Ploughboy, Inc.: Lessons in Community-Centered Entrepreneurship

Words and Photos: Ericka Kastner

It may surprise many people to learn that the Nature Conservancy’s choice for the most sustainable restaurant in Colorado for 2013 was actually a local foods market tucked away in the south central portion of the state.

Ploughboy, Inc., founded in a location that was once a machine shop, has become both a means for farmers to make their fresh, local food available and a hub of community activity in the heart of historic downtown Salida.

The market’s offerings include fresh bread baked daily, meats and produce sourced from within Colorado (more than half within a 100-mile radius.) Decadent foods like green chili macaroni and cheese, slow cooker-braised short ribs and the most divine beet cake this side of anywhere are prepared in-house and made available for dine-in or take-out noshing. Small-town friendliness abounds at Ploughboy as well, as locals and out-of-towners alike are granted the grace of running a tab for their groceries.

Owners Kerry and Dave Nelson’s desire to plough money back into the community inspired the name. Entrepreneurship is the driving force behind everything they’ve done for years, from turning an old warehouse in Philadelphia into lofts and antique storage, to their latest venture, a plan to transform an abandoned motel on Salida’s stretch of U.S. 50 into a western luxe-themed boutique motel appealing to the Denver weekender set.

Regarding their winning the Nature Conservancy’s 2013 Nature’s Plate Award, Kerry says she believes Ploughboy won the online popular vote over other restaurants nominated from Denver and Boulder because of the intense connection small businesses operating in a small community have with their customers.

“We have an incredibly dedicated group of people who follow us here. We are geographically connected even to Alamosa and Del Norte. I think of them as being close-by, part of my inner circle.”

Owning a business gives the Nelsons a sense of community connectedness. Kerry claims to be one of the most antisocial people she knows. “I could sit in a house on the side of a mountain and never go anywhere.” But instead she works to build relationships through her business. “You don’t want to just be the person who has the cheapest toothpaste.”

In the beginning of her career, Kerry sought a steady paycheck, never thinking of herself as an entrepreneur. She saw herself as a strategist because of her background (Kerry has a bachelor's degree in geology, a master’s in physics and a law degree). Dave, a fine artist and sculptor, seemed to be more the entrepreneurial type, with his tendency to always figure out a way to make a living just by getting up in the morning.

“Over the years, we’ve come to see that I am the entrepreneur after all.”

“Over the years, we’ve come to see that I am the entrepreneur after all,” Kerry says. “I’ve ended up somewhere totally different than where I thought I was going. Entrepreneurs are people who get fascinated with things that they see or see things they think their community needs. They are people who look out and see questions all the time. Entrepreneurs work to create a business that will eventually become a living, breathing entity, apart from themselves.”

The creation of Ploughboy began in September of 2008. Kerry and Dave packed up their Airstream trailer, left Pennsylvania, and headed west, vowing to not work one day of the next 365. As Kerry tells it, the couple was not looking for a place to land. The two were headed to explore Lake Louise in Canada, via Interstate 70. The fifth day of the journey, they took a brief detour to Salida on a whim. Years earlier, while visiting Durango, five separate people, entirely unsolicited, had told them, “If we were moving right now, we’d move to Salida.” The Nelsons took the detour merely out of curiosity, to check out the town.

They were immediately drawn to Salida’s relatively small size, the vibrancy of the community and the lack of boarded-up store fronts commonly seen in downtown areas.

By the next day, they’d begun looking at properties to buy and four days later the Nelsons had purchased the property at the corner of Third and H Street that would later become Ploughboy.

The duo initially had no idea why they bought the building, but they began with the intention of supporting the local economy. At the start, Kerry says their ideas were a bit yin and yang, as they both “hated” each other’s suggestions. Once they realized the property was situated across from the local Safeway, where they estimated county residents spend close to $25 million annually on groceries, Kerry and Dave agreed they’d aim to keep $1 million of it in the county each year by supporting local food industries.

All of their products must be made or grown in Colorado and “be really stinkin’ good.”

Since they opened their doors in August of 2010, Kerry and Dave have established a standard for anything that is sold at the market. All of their products must be made or grown in Colorado and “be really stinkin’ good.” Consideration is also given to the product’s impact on the environment, and small businesses are supported over big businesses wherever possible. The Nelsons have seen a number of the products carried at Ploughboy improve in quality over the years in response to market demands. In 2013 they added a hard cider tasting room, and the Santa Fe-like space is also available for catered events.

“One of the cool things about living here is that when you ask people what they do for work, you get about a thousand different answers.”

When she’s asked why entrepreneurs seem to migrate west, Kerry says she thinks Colorado has always been full of independent-minded people.

“One of the cool things about living here is that when you ask people what they do for work, you get about a thousand different answers.”

Their initial investment of the warehouse in Philly cost them $750,000 and to date they’ve turned $2.5 million in profit. Of the early years, Kerry says, “We tried to live like we didn’t have any money in order to pay off debt. Having debt over your head influences every single decision that you make.”

They still don’t pay themselves a penny from Ploughboy profits, opting instead to put any surplus cash flow back into the business.

Kerry observes that entrepreneurs avoid listening to conventional wisdom, gather all the information they can about their idea, trust their instincts and are honest with themselves.

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I doing something not everyone can do? Or am I doing it better than anyone else can?'"

Risk-taking is also a large part of entrepreneurship, Kerry says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I doing something not everyone can do? Or am I doing it better than anyone else can? Is this risk worth taking?’ The end goal is to eliminate risk.”

“If you are willing to live on the street in order to pursue your idea, make sure whoever else is in your life is okay with that too.”

Ploughboy, Inc.

311 H Street

Salida, CO 81201