At the National Western Stock Show, not all the pigs are on the hoof...or even on a stick, which is how one of the vendors there serves pork. Venturing north out of the Hall of Education, beyond that vendor and down the manure-strewn path toward the Livestock Center and the train tracks that shipped cattle to Denver a century ago, past all the fliers for equipment auctions and bull semen, we suddenly found ourselves in hog heaven. Because there, tucked into an inconspicuous corner, was the Common Link food truck, covered with gnomes — not a frequent sight at the Stock Show — and a sign that promised pork from Tender Belly.
That's the company started by brothers Erik and Shannon Duffy, who were born and raised in Iowa and have headquartered their two-year-old company in the heart of hip Denver, in a building they share with the Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery on Larimer Street, just a mile away from the National Western Complex — but in many ways, a world apart. Even though the Stock Show is a celebration of farming and ranching traditions at their best, many of the booths here peddle culinary snacks at their worst, including fried Oreos, fried funnel cakes, even fried green beans. But then the husband-and-wife team of Jessica Doerffel and Derrick Smith got behind the wheel of Common Link — "enjoy every sausage...one savory link at a time" is its motto — and started steering the show in a new direction.
We last saw Doerffel at the Colorado Restaurant Association's annual Industry Spotlight Awards ceremony this past April, where she was honored as Exceptional Newcomer for her extraordinary contributions to the hospitality industry; she shared that award with Mark DeNittis, founder of Il Mondo Vecchio. But after health-code hassles, DeNittis closed his salumeria this past November (he's now at the Cook Street School of Culinary Arts), and Doerffel, too, has left the Ritz-Carlton, where she'd earned the CRA's seal of approval. She and Smith, who'd been director of housekeeping at the Brown Palace, decided it was time to venture out on their own and found a truck in Los Angeles, which they got up and running a month ago — just in time to be part of the Stock Show. "It's utterly exciting," says Doerffel. "I absolutely loved the Ritz-Carlton; I'd been with them from college. But this was a personal choice for us — to be able to see each other, have a family and be our own bosses." Be their own bosses and follow a route that so many entrepreneurs have taken over the last few years, when food trucks started revving up along the Front Range.
Common Link is normally based in Fort Collins, where it cruises the breweries and tap rooms and plans to regularly park at Colorado State University, Doerffel's alma mater, come August. But since January 12, she says, "We've been living and breathing the Stock Show." And cowgirls and cattlemen have been inhaling Common Link's uncommon offerings, including hot dogs that are 100 percent Tender Belly pork; mac-and-cheese dogs made at Continental Sausage that you can order wrapped in bacon (from Tender Belly, of course); and bacon doughnuts.
When they're parked in Fort Collins, Doerffel explains, they can get a little more ambitious, offering traditional Belgian fries that are hand-cut on site and creating poutines with "awesome cheese curds" they source locally, then smother with beef gravy made from scratch. "We're sourcing out a lot of local products," she says, naming a litany of Colorado purveyors that supply restaurants across town, keeping menus fresh...and local. "We have the opportunity to try to find the best of the best."
And then Common Link delivers it to an uncommon group of fans that now stretches from CSU to Denver's annual cow parade, leading the way for a next generation of vendors who can mix the best of the old with the best of the new...and pointing toward future possibilities for the Stock Show. This could well be how the West is won.