By PETER FROST
On a whim in 2008, Lance Avery hopped a quick flight to Des Moines to check out the inaugural Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, a small event that drew about 200 bacon enthusiasts to a local bar. He remembers seeing men dressed in bacon suits and others with pieces of bacon stuck to their faces and thinking, “These are my people.”
Avery is finding that “his people” are all over the place today. The Des Moines bacon festival? It was held earlier this year in the city’s convention center and hosted 14,000 fans from 42 states and seven countries. As for Avery, the former corporate chef now runs Big Fork Brands, a line of all-natural, antibiotic-free, naturally encased sausages made primarily with bacon that he introduced at the 2011 festival.
Big Fork Brands, which consists of Avery and a single sales manager, had total sales of about $500,000 in 2015 and is on pace to do about $800,000 in 2016 after landing placement in the refrigerated shelves of Whole Foods and Costco stores in Illinois over the past few months. Its annual run rate just surpassed $1 million in its most recent financial quarter. He thinks the Big Fork brand can be worth $15 million to $20 million by 2020.
“Right now, we have more leads than we can deal with,” says Avery, 41, who quit his day job as a food consultant in January to focus on Big Fork full time. “We’ve got to be smart and strategic about how we position the brand and where we go from here.”
Funded with about $300,000 of Avery’s own money plus a small bank loan (that was recently paid off), Big Fork is now distributed in about 15 states both at retail and through food-service channels. Available in eight varieties, including aged cheddar, maple and brown sugar, and best-seller hickory and applewood, Avery’s bacon sausages can be found in grocers such as Plum Market and restaurants like Tavern on Rush. They retail for $6.99 to $7.99 for a 12-ounce package of four links.
He’s now trying to take his startup to a national platform. To get there, Avery knows he’s going to need help. That may mean partnering with a bigger manufacturer that can use its sales teams and infrastructure to broaden Big Fork’s presence or a private-equity-style investor that can inject capital into the business to allow Avery to hire more staff to scale the business.
Darren Tristano, president of Chicago-based market research firm Technomic, says the product is innovative and has a chance to be a hit; but its appeal likely will be limited to a niche group of bacon fanatics. “It’s the type of product that appeals to a more affluent, craft-focused consumer who’s willing to pay more,” Tristano says. Big Fork is “very well-positioned for a bigger brand to come in, and purchase it and build it up.”