Driftless Provisions Slices into the Charcuterie Business

Artisanal salami purveyors Ryan Wagner, Justin VerMeer and Spencer Schaller discuss navigating high barriers of entry and scaling into a sought-after regional brand with its own production facility.

In Edible-Alpha® podcast #89, Tera is joined by Ryan Wagner, Justin VerMeer and Spencer Schaller, the trio behind Driftless Provisions, an artisanal salami company based in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Since launching in 2017, the guys have grown the business steadily and smartly, recently taking production in-house.

Ryan got the idea for a premium salami company several years ago, having realized the charcuterie market in Wisconsin was wide open. After business school, he moved to the Driftless Area, a hilly region in the state’s southwest corner that’s dotted with small, sustainable farms, and invited his pal Justin to join him. While working as the business manager at the acclaimed Driftless Café, Ryan met Spencer, the sous chef, who had started an in-house butchery there. Together, they developed a charcuterie program at the café, giving Ryan his salami-making start.

Because fermenting and dry-curing salami is a complex and precise multiweek process, it took some time and tweaking to develop a product for market. Meanwhile, Ryan and Justin raised money via Kickstarter and learned what launching a charcuterie company—a high-barrier-of-entry business—would entail (Spencer didn’t join the company officially until 2021). They also dialed in their brand proposition to convey the Driftless Area’s ethos of respect for the land. This influenced many decisions, including basing the company in Viroqua, a town of about 4,400 surrounded by family farms, and sourcing only humanely raised pork.

To cure and dry the salami, Ryan and Justin would need a USDA-certified meat processing facility with multiple climate-controlled environments—an astronomical cost. Given the working-capital constraints, they felt it would be smarter to start with a co-packer, a decision that influenced the smaller gauge size of their salami.

Working with co-packers on a highly nuanced product is never easy, and Driftless Provisions cycled through a few in the first few years. However, contracting out manufacturing allowed them to get their products out there, first at farmers markets and then at retail. This, in turn, helped them build up their direct-to-consumer e-commerce business, which proved fortuitous once COVID-19 hit. It also let them prove their concept to future investors.

After switching co-packers mid-pandemic, Driftless Provisions caught a break. A space once occupied by a cheese manufacturer opened up at the Food Enterprise Center of Viroqua, a 100,000-square-foot multi-tenet facility. Since it was climate-controlled already, the company didn’t have to spend a ton of money to retrofit the space. After raising about $230,000, they brought in equipment from Italy to set themselves up for long-term success. They expect they can reach up to $600,000 in sales before needing to upgrade the space.

Now, with the pandemic winding down, business is ramping up, especially on the retail side. Ryan, Justin and Spencer look forward to being able to demo and sample again, as charcuterie requires consumer education. They are also experimenting with other meats besides pork and exploring complementary revenue streams. We see many great things ahead for this company!