Swimming with ‘sharks’

AgriNews photos/Jeannine Otto Dave Alwan’s Echo Valley Meats may be the next big corporate gift supplier. Alwan’s business currently does business in retail meat and specialty food sales, mail order sales and catering. He’s recently entered the arena of corporate incentives and gifts — the gift boxes that businesses send to employees and customers at the holidays. Echo Valley Meats sells steak boxes and Alwan has his eye on competing with the single big supplier of holiday-time mail order steaks.

PEORIA, Ill. — If it sounds like Dave Alwan is exaggerating, he’s not. He’s just stating fact.

“The product speaks for itself, and I was really prepared this time,” he said.

He’s talking about his second appearance on the popular reality show Shark Tank.

Alwan is one of three contestants to be called back to pitch a product or business idea to the show’s guest judge entrepreneurs.

He pitched his idea of starting an online business with his Echo Valley Meats when he went on the show the first time in April 2013, in episode 426.

“I was prepared product-wise the first time, but I didn’t have a business plan,” Alwan said.

The guest judges, or “sharks,” Kevin O’Leary, Barbara Corcoran, Daymond John, Robert Herjavec and Mark Cuban, liked the selection of meats that he brought with him, so much so that Alwan was invited back.

“You cannot reapply, the show asked me to come back,” Alwan said.

“Rarely do we get a second chance, no matter what we do. If you do, you better make it count,” he said.

So he did.

Cuban, the businessman and owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, ended up backing Alwan with $150,000 for 25 percent of the business.

“Mark is still a partner,” Alwan said.

Paid Dividends

Alwan said he values the connections that being on the show provided.

“It wasn’t about the money. It was about the connections, and I knew Mark was the right connection,” Alwan said.

Alwan wasn’t surprised that he succeeded, but he was confident in the business he founded and the product he was selling.

“I always end my speeches with ‘if your dreams are not bigger than reality, you have a problem with your dreams,’ and ‘if you cannot think big, you are never going to get big,’” Alwan said.

He’s done both.

Alwan had the idea for Echo Valley Meats in 1998 after attending the National Western Stock Show. He wanted to do something different than his family — his great-uncle Oscar Alwan started Alwan Grocery in downtown Peoria and his brother and cousins own and operate Alwan and Sons Meat Co.

Alwan learned the meat business from his father and uncle.

“I’ve been cutting meat since I was 11. I had to stand on a milk crate to reach the table,” he said.

In his 20s, he decided to go a different direction. He bought a 188-acre farm in rural Dunlap named Echo Valley Farm.

“I bought it from an 87-year-old lady who lived there the rest of her life. Part of the deal was that I had to keep the farm name, which was Echo Valley Farm. She said if you shot a gun, it echoed for 10 miles,” he said.

Business Idea

He raised and showed purebred cattle nationally, including at the National Western, where the idea for the business was conceived.

“What we do differently is the value-added products. I wanted to become the best in the world, so I went to Germany and Denmark and received training in that, and we started making products for Swiss Colony, summer sausages. We were selling to all the foodservice people, spiral hams, summer sausage, steak boxes. If it can go in a box, onto a grill or in an oven, we can sell it,” Alwan said.

Today, a lot of the product is made offsite using Alwan’s specialty recipes. He still makes some products in small batches at the Echo Valley Meats site in Bartonville, but said it is more efficient to outsource some of the production of large batches.

“What would take me 80 days to do 160,000 pounds of spiral ham, I have one plant that can do that in a day,” he said.

He sources the meat himself.

“We are very specific on what we buy. A lot of what we like to buy is High Choice or Creekstone Angus Farms, and all of our hams come from South Dakota,” Alwan said.

He maintains the focus on his customers, whether it’s retail customers in the Bartonville shop or online customers or the new corporate incentives niche.

“I’m a people person. It’s never been about the money to me. It’s always been about the best product and the best customer service and the sales will follow,” he said.

Jeannine Otto can be reached at 815-223-2558, ext. 211, or jotto@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow her on Twitter at: @AgNews_Otto.

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