A passion to achieve ‘insanely good’ products fuels Nick Beste’s craft meats company.

Led by their sense of smell perhaps, two boys were drawn to the aisle at a Minneapolis-area grocery store where Nick Beste was cooking up meat products for shoppers to sample. When one boy realized it was Man Cave Craft Meats that Beste was preparing, he perked up, his eyes wide with excitement.

“Have you ever had this?” he asked his friend. “It’s Man Cave, and it’s really good. My mom only buys it once in a while because it’s not cheap, but I love it.”

Beste, the founder of Golden Valley, Minn.-based Man Cave Craft Meats, could only smile.

“That’s exactly how we want to be perceived,” Beste says. “We want to be viewed as the best brand in the meat case.”

Beste is on a mission to bring “obsessively crafted” meat and poultry products to grocery stores across the country. He began Man Cave Craft Meats with the premise that people will pay more for better products, much like they do for craft beer and artisan ice cream.

“It’s about making products that are jaw-dropping good,” Beste says.

Beste takes the word “craft” seriously. He knows it’s a buzzword and says that bigger meat and poultry companies are trying to capitalize on the buzz by using the term loosely in marketing and packaging verbiage. “Craft” is about products that feel “new, fresh and different,” and can be easily distinguished from the competition, Beste states.

Indeed, Man Cave’s products have those attributes. Consider their flavor profiles, such as the newly debuted Argentinian BBQ Pork Chops, Spicy Thai Chicken Breasts, Roasted Garlic Turkey Burgers and Jalapeno & Cheddar Turkey Burgers to go with Buffalo-Style Angus Beef Patties with Blue Cheese, Pizza-Flavored Mini Bratwurst and Bacon, Egg & Cheese Breakfast Sausage. “The plainest product we have is our Bacon, Beer & Cheddar Pork Bratwurst,” Beste says.

With its packaging, Beste says Man Cave aims to be “disruptive” in the meat case. Consider the company’s new in-your-face but not-over-the-top packaging, featuring a photo of a burly, bearded and tattooed man (one tattoo reads “In Meat We Trust”) with arms crossed and the Man Cave Craft Meats logo emblazoned on the chest of his apron. The packaging will stop consumers in their tracks.

The Man Cave is getting crowded, so to speak. By the end of the summer, Man Cave’s products will be in 1,100 stores in nine states – Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin – including some big-name grocers, such as Jewel-Osco in the Chicago market, Hy-Vee and Fareway Stores in Iowa; Price Chopper in Kansas City; Dierbergs in St. Louis; Niemann’s in Illinois; and Kowalski’s Markets, Coborn’s, Super One Foods and Lunds & Byerlys in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. Last year, Man Cave’s products were sold in 225 stores.

The dawn of Man Cave

Beste’s official title is president and chief instigator. He oversees 15 employees, all in their 20s. The 28-year-old Beste has a degree in entrepreneurship from the Univ. of Minnesota. He began Man Cave during his junior year … at 20 years old. The company incorporated in 2008.

But Man Cave isn’t the company now that it was when Beste started it. At that time, Man Cave had little to do with meat. The business focused on home parties for men – called “Meatings” – which were modeled after Pampered Chef parties for women, except that barbecue tools and bar ware were sold. Beste recruited nearly 1,500 representatives across the country to hold the Meatings. The representatives grilled generic meat products and served beer to entice men to buy the barbecue tools and bar ware.

Funny thing, Beste received reports from the company’s representatives that many men who attended the Meatings often raved about the meat products they were served, which were basically something they could purchase at any local supermarket. But it got Beste thinking: What if the company partnered with a processor to create a small line of meat products with the Man Cave label to serve at the Meatings?

Soon, Man Cave burgers and bratwursts were also being sold at the gatherings. After a few months, Beste noticed that 80 percent of the sales from the Meatings were from the meat products. That got him thinking even more. Beste believed there was room in the meat case for a premium brand. After researching the possibility, he decided to take the company in a different direction. He scrapped the Meatings and changed the name of the company to Man Cave Craft Meats, with the sole focus of developing a retail meat line.

Getting Schooled

Beste did his due diligence – he knew that he and others in the company, including his brother Josh who was the company’s only employee for a while and is currently its sales director, needed to get schooled in the business and nuances of meat and poultry. So they set about to learn everything they could about what it takes to run a company and produce quality meat products. They toured dozens of USDA-inspected plants in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa. They taste-tested products from potential competitors. They talked in depth about flavor profiles and recipes, and studied what other food companies, from ice cream to soda to snack manufacturers, were doing to elevate their categories.

“We started living it every day,” Beste says. “We read everything we could get our hands on and talked to everybody we could.”

Beste implemented a three-step process to evaluate potential co-packers. First, he asked candidates to send him their best products. Then Beste and his staff would evaluate what they liked and disliked about the products.

If they liked the processor’s product, it was on to the second step, where Beste and others in the company talked to processors in-depth about how to make a great meat product. If a processor focused too much on how to cut costs by pumping product with more solution or using lower-grade meat, then Beste crossed them off his list. But if the conversation was about quality and attention to detail, then it was on to the third step – having the processor run a sample batch of a Man Cave product.

Man Cave partners with four co-packers in the Twin Cities area. While Beste and other employees have learned a lot in eight years, they admit that they don’t know everything. But they don’t consider that a negative thing.

“Not knowing everything about the meat industry is the biggest asset we have,” Beste states. By that, Beste and other employees aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and ask co-packers questions like, “Why can’t we do it this way?”

There have been occasions when co-packers have pushed back on Man Cave’s requests, even saying they couldn’t do some things the way Beste wanted them done. “We thought it was interesting that perhaps nobody had challenged them before,” he says.

For instance, Beste requested that Man Cave’s bacon burger be made with 50 percent beef and 50 percent bacon – that is coarse, thick bacon. When the processor said the bacon had to be finely ground, Beste dug in and held his ground.

“I said, ‘That’s not what we want. It won’t have the mouthfeel that we want, and people won’t know that it’s bacon,’” Beste explained to the processor.

While Beste is in charge of product development, all employees are encouraged to submit their ideas. The goal is not just to keep up on trends but to expand on trends. When testing a potential product, Man Cave hosts focus groups with people from various demographics, including blind taste tests using competitors’ products.

A “good product” isn’t good enough for Beste, who wants the company’s products to be great. Beste will tweak the process until he and his staff believe the product is just right. Beste has gained a reputation among Man Cave employees as “picky” and “finicky,” which Brandon Miller, Man Cave’s southern regional sales manager, and others welcome.

“It’s nice to know how much he cares about our products because that makes it very easy for me to have confidence in the product I’m selling,” Miller says. “That’s something that has to come from the top down.”

There’s talk of building a plant, but Beste is still studying his options. He realizes a company-owned plant would provide more profitability. But now that Man Cave is producing products from several different protein segments, Beste wonders if going the co-packing route makes more sense for the long term, instead of having to invest in various equipment for each protein segment. Plus, Beste notes there are plenty of co-packers who are looking for business.

The Small Guy

To spur online sales, Man Cave began to sell its product at the Minneapolis Farm Market, one of the largest in the country, about six years ago. There, consumers can sample products, purchase them to take home and learn how to order them online. Buyers soon began asking area retailers if they sold the company’s products. The more the customers asked, the more Beste’s phone began to ring from retailers inquiring about stocking the Man Cave products.

“That’s when we made the move to retail and haven’t looked back,” Beste says.

Man Cave's (from left) Colleen Weber, Nick Beste, Griffin Anderson and Josh Beste believe the company's product line will "disrupt" the meat case.

That was November 2013, and Beste’s vision for what he wants Man Cave to be is now more precise.

“If you look at other things in life, whether it’s the car you buy or the shoes you wear or the beer you drink, you’re willing to pay a little more for something of higher quality,” he states.

Beste realizes that Man Cave is the David against the Goliaths, the meat industry giants such as Tyson Foods Inc., Hormel Foods Corp. and Johnsonville Sausage, who dominate meat cases with their products across the US. But Beste is undeterred.

“I think people appreciate the small guy and the extra care that the small guy gives the product,” he says. “Ultimately, they believe the small guy’s product is going to taste better. That’s why people have gravitated toward our products. It’s no different than craft beer or ice cream.”

Cost isn’t the driver with Man Cave. Beste proudly admits that a package of Man Cave’s products cost up to $2 more than a competitor’s product.

“Our driver is the best possible tasting product,” he says.

Beste realizes the mammoth meat companies are now playing the “craft” card. He cites Hillshire Farms’ new American Craft line of sausages.

“That is the epitome of what we are not,” Beste says. “They put ‘craft’ in big letters on the product and charge almost the same for it as their normal products. And it tastes essentially the same as the rest of their products.” Consumers see through such ploys, he contends.

“I think you need to be truly authentic and be transparent with consumers by saying this is who we are, this is what we stand for, and this is what we do,” Beste explains.

Despite its name, Beste says Man Cave’s products aren’t geared only to men. Women are also large purchasers of the product. Man Cave’s demographic has less to do with gender, age and income than it does with mindset. “Our target audience is people looking for meat products that are new and different; people looking for food experiences,” Beste says.

‘This is our life’

Man Cave has matured and its business strategy has been refined. Recipes have been tinkered with , co-packers have changed, and Man Cave’s employees are no longer rookies to the business.

“We’ve created our own framework as opposed to working within somebody else’s,” Miller explains.

Beste has learned plenty about running a business. Early on, he admits that he ran up overhead too fast but learned quickly.

Man Cave's new packaging is designed to show product, not hide it in a box.

“This is our baby,” Beste says of the company. “We just don’t work for Man Cave. This is our life.”

Josh Beste says it’s exciting to be a part of a company where everyone can lend their creative input and direct where the business is heading. “It’s what gets you up in the morning,” the 26-year-old adds. “We’re writing our own story.”

Beste says members of Man Cave’s investment group, who consist of Twin cities-area business people with food industry experience, has high hopes for the brand and the company. They have invested about $2.5 million in the company.

“More than anything they give us confidence that we’re on the right track,” Beste says. “Their optimism for what we’re doing makes us try that much harder.”

Joel Conner, CEO of Bellisio Foods in Minneapolis, is chairman of the board of Man Cave and an investor. The food industry veteran didn’t hesitate to put his money where his mouth is when it came to financially backing the venture.

“It’s hard not to be attracted to Nick and his team,” Conner says. “They’re smart, energetic and creative, and they move forward with great sincerity and without ego. They are to the meat business what craft beer is to the beer business. I think they will revolutionize the meat business. The brand isn’t something the big food companies could or would do. It’s too edgy.”

Man Cave’s goal is to achieve $100 million in sales by 2020. It’s a bold target, but bold is Man Cave’s marching order.

Beste expects sales of about $5 to $8 million this year. Sales in 2014 were just over $1 million. Beste believes the company will meet its five-year goal based on current retailer and consumer demand.

“I think it can happen faster than that,” Conner says. “I know that sounds ambitious, but I think it’s very possible. It will be fun to watch.”

Beste vows never to measure the company’s success in terms of revenue and sales, however.

“We want to have the highest consumer satisfaction of any food brand in the country,” Beste says.

The boy in the Minneapolis supermarket will attest to that.