I guess I got started in this business in high school on a work-study program where I worked afternoons in a small locker plant in the big town of Eads, out in Southeast Colorado. My first job was working on the slaughter floor, we call it the harvest floor now, doing the actual butchering of the live animal. So, that was my first exposure, prior to me going to school and learning a lot more about animal meat science at CSU.
This is a job that not everyone can do.
It’s kind of a necessary evil if you will. We’re humans, we’re omnivores, we eat both animals and plants, so there’s got to be a harvesting process on either side of the equation. I grew up farming and ranching, I’ve been exposed to agriculture for my entire life, and have made my living in the meat business and the food industry. So it’s just how I’ve always been used to making a living. I’m just a meat and livestock guy, by experience and by trade.
What did you learn at CSU?
Most of the curriculum was based on the animal science part of it rather than the meat science aspect. It’s a varied curriculum of math, chemistry and microbiology. The things I was best at were probably math related; statistics, animal genetics, animal breeding, and plant genetics. I helped teach both beginning science labs and a live animal and meat evaluation class. I taught swine production senior year as a TA for faculty.
And then you launched Innovative Foods?
We started Innovative Foods about ten years ago. We were primarily just a food service distribution company. We had a couple of sales gals, two or three delivery vehicles, and we were representing top shelf proteins. You know, beef, lamb, pork, and some seafood out of our own leased warehouse space in Denver. But we knew, to be a full service distributor, we had to be engaged in some degree of processing. We started our own lamb program, which is now the Crego lamb that The Kitchen and Next Door restaurants serve. We started that back then as one of our projects, and we realized as time moved on that we needed to acquire our own processing house. This was a long road, but eventually we found this facility.
You’re clearly passionate about this work.
It’s all I really know. I’m a meat guy. That’s what I do.
Ok, so what sorts of things does Innovative Foods do really well?
Collectively, my team and I have got a couple hundred years of meat processing experience. Ninety percent of our business is customer service. We’re providing services for other people, so we spend a lot of time working with them. We spend a lot of attention to detail how we manage and operate the facility because we strive to be the best that we can be, and get things done right. Our emphasis is to harvest only the very best livestock for the highest quality meat, and everything we do going out the front door here. Whether its beef, pork, or lamb, it originated here. Our emphasis is the protein item which is center of the plate. We have a certain reverence and respect for the livestock that we process here. We base a lot of emphasis on the humane aspect of it. We are audited for good manufacturing practices, for food safety, and for animal welfare as a requirement to sell to Whole Foods Market.
Your products have also been recognized in the press.
We’re not very, what you call highfalutin. We don’t have a lot of time to spend on marketing. We’re a pretty basic, down to earth “git ‘er done” kind of people. We operate without much fanfare most of the time, but we have had some nice accolades. In 2012, the hangar steak we prepared for The Kitchen Denver was selected best steak in Denver; and we were written up in the Daily Camera not too long ago, about the Crego Farm lamb chop up at The Kitchen in Fort Collins. The food critic said that it was the best lamb chop he’d had in years.
Describe your relationship with The Kitchen?
I first met Hugo probably five years ago, maybe six, when he was doing some work with Cure Farm, and they were having a joint fall party. Hugo needed some special Loins prepared, so he came up from Boulder, and he showed us what he wanted and how he wanted it done. A couple of years later Hugo sent Kyle Mendenhall, Executive Chef, up to visit. Kyle was interested in a fresh local beef product, and asked if I had any recommendations on what would be a quality beef product. I said, “Well sure. If it was up to me, I’d think about starting with someone like Roger Koberstein.” We’d seen his cattle for clients and his cattle for our own use, and we knew that it was good beef. The real challenge was to sell the whole animal. I think we started doing a beef every other week for The Kitchen Boulder, with most of the ground beef going to The Next Door. Now we do two head every week, with almost all of the ground beef going to The Next Door restaurants, and the remainder of the carcass going to the three different Kitchen dining spaces in Colorado. The whole Kitchen relationship has just been really fantastic. Working with The Kitchen is really one of the fun things we do.
Do you ever get a day off? Do you ever think about taking a vacation?
We would truly love to aspire to that goal. I’m literally here seven days a week, week in and week out. About seven months a year, from July through January, we process six days a week. For this place to run, either Tami or I, has to be here; and we have to have Andrew Allman, our right hand production guy running our production floor. If he’s not here for any reason, then I’ve got to be out on the floor. We’re still looking for one more key individual that will allow the facility to run without both Tami and I having to be here. I think in seven and a half years we’ve maybe seen one four day weekend of in Vegas together. We’re definitely ready for a break in the action, as soon as we can get the next key player here to help us.