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Photo courtesy of River Bear American Meats

Justin Brunson Wants to Redefine the Deli Case with River Bear American Meats

The chef and restaurateur’s new Denver company is poised for major growth.

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When chef Justin Brunson opened Old Major in 2013, the LoHi restaurant quickly earned a reputation as a meat-lover’s paradise. It’s no wonder: The focus on in-house butchery and nose-to-tail cooking has always been a highlight, not to mention its glassed-in case of house-made charcuterie that dominates its rustic-chic dining room.

So it was only natural that Brunson (also of Royal Rooster in Broadway Market, Culture Meat & Cheese in Denver Central Market, and Masterpiece Delicatessen) is going whole-hog with his new meat business, River Bear American Meats. Its new wholesale and retail lines of deli meats, sausages, bacon, and charcuterie products is already gracing the menus of restaurants such as Mercantile Dining & Provision, Citizen Rail, and Hank’s Texas BBQ, and you can find River Bear products at retailers including Marczyk Fine Foods.

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That’s game-changing news for your lunchtime turkey sandwich, given that deli meats have been something of an untapped niche in Denver’s Artisan-Everything revolution. (Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in the Highland neighborhood has recently reintroduced its own deli meat program, which was a part of its product lineup early on.)

Another fun fact: River Bear’s products only cost “a dollar a pound more than Boar’s Head [Provision Company], which is not antibiotic-free or locally made,” Brunson says. “I’m trying to run a local meat company with good, affordable meat you feel good about feeding your family.”

To keep his prices low, Brunson had to get creative with sourcing. “There’s a lot of good meat in town,” he says. “But not a lot of good affordable meat.” Brunson spent years cultivating relationships with the local ranchers who supply Old Major, but most couldn’t meet the demand that River Bear’s large-scale production necessitates. So, in addition to a few Colorado ranches, Brunson has tapped suppliers in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. The process of finding ranchers who could meet River Bear’s quotas and standards—responsible animal husbandry, no antibiotic use—was so challenging, Brunson won’t even share the names of his suppliers lest an even larger meat company try to lure them away from River Bear.

Brunson and his team (which includes Dan Lasiy of now-closed Rebel Restaurant and Forbes Rigsby, formerly of Il Porcellino Salumi) also take a lot of care crafting River Bear’s products. “Those balls [of meat] you see at the grocery store? Each one might have 100 turkeys in it,” Brunson says. “Ours is not a meat wad. We’re a whole-muscle place, so each package comes from a single turkey breast, which we brine and smoke over real wood.” All of River Bear’s products—from the near-perfect Berkshire bacon to the deliciously fatty pastrami—are made at its new, state-of-the-art north Denver production facility.

And River Bear American Meats is just getting started. When Leevers Locavore, a locally focused Sunnyside grocery store, opens later this year, River Bear will supply all of the product for its butchery and deli departments. That even includes fresh cuts of meat such as steaks, chicken parts, lamb cuts, and the like, which Brunson says will be packaged with an innovative vacuum-sealing method that extends shelf life by a matter of weeks to reduce waste. River Bear is also talking with Tony’s, Alfalfa’s, Kroger, Safeway, and Texas’ HEB grocery chain in the hopes of selling its products there too.

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In other words, River Bear is a deli meat disruptor, which is just how Brunson wants it to be.

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