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On the processing floor of Red Bird Farms in Englewood, countless whole birds in containers await trimming. A huge machine sorts breasts by weight. Another device zips them into vacuum-sealed, plastic containers — a shelf-packing method that allows Red Bird to maintain the freshness of its poultry pieces without freezing them. It seems like all the chicken on Earth is in this one building, until 75-year-old owner and Tokyo-born Mareo Torito puts things in perspective: while his team processes a whopping 20,000 pounds of a given product at once, like Perdue and Tyson two million do.
Big Chicken’s methods may be faster and cheaper, but they bring quality with them. For example, freezing (a common practice in larger operations) causes ice crystals to form in the meat, breaking down fibers so that some of the meat’s natural flavors escape once it’s thawed. Fresh, small-batch poultry such as Red Bird’s is therefore juicier and tastier. In addition to not freezing the product, Red Bird waits 10 to 12 hours after slaughter to debone the birds, a step that Torito says is critical. “Most companies debone right away, because the whole package becomes much cheaper,” says Torito. “But the product bites too dry and [loses] taste.”
Restaurants in 14 states are certainly supporters of his business model. Here in Colorado, for example, Brad Manske, vice president of Lotus Concepts Management, says of his properties: “ViewHouse has been buying exclusively from Red Bird Farms for the past 10 years and from My Neighbor Felix for the past two years—since the day we both brands opened.” The menus even proudly refer to the supplier by name: “Red Bird is local and their chicken is raised without antibiotics and fed without by-products or hormones… Simply put, you can taste the difference,” says Manske.
Torito may have been destined for this job from the day his parents named him: Mareo from Japanese translates 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 industry on his uncompromising terms. Whether it was fate or his uncompromisingly high standards, he has done just that – for sales of about $90 million a year.
In the year ending August 2022 alone, total sales increased 55 percent, and restaurant sales increased notably by 84 percent, according to Alexis Ross, vice president of foodservice sales at Red Bird Farms, noting that as a result of supply chain issues many companies have faced “the price gap between a commodity and” [ours]– we have become the Cadillac of the chicken – less than in the past, so why not spend a few 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 offer is hard to find when you’re looking for quality ingredients like us…” he says. “We are committed to Red Bird as a partner because they not only produce a premium product locally, but also have a steady 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 oversee the development of six Colorado locations. The move from a city of 26 million to a metropolis of one million caused a dose of culture shock. “When I came to this country, I didn’t like it — it was like, how do you say, cow town,” Torito says. “No nightlife. That was my first impression, but I said to myself: Well, at least I’ll be staying for about two years.”
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 Panamanian waitress was working at Yoshinoya on East Colfax Avenue. The two had a young son; a daughter would follow. So with the butcher skills he learned while cutting 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, in 1986, along with a former Yoshinoya colleague, he opened Kokoro – a fast-casual Japanese restaurant on South Colorado Boulevard that serves rice and noodle bowls and sushi. 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 when Kokoro proved to be a hit, the savvy entrepreneur kept an eye on food industry trends. “I did research and realized the next niche item was portion control on skinless chicken breasts,” Torito says. As a result, in 1991 he bought Englewood-based Red Bird Farms—which was founded in 1949 and had built a positive reputation in the poultry world—from its owners, who lived in Arkansas, and closed IFP shortly after. Since then, his strategy has been simple: retaining Red Bird fans among chefs and shoppers alike through quality control, which Torito still oversees personally every day at the factory.
If you choose to pick up a package of Red Bird Farms’ boneless or boneless breasts 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 find it’s not the cheapest option on the shelf. Torito believes that, like the restaurateurs who swear Red Bird’s superior taste is worth paying a little extra for (and even raising menu prices to accommodate), home cooks will be willing to spend more. to give for his chicken. “I always ask the buyer of King Soopers to sell our product high,” says Torito. “Don’t sell cheaper than our competition. I think it’s important to support how good we are.”
As with other premium poultry brands, Red Bird’s definition of “good” includes selling cageless chickens with only grains (no animal by-products) and avoiding the use of antibiotics and steroids. But it also includes the way the company treats its people: the majority of Red Bird’s employees have worked there for more than eight years, a fact Torito’s son, Masaru, attributes to a distinctly Japanese ethic of “teamwork and interdependence.” . As he puts it: “I think one aspect of how Red Bird got through COVID might be better than others is the cultural approach Mareo brings to his business. As you may have seen, the COVID numbers in Japan were relatively low. compared to other countries, mainly due to cultural norms and not necessarily government protocols… Long-term employees and supervisors [have] created an overall culture where employees see themselves as part of something bigger than just themselves.”
And that’s exactly how Torito has always envisioned it. “It’s so important to show how much of an amazing job Mareo has done with the Red Bird brand,” says Ross. “He’s not a young fellow, and [yet] he’s still full steam ahead; he has so much passion for this. He’s held onto those qualities that identify Red Bird as a product, and he’s not deviating from them.” In that light, it’s worth noting that he named Kokoro after the famous Japanese novel of the same name whose title translates to “heart.” “My company philosophy was associated with my employees and my customers from the heart,” says Torito. “It still is.”