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Tender Belly: Bringing Home the Best Bacon

Tender Belly owners Erik, left, and Shannon Duffy.

Tender Belly maple bacon.

The freezer at Tender Belly.

Fruition Restaurant's Chef de Cuisine, Matt Vawter, drizzles the finishing touch on the Pasta Carbonara.

Fruition Restaurant's Tender Belly Farms Pork Shoulder Schnitzel.

Fruition Restaurant's Chef de Cuisine Matt Vawter slices up pork shoulder for a dish.

Fruition Restaurant's Pasta Carbonara, made with Tender Belly pork belly.

Bacon makes everything better, especially business prospects for Tender Belly, started by two brothers from Iowa with nothing more than $600, a 10-year-old curing recipe and a distaste for "pink" pigs.
The Tender Belly bacon that nursed me back to health on New Year's Day actually started its journey to my breakfast table around Memorial Day when a Berkshire pig was born on a small family farm somewhere in Iowa. I was oblivious to the fact at the time, but very little had been left to chance during the entire piglet-to-plate process.

Shannon Duffy, who co-founded the high-end pork company based in Denver's RiNo neighborhood with his brother Erik in 2010, explains.

"At any given time, we know exactly where every pig that we're going to buy is," he says. "From eight pounds all the way up to when they're harvested. We know what they're fed. We have paperwork to make sure they're exactly what we want. And we do checkups on the farmers while they're raising them."
 
Given the opportunity to accompany Duffy and his brother to a farm during one of these checkups, two things most likely would stand out. First, you'd easily be able to count the onsite pig population if you so desired. Tender Belly works with farmers who raise only about 100 animals at a time, a very small number compared to large, factory-style operations.
 
Second, none of the pigs you counted would be pink. "Pink pigs were genetically modified," Duffy says. "Humans made pink pigs."
 
The Berkshires favored by Tender Belly have coarse black hair and need about six or seven months to reach their ideal 270- to 300-pound harvesting weight. 
 
"Most pink pigs are processed at 400 pounds and hit that in only about 60 days," Duffy says.
 
The longer maturation and smaller size is thanks in part to a natural vegetarian diet that consists of real corn and soy, and is completely devoid of antibiotics and growth hormones. This makes for healthier and more sustainable -- not to mention tastier -- hogs. Once they're harvested, however, there's nothing slow about the concluding course of action.
"Pink pigs were genetically modified," says Tender Belly's Shannon Duffy. "Humans made pink pigs."
 
"The pigs are generally processed and packaged on Thursdays and 95 percent of the time we have the meat here in Colorado on Friday morning," Duffy explains. "We freeze some to have it backed up, but generally, none of the stuff we sell is more than five or six days old, and 75 percent of the stuff we sell we're delivering to restaurants within 48 hours of it being processed."
 
The Fast Track
 
Things are moving almost as fast for the company itself. Approximately two and a half years ago, the Duffy brothers, who are originally from Iowa, were focused on their own separate lives. Erik was in Arizona pursuing culinary goals. Shannon had relocated from Chicago to Denver to take advantage of Colorado's outdoor recreational possibilities a couple years earlier, but had gone through two different sales jobs and needed a change.
 
Tender Belly maple bacon. It came in the form of a recipe for dry-cured, cherrywood-smoked bacon that Erik had developed about a decade before.
 
"He went to chef school and came up with this formula for curing bacon," Duffy says. "He originally tried it out on his chef buddies and they all loved it. So we figured, 'Man, people like this stuff, they'll buy it.'"
 
Out of work and with little capital to spare, Shannon returned a gift he'd bought Erik for his move to Arizona for $600 cash.
 
"That was basically our initial investment," Duffy says. "$600 got us 120 pounds of meat. Erik worked his restaurant contacts in Arizona and sold it all. We took the money from that and bought another round."
 
Now, less than three years later, Tender Belly has five employees and sells about 5,000 pounds of pork per week. Regular consumers can find it at a handful of retail outlets or take advantage of the company's Internet-based mail order offerings. But most of that 5,000 pounds goes to 250 or so restaurants in Denver, Arizona, Las Vegas and San Diego, including local favorites such as ChoLon, Fruition and Panzano
 
No matter how the bacon or spiral cut ham or tenderloin is sold, the bottom line is that Tender Belly sales have increased by about 500 percent since 2010.
 
Home BaseFruition Restaurant's Chef de Cuisine, Matt Vawter, drizzles the finishing touch on the Pasta Carbonara.
 
The meat is processed and cured at plants in close proximity to the actual pig farms that are primarily in Iowa, but then it's shipped to Tender Belly's home base in Denver before final distribution. Early on, as more and larger orders came in, the brothers realized they required an actual center of operations.
 
"We became friends with Ben Parsons, the owner of The Infinite Monkey Theorem, a couple years ago, about the time we started needing space," says Duffy. "He offered part of his warehouse to us, so we have two offices and about 25 percent of the warehouse."
 
The winery's warehouse serves as Tender Belly headquarters right in the heart of RiNo, a neighborhood Duffy believes is ideally suited to their business. 
 
"It's perfect for our clientele," he says. "It's a younger crowd that doesn't need all the super nice storefronts. Yet, all the businesses and all the people who live here are so welcoming and excited to have a new company in the area."
 
Part of the excitement seems to stem from the fact that there's still a genuine you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours feel here. The businesses are helping each other succeed.
 
"It's swine and wine," says Tender Belly's Shannon Duffy. "He's in restaurants all the time, we're in restaurants all the time, so we try to trade customers back and forth."
"Sharing this space with The Infinite Monkey Theorem, for example, works great," Duffy continues. "It's swine and wine. He's in restaurants all the time, we're in restaurants all the time, so we try to trade customers back and forth."
 
Trading customers is one thing, but Tender Belly's trade secret remains that delectable bacon and the brothers' ability to execute their simple yet challenging startup philosophy. "We had the recipe," says Duffy. "We just wanted to source the absolute best bellies to make the bacon."



Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn

Read more articles by JB Bissell.

Based in Denver, JB writes about local happenings and far-flung places often getting sidetracked at various points between. He can be reached here.
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