2018 INC. 5000 RANK: 2973
HEADQUARTERS: Denver, CO
YEAR FOUNDED: 2010
2017 REVENUE: $9.8 million
Brothers Shannon and Erik Duffy started their pork products company, Tender Belly, when both were out of work; Shannon was a building-supply salesman and Erik a trained chef. What they had was Erik's bacon recipe, which he had developed in culinary school. "We put all our eggs in one basket and said, 'We're going to start a bacon company,'" recalls Shannon, Tender Belly's CEO. Their prices (starting at $14.75 a pound online) are about three times those of brand-name competitors. By educating consumers on the virtues of their bacon--it's flavored with, among other things, juniper berries, and shrinks less when cooked because the brining fluid has been removed--and by snagging celebrity-chef endorsements, their pigs are really paying off.
1. Market With Word of (Famous) Mouth
Erik worked his connections in the culinary community to get Tender Belly products into some of the hottest restaurants in the West. Chefs like Paul Qui at Qui, in Austin, and Alex Seidel at Mercantile Dining & Provisions, in Denver, began featuring the Duffys' pork products in their dishes and putting the trademarked Tender Belly name on their menus. "That's been a huge, huge thing," Shannon says of the chef endorsements. "People saw us, we had some local press right away, and people started asking, 'Where can we get it?'" Today, sales to restaurants bring in 80 percent of revenue; grocery stores contribute 15 percent, and direct sales via the website make up the remaining 5 percent.
2. Justify the Premium
Tender Belly works to maintain a product standard that it believes surpasses that of competitors--and justifies premium pricing. It sources 100 percent vegetarian-fed pigs from family-owned farms, cures the meat with Vermont maple sugar, and uses cherrywood for smoking. Stores initially questioned the price point, Shannon says, "but after they tasted the meat, they just saw why it was going to be more expensive." Tender Belly uses its website and email newsletter to educate consumers on why its products are worth more. It also provides a list of talking points for chefs and wait staff at restaurants that have its meat on the menu, a strategy to help build the brand with food nerds, Tender Belly's target market.
3. Make It a Lifestyle
To further boost consumer demand, Tender Belly markets its products as part of a fun lifestyle, not just as food. The company uses in-your-face fonts and bold statements on its packaging and website ("Our Tender Belly piggies are the best on the market," says the latter. "So, pork you"). Karaoke videos on its YouTube channel feature employees literally singing the praises of Tender Belly bacon and ham, and the company partnered with the Colorado Lottery to promote a Bacon for Life contest (with bacon-scented scratch tickets). The company also offers a Bacon Every Month Club. "It's a new twist on the meat industry," says Shannon. "Instead of just putting a barn on our packaging, we're trying to make our product fun."