Tender Belly contracted with a small processor in the Phoenix area to manufacture the bacon. But as the business grew the company had to find a bigger processor. Shannon says two larger processors in Iowa now manufacture the bacon. He would not name them for competitive reasons.
The company’s goal is to saturate markets. Currently, Tender Belly sells its bacon to about 200 restaurants in the Denver area. “But there are still restaurants here that don’t even know about us,” Shannon says.
2015 sales were bolstered by sales in Texas, where 150 restaurants are now serving Tender Belly’s bacon.
“We never had a master plan,” Shannon says of the business. “We have just gone where it works. I know that’s not the best way to run a business, but it has worked for us.”
But what’s really working for the business is the bacon.
“I’m not kidding you…every single time people taste it they say it’s the best bacon they have ever eaten,” Shannon says.
Back to the origin of the Tender Belly name. In his previous job, Shannon did a lot of driving to make sales calls. It caught up with him.
“I got a little soft with all the driving, and I wasn’t working out as much. My belly got tender,” he says. “I told Erik, ‘We should call the business Tender Belly.’”
Talk about a name that fits.