Dave Rigo has left Watershed and now captains a growing venture founded by Greg Lehman and two others: Saddleberk Pork. You may have seen the name on high-end restaurant menus in Columbus. Here's its story.
Watershed Distillery founders Greg Lehman and Dave Rigo didn’t know their business ventures eventually would include a bunch of black and white pigs. Before Rigo became involved with Lehman’s Saddleberk Pork venture, he was a bit annoyed with his Watershed Distillery partner for giving attention to a side gig while Watershed was taking off in 2013. He certainly never expected to be leading that very side gig, although Lehman says he was always hovering around during tastings at Watershed of the special Berkshire pork.
Now, things are very different—Rigo sold his ownership interest in Watershed and has become Saddleberk’s CEO. With his people skills and salesmanship, Saddleberk is growing—twice as fast as expected in 2019.
It’s a cozy, cloudy day at Cockerill Farms near Washington Court House. Ripening corn hangs on rows of drying stalks. Cows stare, chewing in lazy circles. Two dogs, parents to a brood of puppies, zip around the grounds. Pigs clamber over one another in mucky pens or stand oinking on beds of hay. This quintessential 1,000-acre, fourth-generation Ohio farm is raising pigs once again—Saddleberk has given it that.
The Columbus region pork company was born from a merging of the right people with the right experience. And though you may not have heard of Saddleberk, you probably have heard of Columbus-based Watershed Distillery. Before Watershed, co-founder and CEO Greg Lehman was a pig pharmaceuticals salesman for Pfizer. He got to know two people in the pig feed business, John Sommers and Ed Hardin. It was Sommers and Hardin, now Saddleberk co-founders along with Lehman, who first suggested the idea for a high-end pork company.Stay up to date with the region’s movers and shakers, top employers, philanthropic causes, real estate developments and thriving creative and startup scenes. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
“We sat down and started talking around this idea that chefs and consumers really wanted high-quality,” says Lehman. “They were trading commodity products for really high-end products, not just in the meat world, but across the board. We saw the same thing in spirits, and that’s what made Watershed successful.” Sommers and Hardin cited an Ohio State University study examining which pig genetics generated the best-tasting pork and thought of using those genetics to start a farm, marketing the pork to a more selective base of customers. What makes English Berkshire pork different from commodity pork is that it has more fat, and everyone knows fat is flavor. The meat also is a darker color—more a red meat that a “white” meat. It’s like Kobe beef, but pigs.
Once it became a functional business, Saddleberk purchased 50 sows that collectively produced 12 pigs per week.
Early on, Saddleberk’s customers included Bill Glover, executive chef at Gallerie Bar & Bistro in the Hilton Columbus Downtown and former owner of Sage American Bistro; Jonathan Olson, a former chef at Latitude 41 who’s now executive chef at The Keep inside the LeVeque Tower; and Wolf’s Ridge Brewing.
At the same time Saddleberk was starting, Lehman and Watershed co-founder Dave Rigo were neck-high in business at the distillery. Rigo wasn’t part of Saddleberk. It was actually a source of annoyance for him.
“The irony of it all,” says Rigo, who now is Saddleberk’s CEO, “is the fact that when he started Saddleberk five, six years into us starting Watershed, it was a little point of contention because we were so busy at Watershed and I’m like, ‘Really? You’re going to go off and start another company?’ ”
“We weren’t allowed to talk about Saddleberk at Watershed,” says Lehman.
Rigo says in hindsight, it didn’t affect Watershed too much and Lehman says he understood Rigo’s frustration. When Lehman and his business partners, Sommers and Hardin, met together at Watershed, Rigo would listen in, realizing his interest was piqued. Another aspect of the pork company that piqued Rigo’s interest was when bacon or sausage needed to be taste-tested. “He was always there,” says Lehman.
Farmer Bryan Cockerill, 55, who works the farm with his son, Troy, 29, says although raising pigs is his favorite farm job, it wouldn’t have been economically viable for him without the arrangement he has with Saddleberk.See more scenes of Saddleberk at Cockerill Farms. Check out the photo gallery.
“I was wanting something, I just knew I couldn’t do what I used to do years ago on a small scale,” he says. “So it had to be some kind of a niche market.”
Just on this farm (one of five for Saddleberk), 100 of 550 total Saddleberk Berkshire sows birth 500 to 600 pigs per year (all 550 produce about 3,000). All the pigs going to market will be purchased by Saddleberk and sold directly to groceries or restaurants. About 70 pigs are born each week (6 to 10 per sow versus the 12 or more from a commodity pig), and take about seven months to become ready for the market, which is a little bit longer than a commodity pig depending on the season. The colder it is, the more the pigs will eat. Their diet is mostly ground corn and soybeans with some added vitamins and minerals—on Cockerill Farms, the pigs are fed corn that is already growing there. Since all of Saddleberk’s farmer partners have another source of income, they are not under pressure to rush the growth process.
Rich Deaton, Ohio Pork Council past president and National Pork Board member, says Saddleberk’s operation is a bit of an anomaly in the pork world. The norm is for a farmer to sell its pigs to a packer or other producer that will prepare and sell the commodity meat to places such as grocery stores. As a farmer, doing direct marketing is extremely difficult. Saddleberk does the marketing for its farmers. “They’re filling this niche that the market is not able to,” Deaton says.
It’s something that benefits both the farmer and the consumer.
“Hats off to them,” he says. “When you go off what’s normal, you’ve just got to be intelligent and [have] a lot of market savvy to make that happen.”
Of all Ohio’s small-scale Berkshire pig producers, of which there are several, Deaton says Saddleberk is the largest. The other farms also do direct marketing through farmers markets and other means. It’s really the only way to be successful with a product like Berkshire pork.
Deaton thinks the shift away from commodity pork will continue. Right now, the National Pork Board is working on a way to track pork from the farm to the table so that consumers can know where their food is coming from. “It seems like our consumers—especially millennials—are more concerned about how their food is raised and the whole process from the farmer to the time it ends up on the plate,” he says. “As we go forward, there will be more opportunities for niche marketers—it’s just finding the right people to fill them.”
Before either Saddleberk or Watershed existed, and before Lehman and Rigo decided to become entrepreneurs together, they were buddies who met when their wives introduced them. They played golf and volleyball together. “I thought I was really good until I started playing with Greg,” Rigo says of Lehman, who played volleyball professionally. Likewise, Rigo taught Lehman a thing or two on the golf course. They often found themselves discussing potential business ideas, neither one of them seeing themselves working in a corporate job forever. They came up with about 20 different ideas ranging from barber shop to brewery. The thing that kept them from opening a brewery was the (wrong) notion that maybe craft beer would die down in popularity. In 2008, the idea of a distillery in Ohio began to take hold, since neither of them had really ever heard of one in Ohio. They knew nothing about distilling and weren’t even that passionate about whiskey or gin. But they became passionate about it. All the other stuff—it’s just science. “The science was definitely hard at first, but it wasn’t too hard, you know, to relatively, somewhat intelligent people,” says Rigo. Having done their research and stoking the fire of their passion for spirits, they took the plunge in 2010.
“It was all fun and games until all of a sudden we had to write a check to the still manufacturer, then it got really serious,” says Lehman. “Having the face-to-face conversation, ‘I’m ready to leave my job, are you ready to leave yours?’ It’s like, ‘You go first.’ It was one of those things that when you jumped in and started going, you had to figure out how to make it work.”
At one point early on, Watershed’s account dwindled to $8,000. Neither of them were taking paychecks yet. “We said we either need to go out there and sell or we’re going to have to go back and beg for our jobs back,” says Rigo. “We didn’t want the jobs back.” So they buckled down. Today, Watershed Distillery generates nearly $6 million a year in revenue, has 50 employees and sells more than 100,000 bottles annually in 7 states.
But in 2018, after about a decade together at the distillery, the two realized they had different visions for Watershed. While Lehman was interested in hiring more people and growing larger, Rigo was more conservative. He says for a while, that balance worked well—until Watershed matured enough that they could really consider which direction they would take with it. At that point, the difference in vision was slowing them down. It wasn’t that they were arguing, just at a stalemate, Rigo says. They decided the best course of action was for one of them to keep leading the company and for the other to move on. On Aug. 28, 2018, Lehman and a group of investors bought Rigo out of Watershed for “enough to celebrate but not enough to stop working on a daily basis,” Rigo says.
“I thought, ‘As soon as he’s bought out, he’s going to be like, here’s what I’ve been working on.’ But no, I respect him so much for being all in with Watershed until he was out,” says Lehman. “It worked out really well. You know, it could have gone south at any time during those talks and that negotiation, but we were able to stay friends. It’s still to be determined who came out ahead on that deal, we’ll see,” he adds, laughing.
The duo continued to get lunch together, unwinding aspects of the deal they had made and chatting business ideas, as usual. One day after lunch Lehman joked that Saddleberk needed a CEO, and would Rigo do it? Since all three of the partners in Saddleberk also had full-time jobs, it was difficult to devote to Saddleberk the time it needed. And they needed someone to lead it that had a good understanding of how to create relationships and sell.
“He called me the next day and said, ‘Hey, I know that was kind of a joke but if there’s any seriousness, let’s talk about it,” says Lehman.
Rigo says part of his decision was made based on memories of starting Watershed and how stressful and anxiety-ridden it was. He didn’t want to do that again. “Salary wasn’t exactly tremendous,” he says, “but we were able to work something out and we haven’t really looked back since. I saw the fact that there was a big opportunity and there was a lot of room for growth.” Because Lehman, Hardin and Sommers all had other jobs, there wasn’t a lot of leadership happening on a day-to-day basis and Saddleberk was kind of on the back burner. With Rigo using well-practiced skills and making Saddleberk his primary concern, growth happened quickly—75 percent in one year.
“It was just kind of on autopilot,” says Lehman. “I think we were right at this point where it was going to go one of two ways. Someone was going to go all in and take it to where Dave’s taking it right now, or it was going to go the other way and the couple customers we had would realize that we didn’t have what it takes to really commit to it.”
When Rigo signed on, Kroger was Saddleberk’s only large and established customer, along with a handful of restaurants that were sometimes purchasing Saddleberk meat. There were many untapped opportunities of which to take advantage. Six months ago, it struck a deal with Heinen’s, a high-end grocery store in Cleveland, and Cameron Mitchell Restaurants’ M began offering Saddleberk pork belly on its menu, using two to three pork bellies per week. In June 2019, the company formed a partnership with meat distributor Michael’s Finer Meats and Seafoods, a Columbus provider for many local buyers that has a national presence. Saddleberk sausage also is in student dining facilities in universities throughout Ohio, including Ohio State. Soon, Saddleberk pork chops will be in Cameron Mitchell’s Ocean Club restaurant in Columbus and about five Ocean Primes throughout the country. Guild House is preparing to put Saddleberk pork on its menu, and there are already dishes at The Keep in the LeVeque Tower and at Watershed.
“It’s been snowballing a little bit, you might say, into more and more, because their product is so amazing,” says Ian Rough, a Cameron Mitchell regional chef.
The company’s relationship with Saddleberk grew out of its existing relationship with Watershed, which sells to more than 1,000 bars and restaurants in Ohio. To be sure, the distillery has helped Rigo generate more than one Saddleberk customer.
“Instead of backing up a truck to a restaurant with a cooler in the back, [now] we’re like legitimately selling to restaurants,” says Rigo.
That is a far cry from the beginning, when Lehman, Sommers and Hardin were just starting to test their idea with a couple of pigs they had purchased. They discovered early on that one of the biggest headaches about their new venture was having to wait for their product to grow up. One of their first potential customers, Kroger, was given a side-by-side taste test with a Kroger pork chop. Everyone was wowed by the marbling of the Berkshire chop and the flavor. “The Kroger pork chop wasn’t bad,” says Lehman, “but ours was delicious.” Kroger was ready to sign. It wanted a certain number of pigs per week, which means Saddleberk had to get more sows, those sows had to grow, they had to have babies, and then those babies had to grow. “That takes almost a year to do all that,” says Lehman. Fast-forward to about a month before the requested pigs would be ready to sell: Saddleberk and Kroger were finalizing details when Kroger asked to double its pig order to launch the new offering.
“We didn’t know what to say at first,” he says. “One of us finally broke the silence, and we were like, ‘Well, you know what, we could do that. But it’s going to take another nine months.’ ”
Rigo says this is still one of the most challenging aspects of his job as Saddleberk’s CEO. The company’s growth works like this: Once it has obtained a certain amount of business, it gets more pigs, even before anyone knows who is going to buy them. As clients become more numerous, this model of purchasing more pigs first and then working to sell them becomes more complicated.
“But we are fortunate that all of Saddleberk’s owners [Lehman, Sommers and Hardin] have worked with Ohio farmers for decades,” Rigo says. “They each have enough connections within this group to continue our growth for the next few years.”
Now, Saddleberk’s relationship with Kroger is in full-swing. Twenty-five stores sell Saddleberk’s full assortment of products, including ham, roasts and ribs. Seventy-five stores sell Saddleberk sausage in their meat cases. Since Rigo has been CEO, the past 18 months, the number of Kroger stores offering Saddleberk products has jumped from about 20 to 90.
Chris Beal, Kroger’s meat merchandiser since January 2018, has seen the growth of this relationship.
“Dave entered the business with a lot of background in business but not a lot of knowledge in pork, or in agriculture,” he says. “He’s brought a different dynamic, and I think he’s helped both parties grow our businesses and really connect more customers in Columbus with local products. When I got here, I wanted to grow the brand, but it was moving a little bit slower. Since Dave’s been there, we’ve had the opportunity to grow a little bit faster.”
Just in time for the holidays, Kroger will sell Saddleberk’s first spiral-cut hams—a honey-glazed version and a Sriracha honey version. It also will start to sell bacon. The bacon will come in hickory maple and a couple other seasonal flavors. Rigo says the garlic and herb bacon Saddleberk will sell in the summer is the best BLT bacon he has ever encountered.
As the year comes to a close, a huge part of 2020 will be about finding more farmers so Saddleberk can sell more. “We’re pretty close to being maxed out,” says Rigo. But, “I don’t see Saddleberk ever being a gigantic company in the next couple years,” he says. “We love working with smaller farms. You can ensure quality that way.”
Pigs and alcohol are two very different things, but they have at least one commonality—they are both part of the food and drink industry, a place where Lehman and Rigo have been for a long time. Rigo says being successful in the service industry is harder than, say, the tech industry, where there are “millions and millions of dollars flowing in from venture capital and everything else.” Another thing that makes success more elusive is the ease with which one can fall too hard into the late nights, parties and excess. “You’ve got to be really focused on business and getting up in the morning,” says Rigo. “It’s a lot of fun, as long as you can temper the fun.”
Lehman loves the idea that his businesses are offering people a chance to share moments and memories together. When someone eats at Watershed, they are probably celebrating and expect to have a good time together. And when people purchase a Watershed spirit or a Saddleberk product, the same thing is probably true.
“Your customers are coming into the restaurant and having a great time; they’re looking for a great evening,” says Lehman. “Or if they’re buying a bottle of bourbon or a pack of bacon. When they enjoy that, it’s going to be with friends, with family around a breakfast table, around the dinner table—the bacon around the breakfast table, the bourbon around the dinner table, hopefully.”
Lehman and Rigo complement each other. Lehman is focused on how things are running—making sure operations are as smooth as possible. Detail-oriented, forward-looking. Rigo is a relationship-maker, a charismatic salesperson; someone who is interested in making money today. The process guy and the people guy.
“The candor that we have between each other, working together so long, it’s really easy for us to just be completely honest without offending the other one,” says Lehman. “I think we see how much effort we both put into something, so we know that the other guy’s coming from a good spot and just trying to move the ball forward. You start a business together, you’re going to have some fights along the way. But we’ve definitely gotten to a point where we understand each other well enough to have those really candid conversations.”
“That and you just don’t have to ask as many questions so you can go a little bit faster,” Rigo adds. “There’s so many times in newer business relationships, especially with partnerships, you’re constantly having to second guess or ask, ‘Are you OK with me doing this?’ And we really just don’t even have to ask.”
The two have made an indelible mark in Central Ohio’s service industry and beyond. Looking into the future, Lehman and Rigo speculate that it could include another partnership. “We’re only 41 [Lehman] and 40 [Rigo],” says Rigo.
“They seem like brothers that get along and are excited to share some great products with their people,” says Cameron Mitchell’s Rough. “When you look at Watershed, what [they did], they’re obviously artists. The same thing happened at Saddleberk. They’re extremely excited to share what they’ve got, and they’re proud of what they do. And for good reason—they should be.”
Working together for a decade also means the invaluable process of learning from one another’s strengths. Both Rigo and Lehman feel they have been able to adopt some of the strengths they see in the other. They agree Watershed wouldn’t have made it without them combined. Now, Lehman says, they are more fit than ever to strike out on their own—essentially what they are doing now. Lehman at Watershed, Rigo leading Saddleberk.
“I see what he’s doing with Saddleberk and I just try to stay out of the way,” says Lehman.