Like lizards basking on rocks, Alex Windes, Chad Nelan, and Tom Nalty are sunning themselves on the back of Nalty’s old Toyota Tacoma outside Elevation Charcuterie & Artisan Meats’ north Denver production facility. It’s 93 degrees on this sunny June day, but the three men clutch mugs of steaming hot coffee (Nelan and Nalty) and tea (Windes). Between sips, they briskly rub their hands together and let the scorching metal of the truck bed warm their muscles, tight and cold after the morning’s work: four hours of mixing, grinding, and stuffing 200 pounds of fennel pollen salami in Elevation’s 38-degree processing room.
The trio has developed a work uniform of sorts. Two pairs of socks, two T-shirts, heavy jeans, a hoodie, and two pairs of gloves—first cotton, then synthetic rubber—are layered under the requisite white lab coat, rubber boots, and gauzy hair and beard covers. Their hoods are always up to protect their necks and ears from the cool air noisily blowing into the room; if the temperature of the pork they’re processing rises above 40 degrees, they’ll have to throw it all away.
Despite the chill that slowly seeps down into their bones, they cannot stop, or even take a break, until every last salami is hand-tied and hung to ferment in another temperature- and humidity-controlled room. Even one deviation from their U.S. Department of Agriculture–approved food safety plan could halt production or lead to Elevation being shut down. Just 18 months into their business, they can’t take any chances.
In a typical week, Windes, Nelan, and Nalty will process about 1,200 pounds of salami in six batches. Monday through Thursday, most mornings and afternoons, they coarsely grind humanely raised pork butts and season the meat with organic spices and local wine, beer, or spirits. Elevation’s fennel pollen salami gets its fruity notes from the Infinite Monkey Theorem’s Petite Verdot; its mole version has rich depth from Copper Kettle Brewing Company’s Mexican Chocolate Stout.
That seasoned batter goes into all-natural beef casings. Then the men repeatedly prick the plump cylinders to prevent air pockets (which lead to bursting), hand-tie each with European hemp twine, and hang them on wheeled racks—all from inside what is essentially a walk-in refrigerator.
Fermentation is the second step, when the good bacteria Elevation adds slowly lowers the pH level of the batter, making it an inhospitable environment for bad bacteria (such as listeria) and causing the protein to begin releasing moisture. Each salami will lose about 40 percent of its weight—almost a liter of water—as it ferments and then dries. Nelan and Windes watch over each one like artists obsessed, checking daily over the course of about two months for beneficial mold growth and monitoring the salamis’ color change from creamy pink to deep red as they shed water. Another 30 days in the drying room results in more volume loss as the sausages firm up, shrink, and dry into sliceable salami.
Nelan and Windes would process more if they could—up to eight or 10 batches per week—but they don’t have the time or the manpower. On Fridays, Nelan has to tackle the fourteener-height stack of paperwork required for the USDA, which oversees Elevation’s facility and every batch of salami it makes. And that’s when he’s not reaching out to new distribution partners or conducting tastings for prospective retail accounts. Windes spends that day and any other time he’s not processing managing inventory, cleaning, and packaging and shipping product. The men work at least 70 hours a week, even though Nelan has two boys under the age of eight. There’s simply too much to do, all to create a product that’s safe to eat.
The team behind Elevation is lucky, in a way. Colorado chefs and charcuterie artisans before them—from Frank Bonanno (Luca, Salt & Grinder, Osteria Marco, and more) to Justin Brunson (Old Major, Masterpiece Delicatessen) to Mark DeNittis (formerly of Il Mondo Vecchio) to Bill Miner and Brian Albano (Il Porcellino Salumeria)—forged a path Windes and Nelan were able to follow as they set up their wholesale business plan in 2013, beginning the long process of securing USDA approval. A couple of those producers ran into regulatory roadblocks, or worse: DeNittis’ Il Mondo Vecchio, also a wholesale salumeria, shut down in 2012 after the USDA stopped its production of dry-cured salami because of insufficient proof that its process killed salmonella. Even though Il Mondo Vecchio had been selling its USDA-approved salami for three years, a deeper dive into its hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP) plan brought USDA inspectors to the realization that DeNittis hadn’t gathered enough scientific studies to prove that his process was safe. In other words, he didn’t have the right paperwork, and it would have cost him thousands to fix the problem. The closure was a shock to the Colorado charcuterie community, where DeNittis is regarded by many as a sort of godfather.
In fact, DeNittis advised Nelan and Windes on Elevation’s HACCP plan in its early stages. But Nelan and Windes went a different direction with their recipes, whose origins can be traced back to 2007, when the two met behind the meat counter at Tony’s Market in Centennial. They became friends, bonding during their shifts and in Windes’ basement, where they would tinker with making bacon. “Our friends and family loved the bacon, but after a while it was too easy,” Windes says. “We wanted to try something more challenging.” They moved on to pancetta, prosciutto, and, eventually, salami. “The salami stuff was scary at first,” Nelan recalls. “I was reading scientific journals and papers about pH levels and water activity and listeria lethality…. It was intense.” But the prospect of creating products unlike most other Colorado artisans’ offerings, thanks to the addition of alcohol, propelled them forward.
In 2014, Windes and Nelan decided it was time to move out of the basement and into the market: They would open a wholesale artisan charcuterie company together, supplying local and national restaurants and shops with salami and other cured meats. Windes had moved on from Tony’s Market to work as an accountant, but he was ready to walk away from the lucrative job to partner with Nelan, who had left his post at Tony’s earlier that year. Nelan had exhaustively tested the first three salami recipes Elevation would produce: the fennel pollen, Tellicherry black pepper, and spicy Calabrese. They found financial support in Nalty (Nelan’s cousin) and his wife, Mary. “I spent 27 years working at Lockheed Martin,” Nalty says, “but we’d been talking about doing this together for years.”
Far beyond acting as Elevation’s sole investor, Nalty layers up three times a week to process salami with Nelan and Windes, and he takes on other labor-intensive tasks, too. “Mary and I had to dig the floors out for the plumbing company,” Nalty says. “We moved three tons of dirt out by hand.” Herculean efforts like that saved money, which they used for gutting the facility, a former T-shirt factory, and outfitting it with walk-in coolers, a freezer, grinding and stuffing equipment, dehumidifiers, and antimicrobial floors. The build-out alone cost about $300,000, Nelan estimates.
Those startup expenses aren’t the only thing driving up the price tags on Elevation’s products: Ingredient costs have led to above-normal prices for their salamis. High-quality pork costs more, as do organic spices, all-natural nitrates, and craft booze. “What people don’t realize,” Nelan says, “is that we also lose almost half of our product through weight loss during the drying process.” As a result, Elevation’s products go for about $42 to $50 per pound. Although there are many gourmet retailers in town (and around the country) that are willing to pay more for the flavor and texture Elevation delivers, the men portion their salamis into two sizes—five-ounce pieces for home use and two- to four-pound “large format” pieces for restaurants and delis—to ease checkout shock. It’s a strategy that may or may not be enough to help them survive in an already competitive market.
To Windes and Nelan’s surprise, the costliest aspect of Elevation’s business isn’t actually overhead or ingredients. It’s working with—and, in some ways, for—the USDA. After watching Il Mondo Vecchio close, Windes and Nelan knew they had to have an airtight HACCP plan. “We’re terrified of listeria and salmonella,” Windes says. “We can’t compromise a thing.”
Nelan makes sure they don’t. He estimates that it took him two years—and a lot of help from Nicole Day Gray, a HACCP consultant and founder of New York–based compliance firm AgriForaging Food Safety—to write Elevation’s HACCP plan and get it approved by the USDA. “We couldn’t have gotten through the USDA without Nicole,” Nelan says. Her library of scientific data and USDA-recognized studies (known as “supporting documentation” in HACCP parlance) helped Nelan prove that Elevation’s process for making fermented, dry-cured salamis was safe.
Elevation also had Gray’s advocacy prowess on its side; she flew from New York to Denver to present the company’s HACCP plan to the USDA’s front-line supervisor and local inspector. That expertise and assistance didn’t come cheap—as of press time, the Elevation crew has paid Gray almost $10,000, including fees for her continuing help as they work to expand their product line into whole-muscle items such as guanciale, prosciutto, and coppa. “Consultancy can be tough for small entrepreneurs,” Gray says. “And it took seven or eight months [to get Elevation’s USDA approval], a little longer than I’m used to. Their USDA district front-line supervisor was very cautious, very detail-oriented.”
On top of the initial USDA green light and perpetual on-site supervision from the local inspector every day Elevation processes or packages salami, Elevation has already passed its first Food Safety Assessment (FSA), a secondary, in-depth analysis of Elevation’s process and facility. “It’s a step above having the inspector there,” Nelan says. “They’re auditors. They go through everything—your HACCP plan, supporting documentation, log sheets—line by line. They watch you process; they watch you clean. They swab everything for listeria, even the gloves we wear for packaging.” The process took about 10 days to complete, and Elevation passed with ease; it’ll be four years before they undergo their next assessment.
The FSA behind him, Nelan sits in the spare, paper- and coffee-cup-strewn office by the entryway of Elevation’s processing facility, marveling at how much time he spends on paperwork. “I didn’t know I would need to know so much science,” he admits. “And I didn’t think I’d end up a paper pusher, either.” He’d rather be working in the chilly processing room and watching over his salamis, but at least one full day a week, he lives here, along with more than two dozen three-ring binders and multiple tall, gray filing cabinets filled with pH logs, water activity logs, spice receiving logs, and salmonella and listeria lab results. According to their HACCP plan, they must test the batter for every batch of salami they make and submit three whole salamis for salmonella and listeria testing. It costs them $140 per batch, which, at current production levels, adds up to almost $45,000 per year on testing alone.
Despite these outlays, the endless bookkeeping, and the exhausting workweeks, Windes and Nelan are just getting started. Whole-muscle approval should come in from the USDA any day now; that product expansion will require higher overhead and a smart plan for long-term expansion. “We’re pretty ambitious. The sky’s the limit,” Nelan says. “We want to eventually buy land, raise our own hogs, build our own slaughter facility, and have vertical integration. That way [our product] isn’t only available to people who are wealthy. Right now, it’s very expensive, but if we own the entire supply chain, we can eventually make it affordable for more people.” In the meantime, Windes, Nelan, and Nalty will continue making salami while the sun shines.
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s food editor. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.