Innovative reopens their doors to serve producers and consumers with a brand new facility
Innovative Foods in Evans, Colo., is a small meat processor and a family business, something that the Ellicott family never lost sight of in the nearly three years between a devastating fire and reopening.
The facility opened in 2007 with Dave and Tami Ellicott at the helm operating the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected custom processing business with producers, retail and wholesale customers utilizing the plant. A handful of employees grew to over 25.
A fire in April of 2020 damaged most of the plant, leaving only the harvest floor and outside cooler units unscathed. They leased Colorado State University’s facility one day per week to continue processing, though at a lower capacity. After 14 long months, they were able to move operations back to Evans to harvest two and a half days per week, flip the entire facility, and process the remaining two and a half days. It left them operating at less than 40% capacity. That was combined with COVID complications, and the new build was taking place in the midst of supply chain shortages and permitting slowdowns. The Ellicotts, though, kept their employees on at full pay throughout construction. It was expensive but they said it was the right thing to do.
Today, construction is complete, and the facility is state of the art with viewing windows to allow observation and teaching. The new facility, which is nearly 13,000 square feet, allows increased capacity for smoked meats and, because they’re USDA inspected, they can provide value-added products like snack sticks, pet treats, smoked sausage and jerky that allow additional income streams to producers who sell directly to consumers. This includes the anticipated USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service Inspected Cooked/Ready to Eat products for customers to resell through their own merchandising channels. The required Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plans required to produce those products under USDA inspection is under way. This capability is the result of the new smokehouse that is a state-of-the-art design with electronic controls and remote access capabilities.
In terms of design, the plant is logically designed with food safety in mind, from the flow of staff to the flow of products. When carcasses leave the harvest floor, they are moved to a “hot box” which is a chill cooler for the first 24 to 72 hours of cooling to isolate temperature loss and to bring carcasses to the proper internal and external hanging temperature quickly. The carcass cooler, which has room for about 150 beef carcasses, stays dry and is designed to entirely prevent humidity fluctuations so typical of coolers.
The cutting floor, or raw process floor, is the next stop. Here, custom cuts are made as well as primals for retail customers. Dave said production manager Andrew Allman, deserves much of the credit of the quality and efficiency of the processing floor. Allman has worked with Dave since 2005 and, save for time away serving the National Guard and a second time serving a tour in Iraq, he has been a driver of the business behind the knife. His skills, Dave said, are without comparison.
Smoked products move from the smokehouse into a staging room attached to the oven. Employees sterilize boots and other equipment when they check in to work in the staging room. A limited-access, clean, cooked product packaging room with a positive air flow prevents airborne contaminants from entering the room while finished products are being packaged for sale or distribution. Once the product is packaged, it goes through a specially designed stainless window for boxing and the positive air flow prevents air from other areas of the plant from entering the room.
The new facility, while they’re still adding employees, is designed to handle nearly double the slaughter and processing capacity of the previous plant.
“We are able to handle the customer that comes in with one head or 20,” Tami Ellicott said. “We have a range we can process for and what our customers needed was for us to be USDA inspected and able to process value-added products.”
Innovative is the largest hog processor in the state and was able to keep the momentum of their partnership with Whole Foods Market throughout the rebuilding process. They process about 40 hogs per week of American Berkshire registered, double stress negative hogs with high meat quality. The hogs are raised to meticulous standards to participate in the program and six farms with about 400 sows collectively raise the hogs for distribution as primal cuts to Whole Foods Market stores in their Rocky Mountain division. The pork is marketed aptly as local pork. Dave said there are some Berkshire market hogs periodically available to retail whole hog customers, raised locally through GAP program standards. He said the quality of the pork from the Heritage breeds of hogs is unparalleled.
Dave and Tami’s son Matt drives the food service portion of Innovative’s business. With the majority of their restaurant customers operating white tablecloth-type establishments that were significantly affected by COVID shutdowns, they are all experiencing a comeback together.
He said they work with a handful of accounts, including restaurants and some butcher shops that purchase major primal or whole carcass cuts.
“There are a lot of avenues we can take now with this new facility that we can build from,” he said. “We’re finally back in a position to cultivate the soil a bit more, though the question remains what the market can bear. All of the proteins are higher priced, and the consumer is adjusting to that new level.”
Most restaurant customers are experience-based, higher end restaurants and all primarily share an interest in knowing where their protein came from, how it was handled, knowing who is raising it, and knowing who is selling it. It’s as much about the face as the product.”
He said several of the new foodservice accounts are chefs who previously worked elsewhere and moved or ventured out on their own. Whether they’re now at a guest ranch, a restaurant, or elsewhere, they remember their experience working with Innovative and become return customers.
Many of these accounts offer a different menu weekly in addition to mainstay options and have menus that vary based on the season. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, Matt said the demand for lamb is higher this month, for instance. The bottom line, be it for custom processing or foodservice, trust is important as is delivering the service and product promised and expected. With that in mind, he said they work with a handful of fed livestock producers with whom they share a long relationship and who can offer consistent quality.
In addition to the processing, the retail storefront is new and stocked with an extensive meat freezer display, that will soon also include fresh product selections such as snack sticks, summer sausage, jerky, and more seasonings, and Innovative merchandise. The store includes reclaimed red barnwood from a local ranch, a nod to the history of the area and the Ellicott family.
“We knew we would have to walk before we could run,” Tami said. “We kept all of the employees on the full payroll throughout the rebuilding during shorter weeks. We’ll add capacity and employees and we’re now booking.”
It was important to Tami, she said, that as she calls customers who were forced to schedule elsewhere that they book into the future rather than taking the business from the other processor. However, many customers have been forced to go out of state to have animals processed and she’s glad to be bringing local business back to the community.
Once fully operational, Tami said they will host an open house in the spring. An announcement of that information will be available in The Fence Post and on Innovative’s website.
“We don’t have our books filled yet, but it feels good to be open,” she said.