Innovative took fire as an opportunity to return with an expanded facility
Dave and Tami Ellicott can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. The couple’s custom meat processing facility, Innovative Foods in Evans, Colo., was heavily damaged after the smokehouse portion of the facility caught fire on April 17, 2020. They anticipate a May opening of their new facility which triples the previous facility’s size.
In the early 2000s, Dave Ellicott partnered with other investors to begin the search for a meat processing facility. With their pencils incredibly sharp, the group found themselves on a long and sometimes discouraging hunt for a facility. Finally, in 2007, the facility was solidified and Innovative Investors, LLC entered the USDA inspected custom processing business and Innovative Foods opened for business.
The Ellicotts, who operate the facility, started small by custom harvesting for local producers in addition to retail and then to wholesale customers. In the beginning, Innovative Foods was operating with just a handful of employees and steadily grew to capacity within several years, employing over 25 workers.
When the April fire left the building out of commission, they were able to lease Colorado State University’s newly constructed facility one day per week, a decision that had to come directly from the CSU Board of Governors and other university executives. Innovative has a long and positive relationship with the university with about 12 years of cooperation to supply the university with training and processing services until the new facility was completed at the university. After 14 months, they moved back on site in Evans and processed two and a half days per week, flipped the facility and harvested two and a half days per week. The workflow is labor intensive and runs at only about 40% of their previous capacity, but Ellicott said they’re grateful to be running.
A HARD RECOVERY
“Everything we’ve been doing for the past year and a half has been really hard,” he said. “We’re thankful for a lot of things along the way. One is that no one was hurt in the fire, including the first responders. We know this has been incredibly inconvenient for many of our custom processing base, but we will recover to a significantly expanded capacity when construction is complete in a few months.”
The processing building was lost, though the harvest floor remained intact, as did the outdoor cold storage units. There was a long list of items to check off from financing to permits to design and more as part of the rebuilding process, including working closely with the City of Evans, who Ellicott said were supportive and helpful.
Ellicott said most of their employees have stuck with them and endured the complicated processing — which is about half the capacity and twice the work — to get to easier and more efficient days ahead, even through the complications dealt by Covid restrictions. He said the core group of employees have been stellar in overcoming challenges to serve the local and regional livestock industry and consumers alike. Prior to the fire, Innovative was processing about 50 head of cattle weekly, 90 hogs, 50 head of sheep and goats, and a handful of specialty species like bison and yak.
“There have been many customers we haven’t been able to accommodate and they’re taking their livestock to Wyoming and Nebraska and Kansas, and Texas, and some even over to Utah just to get processing services,” he said. “I think we’re about the largest small plant in Colorado so when we couldn’t produce for a couple of months, it put everybody else on tilt and nobody was prepared or had room to accommodate the overflow, so it pushed people outside of Colorado in droves.”
The Innovative crew is, as many processors are, still working through packed schedules and waiting lists for appointments. It changed how the retail business was conducted, though they never stopped accommodating customers, hand selecting products and compiling orders. Once the new facility — with an expanded retail space — is online, processing openings may open up but Tami Ellicott said that will take time. They anticipate completion of construction by mid summer and to be fully operational on an expanded basis by early fall 2022 to correct the backlog that has materialized over the past couple of years.
“We’re pretty good at what we do but with this new facility, we’re going to have to walk before we can run,” she said.
THE NEW PLANT
The new facility will be over 12,500 square feet, triple the previous size. The basic processing capacity will be increased 150 to 175% with a state-of-the-art food safety design for smoking, chilling, cutting, and boxing all in separate rooms all on the clean side of the building. The potential for customers to have value-added products produced under their own label will open up new revenue opportunities for protein producers in the region. An extended retail area on site will also provide a service for consumers locally. The increased capacity will also likely bring additional jobs and the thoughtful design and efficiencies will make those jobs more enjoyable.
“A brand-new building, brand new equipment and we’re a small mom and pop outfit, it’s not like working at the big plants,” he said. “It’s a different environment, and the schedule is more diversified, it’s not a line job of pulling tenders all day. It’s multi species and a lot of different things go on every day and throughout the week so it’s dynamic.”
Paperwork slowdowns, supply chain shortages, and winter weather have doled out a fair share of slowdowns. The USDA, he said, has been supportive and he is appreciative of the long partnership with the department.
“When you’re proactive and responsive to their assessment of any given situation, then you develop a good working relationship and it’s pretty simple,” he said. “You do the right things for the right reasons and pay attention to detail and do the things you’re required to do without circumventing the system, they’re easy to get along with but they’re in charge of food safety. This isn’t a billion-dollar project, but it will be state of the art from a food safety and design standpoint.”
That long cooperative relationship as a USDA-inspected facility enables producers to seek out new markets, whether direct to consumer, value-added products, or wholesale delivery. Innovative is home to Black Diamond Natural Berkshire Pork, a Global Animal Partnership certified program specific to Whole Foods Market in the Rocky Mountain Region Division. Seven farms in northeastern Colorado produce the pork for the program and Innovative processes about 56 head per week for local Whole Foods stores. Innovative Foods was key in identifying and recruiting the pork producers for the program, even making small loans to some producers to ensure a consistent supply of high quality, local Berkshire pork.
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