How E@DU supported one student’s passion for the business of barbecue and social good
By Nick Greenhalgh
Starting a business takes immense patience. For most, success means lots of long nights, years of hard work and little promise of financial certainty.
Smoking barbecue is similar—but the years of hard work show up as hours in the kitchen. And rather than dollar bills, success is measured with big smiles, messy faces and full bellies.
By combining business and barbecue, second-year University of Denver student Sam Fordyce is embarking on the ultimate test of patience. He’s mixing a dash of passion with a sprinkle of philanthropy, slow roasting it into his own company, Briskets for Betterment.
Sam Fordyce stands in front of The Garage, E@DU’s startup hub
A born-and-raised Texan, Fordyce says barbecue is in his blood.
“Growing up it was always barbecue,” he said. “It’s a Texan love language.”
Fordyce’s uncle is in the competitive barbecue scene and has a souped-up smoker to prove it. Just like the motto states, everything is bigger in Texas, including the competition around barbecue. It’s not uncommon for competing pitmasters to have $30,000 smokers at the ready to whip up pork, beef, chicken and more. So, it was natural for Fordyce to carry on that tradition from the time he could handle a spatula. He began smoking meat and selling it to his high school classmates, quickly growing his operation to handle crowds as large as 300 people.
While some of his classmates were more focused on summer jobs, Fordyce has long desired to be his own boss. A self-described entrepreneur, Fordyce has taken on all sorts of jobs, from running a knife-sharpening operation, to providing handyman services, to guiding groups on fly fishing, hunting and backpacking adventures. Currently, his overflowing plate holds four jobs and a full-time course load .
But despite that busy schedule, there’s always room for smoking meats.
Fordyce is studying psychology, while also taking business administration courses at the Daniels College of Business. In his time on campus, he’s also gravitated to the University’s startup hub, Entrepreneurship@DU, and its director Joshua Ross.
Ross and Fordyce bonded over their shared love of barbecue. Fordyce has high standards and isn’t a fan of Denver’s smoked meat offerings, adding that he hasn’t found any local offering that compares to Texas. Ever the entrepreneur, he pitched Ross on starting his own small operation, with E@DU’s help. Fordyce figured he could use the department’s resources for starting a socially responsible business; maybe, he hoped, they would even help pay for a smoker. If the venture was successful and made money, Fordyce had a plan for his profits. After covering his costs, he hoped to donate the remaining money to help fend-off food insecurity, a philanthropic passion of his.
Ross loved the idea. In addition to the numerous classes provided under the entrepreneurship umbrella, E@DU encourages students to chase their passions, offering support whenever students need help.
“The way we look at purchasing equipment at The Garage (E@DU’s multipurpose entrepreneurship space), if it’s something that makes sense, fits into our budget and other students can use it, we’ll purchase it,” Ross said.
In the past, the E@DU team has bought a wide-format printer for banners, a label sticker printer to test packaging, and a griddle for students exploring a breakfast sandwich business. All of these tools are available to DU’s entire community of students, faculty and staff, so they can explore their entrepreneurial dreams.
When Fordyce approached Ross about purchasing a smoker, he was met with a few key questions:
What do you want to do? How do you plan on achieving that? Who is it for?
Satisfied with Fordyce’s responses and excited for the barbecue-filled future, Ross approved the purchase of the smoker with a few small stipulations. Fordyce must regularly use the smoker, must share it with other students and must cater events for E@DU when asked. With Fordyce on board, Briskets for Betterment was born.
“I was all for it,” Ross said. “I loved the mission and loved what he was doing.”
Fordyce’s first iteration of his business attracted long lines and required even longer hours. He’d set up outside of the Garage from 10 p.m.-1 a.m. on the weekends, armed with 60 pounds of smoked meat to feed the masses. At its height, Fordyce said Briskets for Betterment was making nearly $1,500 a weekend to donate to charity.
“Brisket money is great, but its unpredictable,” he said. “And it takes 25 hours for one product.”
When he struggled to find other students to help support his endeavor long-term, Fordyce was forced to reassess. He still loved making smoked meats and was dedicated to his charitable efforts, but needed something less time consuming. So, he shifted to a catering model, with E@DU serving as his primary client.
“It’s going to be 60 hours on the smoker, which is pretty light for my operation, and a ton of mixing and line prepping.”
In March, Fordyce was preparing to cater E@DU’s Madden Challenge, a hallmark student business event that he had won a year prior. The Madden Challenge is a quarterly competition where student teams pitch their business venture in front of a live audience. A panel of successful entrepreneurs, angel investors and business experts from the Denver business and DU alumni community act as judges. Fordyce was tasked with cooking enough pulled pork to feed 250 people. His menu also featured a Mexican elote street corn mix and coleslaw.
Fordyce’s meaty journey begins two days before the event, with a “light” 60 hours of prep work. Outside of the Garage, Fordyce loads up his pellets, fires up the smoker and tosses six substantial pieces of pork onto the grates. Much like in the business world, Fordyce tries not to let the heat get to him, or his pork. This business relies on the “low and slow” mantra, not rushing anything on the path to tasty success.
“It’s going to be 60 hours on the smoker,” he says, “which is pretty light for my operation, and a ton of mixing and line prepping.”
And, despite the time and effort required to produce his meat masterpieces, Fordyce is steadfast. He’s in this for far more than the money.
Growing up in Houston, Fordyce became passionate about closing the gap on food insecurity from a young age. He quickly rattles off the harmful impacts of food deserts and points to his work with the Youth Development Center in Houston’s Fifth Ward as a point of pride. When he landed in Denver for school, his passion for helping alleviate food insecurity followed.
A 2021 survey from Hunger Free Colorado found that 33% of Coloradans lack reliable access to nutritious food and 16% of Colorado children are not getting adequate nutrition due to financial constraints.
Briskets for Betterment is trying to be part of the solution.
Fordyce donates most of his profits to local charities fighting food insecurity, and would likely donate it all if not for some business-focused advice from Ross and the team at E@DU.
“We love that social mission, but you’re not going to be very impactful if you can’t keep your doors open,” Ross said. “We try to guide [student entrepreneurs] to building for a sustainable business.”
After accounting for his expenses, much of Briskets for Betterment’s money has gone to local and national charities, including Hunger Free Colorado, Feeding America and the National Alliance to End Homelessness. And, when Fordyce has leftovers, he donates them to local homeless shelters and people in need of a meal.
33% of Coloradans lack reliable access to nutritious food, according to Hunger Free Colorado
Click the map for an interactive map of Food Security in the Denver metropolitan area.
Nearly two full days after his barbecue odyssey began, Fordyce is hunkered down in front of a long table in the University’s Community Commons. While students present their business ideas for the Madden Challenge, Fordyce is racing to prepare pulled pork sliders.
Cool under pressure, Fordyce makes plate after plate for his hungry customers, ever focused on properly showcasing his barbecue talents. Ross says his commitment to a mission makes him exceptional.
“Sam is a special person. I have discussions with him about all different types of business and things, and he’s just so knowledgeable,” Ross said. “He’s going to be successful in whatever he decides to do. I don’t know if it’s a barbecue restaurant or something completely different, but I do believe whatever he does he’s going to make an impact.”
When he envisions his own future, Fordyce also isn’t quite certain what form his entrepreneurial spirit will manifest next. He knows that one day he’ll be his own boss, whether that’s in the barbecue space or not.
“Does the brisket continue to follow me? Probably,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll be doing this the rest of my life, just in what capacity, I’m not sure.”