Erik and Shannon Duffy were born and raised in a small Iowa town, and their grandfather raised hogs on the nearby family farm, so when they founded Tender Belly in 2010, they were returning to their roots — even if the brothers called Arizona and Colorado home at the time. But the pork-products company wasn’t a nostalgia trip; it was an idea born out of necessity. “Erik didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a job,” Shannon Duffy recalls. “I had just gotten engaged and bought a house.”
A trained chef living in Arizona, Erik had received positive feedback for a bacon recipe he’d been perfecting over the years, so the brothers started talking and decided to launch Tender Belly. Shannon set up the business in Denver, but they worked with Erik’s connections in Arizona, and their first clients were all restaurants there. They soon realized they’d need to expand beyond both Arizona and bacon if they wanted Tender Belly to succeed. “When you get into the bacon business, you have to sell the whole animal,” Shannon explains. “Nobody wants to sell you just the belly.”
Whether they were selling bacon, chops or ham, the Duffys knew they wanted to use the best meat they could find. They started out sourcing Berkshire hogs from small family farms in Colorado, Iowa and Arizona, and after a year they were selling enough bacon to expand their partnerships to hog farmers around the country. But they stuck with their principles — “no corporate confinement pigs,” Shannon says — and bought whole hogs only from farmers who didn’t use antibiotics or growth hormones, who gave their animals access to the outdoors, and who didn’t rely on crates for gestation or farrowing. They built a network of family farms and co-ops in which the average farmer was providing only a dozen or so hogs per slaughter season.
The brothers also demanded a documented paper trail of the bloodlines of the hogs to ensure they were buying heritage breeds. “We literally know where every pig is from the moment it’s born,” Shannon says. “We believe in supporting the farmers who respect the pig and its life cycle.”
After eighteen months, Erik moved with his family to Denver so he could work more closely with Shannon on Tender Belly, which shared space and a cooler with the Infinite Monkey Theorem winery in River North. “Ben [IMT owner Parsons] runs a similar business, selling cool stuff to cool people,” Shannon notes. “It was like swine and wine.”
For the first two and a half years, Tender Belly continued to target restaurants, building a reputation for an artisan product perfect for restaurants in Denver’s rapidly expanding culinary scene. One of the brothers’ biggest breaks came when they landed breakfast phenomenon Snooze as a customer, outbidding a national pork company to be the sole provider of all pork products at all Snooze locations (there are now eleven in three states, with three more on the way in Arizona and Texas). This was a turning point in the business’s growth, Shannon remembers; Snooze is still Tender Belly’s biggest customer.
Business has expanded in other directions, too. An online ordering system taps into the retail market by selling directly to customers. For serious home cooks, Tender Belly has put together a “baconology” kit, available through mancrates.com, that comes complete with a whole pork belly, a dry-rub mix, and instructions for curing and smoking the belly. The kit also includes a package of Tender Belly bacon so that customers can compare their results with the real deal from the pros. Tender Belly also runs a bacon-of-the-month club, with more than 300 current members. The Duffys are getting product placement in specialty markets like AJ’s Fine Foods in Arizona and Tony’s Market, Cured, Spinelli’s Market and St. Killian’s Cheese Shop in Colorado. They recently hired a sales rep in Texas and have already landed in twenty or so restaurants and markets in that state, most of them in the Austin area.
Because of its growth, Tender Belly moved its base of operations to a larger facility in Globeville, and earlier this year, the company moved into more spacious offices. The brothers now offer three flavors of bacon (including a no-compromises habanero version with plenty of kick), three flavors of ham, franks, pre-cut pork chops, and just about any other cut between the nose and the tail — though Shannon says he wishes there was more of a market for offal, since “the sweetbreads are delicious.” In addition to Berkshires, the company also sources Durocs and other heritage breeds when available.
Did the brothers expect the business to take off so quickly? Shannon responds with a definitive “No,” then quickly adds: “Our family is entrepreneurs, so I always envisioned things going well — but the response, well, what makes us happy is how much people like it. We want to be known as the high-quality-pork guys. But not just bacon.”
To earn that reputation, the brothers rely on more than just the provenance of the meat. “On all of our packaging, a ten-year-old can read it and understand it,” Shannon says. Ingredients, too, are kept simple and natural. The maple sugar is made from real maple syrup from a small farm in Vermont, and herbs and spices are hand-chopped and ground just before they go on the bellies to help preserve the essential oils and aromas. The process is important, too: The bacon is dry-cured instead of wet-brined, as most commercially produced bacon is. Wet-cured bacon actually weighs more when it’s finished because it absorbs water, Shannon explains, whereas Tender Belly’s bacon weighs less because the dry-curing process (which takes sixteen days, including eight to ten hours of smoking) causes the bellies to expel water, thus concentrating the flavors and creating a meatier bacon.
Erik and Shannon still return to Iowa four times a year, but not to the tiny town of Fairfax, where the town butcher once sold cuts of their grandfather’s show-quality Tamworth pigs; they have no family left there. “The stuff we learned about there, it came back and is paying the bills now,” Shannon adds. “We still go back to see the plants and the animals.”
A generational gap almost ruined small farming in Iowa, he says. His grandfather’s generation raised and sold what they could on small farms, but in the 1960s and ’70s, hog farming became industrialized, and people went to work for large companies rather than farming their own land. Today, a younger generation that includes the Duffy brothers is returning to more traditional methods of farming and production. Although they don’t raise their own animals, they make sure the facilities that do the slaughtering and butchering handle the animals as humanely as possible. A pig will “freak out” if it sees another pig killed, Shannon says, so the brothers only work with facilities that ensure a calm atmosphere for each individual pig. Although the flavor is what ultimately sets Tender Belly products apart, the care and methods that go into every aspect of production make a difference to chefs and shop owners, too.
Shannon is a proponent of healthy eating and an active lifestyle, and he believes that bacon and other pork products can be a part of that when eaten in moderation. In fact, Tender Belly sponsors world-class triathlete Ben Hoffman (who took second place in last year’s Ironman World Championship) and a group of snowboarders who ride for Teton Gravity Research. Shannon claims he doesn’t eat that much bacon — an assertion that gets a laugh from his employees — but says he cooks plenty. “There are worse things in life than to cook bacon and sample it for people,” he notes.
His favorite way to use his own pork products? Habanero BLT sliders: His wife makes them with heirloom tomatoes and buttery white buns. But Shannon also recommends “a Tender Belly un-frenched pork chop with nothing but salt, pepper and oil, cooked to medium-rare, preferably on a wood fire — and that’s life.”