Justin Brunson isn't getting much sleep these days.
The red-bearded chef behind Denver favorites Old Major and Masterpiece Delicatessen says he heads to his new meat-processing facility, River Bear American Meats, at 4 a.m. or so before making the rounds to his other businesses, including Royal Rooster (a fast-casual counter inside Broadway Market), the upcoming Leevers Locavore (where he's installing a River Bear-branded butcher counter) and Culture Meat & Cheese (at Denver Central Market and a new spot at Denver International Airport). His last stop of the day is usually Old Major, where he's engrossed in a new dry-aged beef program, and where he often still cooks alongside the rest of his back-of-house team.
"But I don't stay late — I usually leave by 9 p.m.," he deadpans.
As for a day off, "I don't have one right now," Brunson says. These seventeen-hour days, seven days a week are what it takes to keep ahead in an industry run on tight profit margins, controlled by the fickle nature of food trends and what's considered "hot" and new, and burdened with other unknowns. At Masterpiece Deli, for example, business is down because yet another LoHi construction project has eliminated most of the street parking near the shop; Brunson hopes warm weather will bring more pedestrians back to the neighborhood, boosting sales.
River Bear is the culmination of Brunson's lifelong obsession with meat, as well as his attempt to add some stability to the up-and-down restaurant business. (Despite winning numerous awards, he's closed two eateries in the past couple of years.) "With River Bear as the mothership, I'll finally be able to do what I've wanted to all along," the chef explains.
And that's make a whole lot of sausage.
River Bear, located in a strip of renovated brick warehouses in northeast Denver, is still in its infancy. The company is starting out small, with six employees on the floor making the products, two office employees and one delivery driver.
"I'm bringing hospitality back into the meat business by self-distributing," Brunson explains, adding that he wants to have a personal relationship with the markets, grocery stores and restaurants that sell his meats. He's even peddling sausage himself for the time being. "It's a different kind of business, doing sales," he admits. "I'm out there hustling."
But he doesn't need to be a huckster to persuade potential buyers; River Bear relies on quality meats from ranchers and farmers in a network that Brunson has built up over his years as a chef. His minimum criteria for the pork, beef and chicken he sources is free-range and antibiotic- and hormone-free, and he's drawn toward small family farms where animals aren't treated like a commodity. That respect reflects his upbringing in small-town Iowa and learning to fish, hunt and clean game at a young age.
River Bear's current products include fresh sausage (Italian, hot links, breakfast sausage and bratwurst), corned beef, pastrami, smoked ham, roast beef and turkey, and cured and un-cured bacon. Brunson's first customers have been specialty markets and small restaurants, including Marczyk Fine Foods, Tony's Market, the Truffle Cheese Shop, the Truffle Table, Choice Market, Fruition, Mercantile Dining & Provision, Brass Tacks and Hank's Texas Barbecue; he's also in talks to have River Bear products served for team meals at the Denver Broncos' Dove Valley facility (athletes and trainers care about clean proteins, he points out). Right now, production is at about 4,000 pounds a week, but that will slowly ramp up through 2019; Brunson hopes to double the number of employees by the end of the year.
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By then, he also hopes to be selling dry-cured meats in the European style, which can take months. The facility has a dry-aging room that will hold 35,000 pounds of curing meats, from salami and chorizo to such whole-muscle products as pancetta, guanciale, lomo and bresaola. Also in the works are what Brunson says will be the best hot dogs on the market. River Bear already burned through one mixer because his hot dog recipe creates a meat mixture that's much thicker than the standard. "Making hot dogs helps out ranchers because they always have a lot of trim to sell," the chef notes, adding that the meat is the same high-quality beef he sources for steaks at Old Major.
Because of that, River Bear's prices are a little higher. Brunson says his products come in about one dollar per pound higher than mass-produced meats on grocery-store shelves, but less than the luxury brands sold at many high-end markets. But part of that price tag goes toward waterway conservation in Colorado through Trout Unlimited. "I know that raising meat isn't great for the land, so we want to give back to the environment," he explains. "We can pick a section of water, and all of our money will go to that section." The chef also donates imperfect sausages (perfectly good meat that just isn't shaped right for sale) to We Don't Waste.
Part of Brunson's long-term goal is to turn River Bear into a recognizable butcher-shop brand, starting at Leevers Locavore, an upscale grocery store scheduled to open this spring in the Highland neighborhood. "I'm going to focus on bringing prime meat in at an affordable price," he says. The butcher counter will stock all the standard cuts, plus marinated chicken, meatloaf and other time-saving, ready-to-cook items. And since Brunson will already be sourcing large quantities of meats, he plans on offering low-cost wholesale cuts to other Denver restaurants.
And somewhere in all of his plans is some sleep: Brunson says he'll have a little more free time once all of his current and upcoming projects are in place. But for now, the chef-turned-entrepreneur just keeps grinding it out every day.