Echo Valley Meats After Shark Tank: We Caught Up With The Founder

For many up-and-coming businesses, appearing on "Shark Tank" is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Many who enter the shark tank walk away empty-handed — and while some have managed to find success in spite of their rejection, others have faded into obscurity. For Dave Alwan of Echo Valley Meats, however, things went a little bit differently. The Peoria, Illinois meat monger appeared on "Shark Tank" in 2012, but wasn't able to catch any bites from the sharks. Yet, Alwan's in-depth knowledge of the meat industry and charismatic nature left a mark on both the sharks and the show's creators. Following his first appearance on the show, the businessman was asked to return to the tank in 2015 for a second chance at success.

As one of the only entrepreneurs in "Shark Tank" history to pitch to the sharks a second time, Alwan made the most of the advice given to him during his initial visit and managed to secure a partnership with his preferred shark, Mark Cuban. Recently, we spoke to Alwan to hear more about his journey with Echo Valley Meats and what he's been up to since striking a deal on "Shark Tank."

The origins of Echo Valley Meats

Alwan's passion for meat and ambitious work ethic comes from his upbringing. "My dad and my uncle came to the United States from Lebanon in 1947," Alwan explains. "My dad made a comment that people always have to eat, so that's why they got into the food business. We owned five Kentucky Fried Chickens." Ten years after arriving in America, the family also operated multiple farms and later secured their position in the meat industry with Alwan & Sons Meat Company, an Illinois meat market established in 1957.

Alwan credits his father, William Alwan, for giving him invaluable insight into the business. "We were always taught you cut for profit and not for practice. You trim stuff accordingly and don't just pick up a knife and think you know how to cut meat." As Alwan explains, improper butchering techniques can potentially cost business owners thousands of dollars if they're not careful. "I remember growing up, [my dad] would bet anybody 1,000 to 1 odds that you could take a whole cattle, [a] 500-pound side of beef in front of him, and a 500-pound side of beef in front of anybody you wanted to pick, and he could cut $100 more profit out of that same side," he says. Over time, Alwan decided to use the knowledge he picked up through the family trade to try his hand at creating his own company: Echo Valley Meats.

Drive and determination made Echo Valley Meats a success

"I started Echo Valley Meats from scratch on November 1, 1998," Alwan said. Echo Valley Meats' founder had big ideas for the company, but his family members were skeptical of his vision for online meat sales. "My dad and uncle laughed me out of the house and said, who would ever want to order meat through the internet?" recalls Alwan.

Outside of his plans for an innovative online storefront, Alwan was committed to serving his customers the highest quality meat products possible. "I decided I wanted to be one of the best sausage makers in the United States," says Alwan. "So I went to Germany and Denmark and was trained in all European ways. [After I] came back in 2002, [I] entered my product in a national competition, and the very first time we entered, we took brand champion with our summer sausage." Alwan's first-place summer sausage led to a partnership with The Swiss Colony, a mail-order meat and cheese company based in Wisconsin. For several years, Alwan supplied the popular retailer with Echo Valley Meats' sausages.

Echo Valley Meats' journey to Shark Tank almost didn't happen

Although Echo Valley Meats was steadily attracting more sales, things weren't easy for the Alwan family during the first few years of business. "I got into a restaurant in 2010 and lost about a half million dollars," recalls Alwan. "My uncle, who was my dad's oldest brother said, 'David, never try to carry three watermelons with two hands. You'll always drop one.' And it was the best words of wisdom I've ever heard in my life."

At the time, Alwan and his wife, Dawn, could fully appreciate the advice. In addition to Echo Valley Meats, the couple put in long hours at multiple jobs, managed livestock, and cared for their two children. Their daughter, Jessica, had been diagnosed with Rhett's Syndrome and battled seizures daily. "We had our hands full," says Alwan. Yet Alwan couldn't let one opportunity pass him by.

It isn't unusual for entrepreneurs to find out about "Shark Tank" castings last minute, but Alwan's approach to the auditioning process was daring, to say the least. After watching a rerun of the show with his family, Alwan decided to look into the audition process. Unfortunately, he realized, he had just missed a local casting call in downtown Chicago. Alwan remembers his words to Dawn that evening very clearly. "The good news," he told her, "is there's one ["Shark Tank" audition] left in Culver City, California this Saturday, and I'm jumping on a plane Friday."

Despite a few setbacks, Echo Valley Meats secured a callback from the show

"She goes, 'Haven't you lost enough money recently?'" Alwan remembers. After assuring his wife that he felt confident about his chances of making it onto the show, she asked him why. "[I said], 'I know this business from conception to consumption; not many people do.' And she said, 'Okay, your handwriting sucks. Print out the application, and I'll fill it out for you,'" he says with a laugh. With that, Alwan hopped on a plane to Los Angeles — nearly 2,000 miles from his home base in Peoria, Illinois — in hopes of making it onto "Shark Tank".

Alwan arrived at his hotel around 10 p.m. and initially expected to rest for the evening before joining the "Shark Tank" line for auditions scheduled the following day. "I get to the hotel, and there's probably 5,000 people in line at the hotel all up and down the sidewalk. I'm like, you've got to be kidding me," he explains. Thinking on his feet, Alwan cleverly assembled a group of other "Shark Tank" hopefuls — known as "Team Dave" — to weather the long evening ahead in relative comfort. After securing blankets and lawn chairs from a local sporting goods store, Alwan went on to deliver his pitch to producers, brimming with confidence from the support of his fellow 'teammates'. "Next thing I know, they're telling me to do a video submission video... and that's how it all started."

Its first Shark Tank appearance didn't go to plan, but Echo Valley Meats still made an impression

Months later, Alwan was on his way back to film his "Shark Tank" pitch. "I always believed if you feed people well, you get to their soul or their heart through their belly," explains Alwan. "And I fed 'em all. And the first time I went on in season four, they fell in love with the product." The sharks were delighted with Echo Valley Meats — including Alwan's award-winning summer sausage — during his first pitch in the tank. As they dove into the Echo Valley Meats sampler, the Illinois entrepreneur asked for $300,000 in exchange for a 20% stake in the company.

Nevertheless, Alwan walked away without an offer following the initial pitch. "They liked me, but I was brutally honest and didn't have a good enough business plan," he recalls. "I think the product is amazing," Lori Greiner told Alwan at the time. "I think that you'll make it, slowly — but I like to get things out there really quickly, to get my return on my investment." Though Alwan didn't land a deal during his first visit to the tank, the affable businessman made the best of his circumstances. Undeterred, he even threw a massive watch party for friends and family for his episode's premiere. And, ultimately, this optimistic outlook paid off. As luck would have it, Alwan was later invited to return to "Shark Tank" to deliver a second pitch.

Echo Valley Meats excelled the second time around on Shark Tank

"I've actually been on ["Shark Tank"] three times," says Alwan. The second time was an update segment during the series' fifth season. "They said... 'We like you, everybody likes your products and you're good energy for the show.' So they sent a whole team of producers to Peoria, Illinois to do a three to five-minute update on me."

By season six, Alwan was surprised to hear back from "Shark Tank" producers a third time. According to Alwan, he was only the second entrepreneur in "Shark Tank" history at the time to return for a second chance in the shark tank. During his time between tapings, he made sure to utilize the sharks' suggestions from his past pitching experience. "I knew my customer numbers, I knew my customer acquisition costs. I literally took every word of [their] advice and it turned into wisdom."

"I always tell people, no matter what it is big or small, if you get a second chance, you need to make it count," says Alwan. He also notes that his second taping was special, as he was able to bring his son along, too. Clearly, Alwan's efforts paid off. Not only did he receive competitive offers from Kevin O'Leary and Robert Herjavec, but he hooked his shark of choice. "I was hoping to get Mark Cuban and that's what happened," says Alwan. As such, Cuban provided Echo Valley Meats with $150,000 at 25% equity.

Support for Echo Valley Meats was overwhelming following Shark Tank

Sales increased exponentially after Echo Valley Meats debuted on "Shark Tank" — both online and in-person. "Everybody warned me [about] the 'Shark Tank' effect," says Alwan. "We had 200 people in the room with a 42-inch screen and live Google Analytics, and went from six people to 42,000 people on my site with 6,800 open shopping baskets." And though a few hiccups occurred, he says he appreciates what he learned from the experience.

Yet sales weren't the only area where Echo Valley Meats received support from "Shark Tank" viewers. "I had 4,200 personal emails. I had three big-name movie stars offer me partnerships. I was offered to sell the company, [and] we had tens of thousands of emails coming in from people wanting to invest," Alwan says. "It was beyond humbling and mind-blowing at the same time."

Fortunately, Alwan says, the "Shark Tank" rush came during a manageable time of year, when holiday orders hadn't begun to accumulate. "I had always prayed that I got on [the show] before Christmas or before Easter," he adds. "We kind of got lucky in that sense that nobody was waiting for their Easter ham [or] Christmas ham [the] next week." Plus, adds Alwan, each time his "Shark Tank" episode airs again, he sees a boost to business.

How Mark Cuban and the sharks have supported Echo Valley Meats

Alwan's "Shark Tank" partner, Mark Cuban, has played a substantial role in aiding the company's meteoric rise. "Mark is great. [He's] there to support his company and his entrepreneurs, and he's going to give you as much or as little as support as you asked for," explains Alwan. "Mark's family on multiple levels are all customers... and I couldn't ask for anything better." Since appearing on "Shark Tank," Echo Valley Meats ventured into television sales, landing several successful QVC segments — where Cuban has been known to call in and offer his wholehearted praise for the products.

Furthermore, Cuban has been a source of support in many ways for the Echo Valley Meats team. When Alwan's daughter, Jessica, tragically passed away, Cuban and his family were some of the first to reach out. And it's not only Cuban who has helped shape Echo Valley Meats into the company it is today. As Alwan explains, other sharks from the show have encouraged him every step of the way over the years. "I had [a] little personal interaction with almost every one of [the sharks] at the time, and it was just phenomenal," he explains. "'Shark Tank's become a family to me."

The products that keep Echo Valley Meats customers coming back for more

When it comes to Echo Valley Meats products, some items have always been steady sellers, like Echo Valley's steaks. "Everybody likes beef," states Alwan. "And knowing that I raised cattle and kind of came from that business, everybody wanted to try our steaks." But "Shark Tank" popularized lesser-known options on the menu, says Alwan. Moreover, its appearance on the show led to the introduction of an aptly-named sampler series. "Everybody kept saying, 'I want everything you had on the show that the sharks got to try.' So I thought, what a cute little name — [the] Shark Bite Sampler and Shark Bite Feeding Frenzy." The Shark Bite samplers include items like spiral-cut ham, garlic summer sausage, as well as savory cheese spreads, and roasted almonds.

When asked about his favorite Echo Valley Meats product, Alwan has a few items on his mind. "My ham and my summer sausage," he says. "I mean, we still make summer sausage for venison deer season in Illinois. And we actually process for four or five other plants now because we probably have as good a summer sausage as anybody on planet Earth." Additionally, adds Alwan, the company's summer sausage, cheeses, and spiral hams are all consistent bestsellers, particularly around the holiday season.

Why Echo Valley Meats continues to smoke out its competition

During its first "Shark Tank" appearance, the sharks questioned what separated Echo Valley Meats from other companies selling premium meat products. "My customer service, I will say, is as good as anybody's on planet Earth. And I think we have a 72% return rate," says Alwan. "Seven out of 10 come back and order again and again. So obviously you're doing something right when that happens."

Satisfied customer reviews of Echo Valley Meats illustrate his point even further. "Echo Valley Meats has excellent ham," writes one. "It's the best ham my family has ever tasted. Dave, the owner, cares about his customers. We learned that from personal experience." Of course, Alwan is quick to point out the quality and craftsmanship that sets his company's meat products apart from the competition. "We can guarantee what grades [our meat products are]. We can trace it back again from conception to consumption," he relays. "The beef industry today is a science, and so you really have to know what you're doing, because numbers don't lie."

Partnerships have proven fruitful for Echo Valley Meats

While meat is the main focus at Echo Valley, Alwan has enjoyed several successful partnerships with other brands. Perhaps you can recall Kevin O'Leary's proposal to feature Boston-based Wicked Cupcakes on the Echo Valley Meats storefront during Alwan's second "Shark Tank" pitch. Though Alwan struck a deal with Mark Cuban instead, Echo Valley did end up using Kevin's suggestion after all — securing a short but solid run with the glass-jarred Wicked Good Cupcakes. "We did [Wicked Good Cupcakes] for a while... that was one of Kevin's companies, [and] I absolutely love Kevin as well."

More recently, Echo Valley Meats has become the only meat company in the business to partner with Yeti Coolers, crafting the ultimate gift idea for serious summer sausage enthusiasts. Inside each cooler, customers can receive an assortment of the company's signature summer sausages, crackers, and cheese spreads. "It's a unique package and we've created a phenomenal relationship with Yeti. And I love Yeti products," says Alwan. "They're a great company to work with. And that [partnership] continues to grow."

Echo Valley Meats' founder offers inspiring words to help others succeed

Aside from his work at Echo Valley Meats, Alwan is also an accomplished motivational speaker. When asked what he would say to aspiring entrepreneurs, he is eager to share his advice. "You're going to get what you work for, not what you wish for. And I work 80 to 100 hours a week. I've missed three days on schedule in 33 years," he says. "If you're willing to do what it takes, and you're willing to put in the time and the effort, you can be successful."

Failure isn't something to fear, he adds. Although you may fail many times, Alwan says, you should always make an effort to remain resilient in the face of challenges. "Life is not fair. It is not a walk in the park. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it, but most people don't want to do what it takes nor put in the work." Indeed, Alwan — and Echo Valley Meats — are shining examples of what hard work and determination can achieve.

What's next for Echo Valley Meats

So what can Echo Valley Meats fans look forward to in the near future? According to Alwan, many new products will be on the table soon. "We're introducing coffee with Yeti cups this year. And we've got honey coming out," he says. "So we've got honey coming into some of our sausage and cheese boxes from our real beef farm that's just world-class honey. And we're constantly looking for new products." Additionally, Alwan notes, numerous brands have reached out to collaborate with Echo Valley Meats since "Shark Tank" — but he only introduces a select few to the company's catalog.

"Shark Tank was probably one of the best experiences of my life, next to my kids being born," states Alwan. "And to this day, every time it re-airs, we get a huge, huge boost in sales. It's a gift that keeps on giving." Though a second chance "Shark Tank" partnership allowed Echo Valley Meats to flourish, the company wouldn't be where it is today without Alwan's passion and perseverance.