River Bear American Meats was ready to celebrate its one-year anniversary in March when the coronavirus pandemic hit and Governor Jared Polis closed all restaurants to on-premises dining. "We lost 60 percent of our customers," recalls River Bear founder Justin Brunson.
But the chef and salumi expert says that grocery store and specialty market sales have kept his meat company busy, including at Leevers Locavore, where the butcher counter is a River Bear-branded installation. Since Leevers Locavore opened at 2630 West 38th Avenue last November, River Bear has become more than just a cured-meat business. Brunson also purchases beef, chicken, lamb and other meats from small family farms to sell as steaks, chops, ground beef and whole birds. And his latest partnership brings him one step closer to making River Bear an all-Colorado company.
For the past few months, Brunson has been buying whole, grass-fed, grain-finished cows from Pasture Perfect Premium Beef, a ranch near Pierce, Colorado, run by Mike Peterson. "I met Mike about eight months ago, and we've been buying cattle from him ever since," Brunson explains, adding that beef sales have been picking up enough that he'll be able to ramp up to buying twenty Pasture Perfect cows a month before the end of the year.
Peterson's ranch, located about 35 miles east of Fort Collins, is only 400 acres, and he currently has a herd of only about sixty cattle, but Brunson wants Pasture Perfect to grow along with River Bear. "This was a guy who was ready to push in his cards and sell his herd," Brunson notes, adding that it's very difficult for small farmers to get their livestock to market in this state.
Many of the slaughtering and processing facilities in Colorado only deal with the biggest livestock producers, and charge exorbitant prices to process small numbers of animals. Brunson says Pasture Perfect uses Double J Meat Packing (also in Pierce) because it's also a family-run business, but he thinks Colorado could use two or three more small plants to help bring prices down for local farmers and ranchers — which would in turn lead to cheaper prices for consumers.
Cost is a major concern for Brunson, who wants River Bear to be seen as a reasonably priced brand that shoppers can turn to as an alternative to commodity meat, which has recently seen price surges because of the pandemic. He says his costs have not been affected too much, though, because raising livestock in small numbers and having them processed in small facilities avoids the problems the big corporations have run into, such as COVID outbreaks at huge, overcrowded meat-processing plants.
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Since partnering with Pasture Perfect, rather than rely on a processing facility, Brunson has been breaking down sides into steaks, roasts and other cuts and making ground beef from the cuts he says have the best fat and flavor. He also uses Pasture Perfect beef in River Bear's hot dogs, summer sausage and Texas hot links. "I want to be the whole-animal guy," he explains. "It's the hardest way to run a meat company, but I think it's the best way. [Buying from small farms] is better for the environment, it's better for the community and it's better for our customers."
Eventually, Brunson says, he'd like to buy all of his pork from Colorado farmers, too, but he points out that he's been unable to find quality farms with enough production to meet his needs; they're either too small or they raise meat in a way he doesn't think is sustainable. He still relies on a network of small family farms in Minnesota for his pork and some of his beef, such as the brisket needed to make pastrami. The pork gets turned into whole hams, bacon, bologna and capicola (among other products), and a new line of dry-cured salumi is currently aging and will soon be ready for sale.
Some of River Bear's restaurant accounts are starting to come back, including Mercantile Dining & Provision and Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder, and local specialty shops like Tony's Market are carrying Brunson's products. And with the chef's restaurant, Old Major, currently on hold, he's putting all of his time and effort into River Bear.
"It took me forty years, but I've found my life's calling. This is what I love doing," he states. "It's more than just a meat company; it's almost more of a lifestyle brand."