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On Red Bird Farms’ processing floor in Englewood, countless whole birds in bins await trimming. A huge machine sorts breasts by weight. Another contraption zips them up into vacuum-sealed, plastic tray containers—a shelf-packaging method that enables Red Bird to preserve the freshness of its poultry pieces without freezing them. It seems as though all the chicken on Earth might be in this one building, until 75-year-old owner and Tokyo native Mareo Torito puts things into perspective: While his team processes as much as 20,000 pounds of a given product at once, competitors like Perdue and Tyson do two million.
Big Chicken’s methods may be quicker and cheaper, but they come with a sacrifice in quality. For example, freezing (a common practice at larger operations) causes ice crystals to form within the meat, breaking down fibers so that some of the meat’s natural flavors escape once thawed. Fresh, small-batch-processed poultry like Red Bird’s is therefore juicier and more flavorful. In addition to not freezing its product, Red Bird waits 10 to 12 hours after slaughter to debone its birds, a step Torito says is critical. “Most companies debone right away, because the whole package becomes much cheaper,” Torito says. “But the product bites too dry and [loses] taste.”
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Restaurants across 14 states are certainly devotees of his business model. Here in Colorado, for instance, Lotus Concepts Management vice president Brad Manske says that of its properties: “ViewHouse has been sourcing exclusively from Red Bird Farms for the past 10 years, and My Neighbor Felix for the past two years—since the day we opened both brands.” The menus even reference the supplier by name out of pride: “Red Bird is local and their chicken is raised with no antibiotics and are fed with no byproducts or hormones…Simply put, you can taste the difference,” Manske says.
Torito may have been destined for this line of work from the day his parents named him: Mareo translates from Japanese to “born with expectations,” while Torito means “striking bird.” In other words, he feels he was put on this earth to succeed in the poultry business on his uncompromising terms. Whether it was fate or his uncompromisingly high standards, he’s done exactly that—to the tune of about $90 million in sales annually.
In fact, in the year ending in August 2022 alone, sales overall increased 55 percent, and sales to restaurants specifically increased 84 percent, according to Red Bird Farms vice president of food service sales Alexis Ross, who notes that due to supply-chain issues many companies have faced, “the price gap between a commodity item and [ours]—we’re the Cadillac of chicken—became less than it had in the past, so why not spend a couple times more for better chicken?”
Mark Landes, COO of Denver- and Boulder-based takeout and delivery concept Scratch Kitchen agrees. “Consistency of both product and supply is difficult to find when you seek premium ingredients like we do…” he says. “We are committed to Red Bird as a partner because not only do they produce a premium product locally, they maintain a consistent supply so we never have to let our customers down.”
In 1975, Torito—then a 25-year-old enjoying city life in Tokyo—was sent to Denver by the Japanese fast-casual chain Yoshinoya Beef Bowl to help oversee the development of six Colorado locations. The move from a city of 26 million to a metro area of one million delivered a dose of culture shock. “When I came to this country, I didn’t like it—it was so, how you say, cow town,” Torito says. “No nightlife. That was my first impression, but I said to myself, Well, I’ll stick around two years at least.”
Five years later, Yoshinoya went bankrupt, but by then Torito had found a reason to stay in the Mile High City: his wife, Maylis, whom he met while the Panama native was working as a waitress at the Yoshinoya on East Colfax Avenue. The two had a young son; a daughter would follow. So, with the butcher skills he’d learned while slicing meat for Yoshinoya and $2,500 in savings, he started a beef distribution company called International Food Processors (IFP) in 1981.
Inspired by his time at Yoshinoya, he opened Kokoro—a fast-casual Japanese restaurant on South Colorado Boulevard that serves rice and noodle bowls, as well as sushi—with a former Yoshinoya colleague in 1986. A second Arvada location followed in 1998. “I had the youth, the energy, the craziness,” Torito says, to take the risks associated with starting IFP and debuting Kokoro at a time when “most people didn’t know how to use chopsticks.”
Even as Kokoro proved a hit, the shrewd entrepreneur was watching food industry trends. “I did research and realized the next niche item was portion control on skinless chicken breasts,” Torito says. As a result, he purchased Englewood-based Red Bird Farms—which was founded in 1949 and had established a positive reputation in the poultry world—in 1991 from its owners, who lived in Arkansas, and closed IFP soon after. Ever since, his strategy has been simple: to maintain Red Bird’s fan base among chefs and grocery store shoppers alike via quality control, which Torito still personally oversees every day at the plant.
If you choose to pick up a package of Red Bird Farms’ boneless, skinless breasts or bone-on, skin-on thighs on your next trip to King Soopers—or Safeway, or Tony’s Meats & Market in Littleton, or Lucky’s Market in Boulder or Fort Collins—you’ll notice it’s not the least expensive option on the shelf. Torito believes that, much like the restaurateurs who swear that Red Bird’s superior flavor is worth paying a little extra for (and even raising menu prices to accommodate), home chefs will be willing to spend more for his chicken. “I always ask the King Soopers buyer to sell our product high,” Torito says. “Don’t sell cheaper than our competition. I think it’s important to support how good we are.”
Similarly to other premium poultry brands, Red Bird’s definition of “good” includes selling cage-free chickens on grain-only diets (no animal byproducts) and eschewing the use of antibiotics and steroids. But it also encompasses the way the company treats its people: The majority of Red Bird’s employees have worked there for eight-plus years, a fact that Torito’s son, Masaru, attributes to a distinctly Japanese ethic of “teamwork and interdependency.” As he puts it, “I think one aspect of how Red Bird came through COVID maybe better than others is the cultural approach that Mareo brings to his business. As you may have seen, Japan’s COVID numbers have been relatively low compared to other countries, mostly due to cultural norms and not necessarily government protocols…Long-term employees and supervisors [have] created an overall culture that has employees seeing themselves as part of something larger than just themselves.”
And that’s just how Torito has always envisioned things. “It’s so important to relay how much of an amazing job that Mareo has done with the Red Bird brand,” Ross says. “He’s not a young guy, and [yet] he’s still full steam ahead; he’s got so much passion for this. He has stuck to these traits that identify Red Bird as a product, and he doesn’t veer from that.” In that light, it’s worth noting that he named Kokoro after the eponymous famous Japanese novel whose title translates to “heart.” “My business philosophy was associated with my employees and my customers, from my heart,” Torito says. “It still is.”