Article featured on Denverite, Nov. 22, 2023.

Hunters are flocking to Colorado. Tennyson Street’s Meat Cleaver is ready to help them prep dinner

“This is 2,000 square feet, and about a herd of 500 deer are in here.”

Meat exiting a grinder at Meat Cleaver's wild game and beef processing center.

Elk meat exits a grinder in the Meat Cleaver’s Tennyson Street game processing center.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

There’s a herd of deer and elk inside an unassuming warehouse at Tennyson Street’s northern reaches.

Fair warning, to our vegetarian readers: They’re dead, and they’re on their way to becoming someone’s dinner.

“This is 2,000 square feet, and about a herd of 500 deer are in here,” Lucas Watson, boss of this business, joked. “It’s just a funny visual.”

Beef and wild game aging in the cooler at Meat Cleaver wild game and beef processing center.

A “herd” of deer and elk hang in a frigde at the Meat Cleaver’s game processing center on Tennyson Street, in the city’s northern reaches.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The Meat Cleaver game processing center is a contrast to Tennyson’s main drag that sits just a mile to the south, with its new-build slot homes and brunch spots. Watson caters to what he describes as a humbler crowd, one with roots that predate the city’s current, chic incarnation.

“They’re mostly blue-collar, down-to-earth dudes who are stoked,” he told us, equally stoked, on opening day of the state’s fourth and final rifle season of the year for elk and deer. “They just shot something, they’re filling their freezers, and I get to be a part of that.”

Butchered and processed meat, ready to be picked up at Meat Cleaver wild game and beef processing center.

Butchered and processed wild game, ready to be picked up by its hunter, in the Meat Cleaver game processing center on Tennyson Street.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Watson and his small crew help hunters with one step of their harvest, transforming fresh kills into products that look more like something you’d find at a King Soopers.

“We make big pieces of meat into small pieces of meat,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways to do that, but it’s not rocket science.”

Meat Cleaver wild game and beef processing owner Lucas Watson.

Meat Cleaver owner Lucas Watson in his Tennyson Street warehouse.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Hunters are flocking to Colorado, keeping Watson’s little business pretty busy.

Data from the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife (CPW) show more and more people are trying to come and harvest animals in the state. Their numbers suggest applications for elk, deer, moose and pronghorn licenses hit – or got close to – 20-year highs in 2023.

“Colorado has seen an increasing interest in hunting due to a few factors,” Joey Livingston, a CPW spokesperson, wrote us.

Data Source: Colorado Parks and Wildlife

First, he said, is the state’s growing human population; there are just more people here who might be interested in hunting.

Second, he said, the state is “fairly friendly to non-resident hunters” compared to other western states. That’s in part because Colorado recently changed rules to only charge would-be hunters if they actually get a license, instead of charging people to apply.

Finally, he said, pandemic lockdowns produced a surge of interest in a lot of outdoor activities, including hunting, and a lot of those people stuck with their newfound hobbies.

It’s important to note that application numbers don’t reflect actual number of issued licenses. The state caps how many animals can be hunted each year.

“Annual quotas are determined by the local biologists, regional biologists and district wildlife managers,” Livingston said. “Quotas are set to meet the goals of the herd management plan for that area. Quotas are then approved by the Parks and Wildlife Commission.”

A butcher at Meat Cleaver's wild game and beef processing center working on an elk.

Cesar Martinez, a butcher who’s worked at Tennyson Street’s Meat Cleaver game processing center for decades, works on an elk.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Watson bought Meat Cleaver, which he said opened in 1967, about four years ago. Though his time running the show has been short, he said he’s seen interest pick up, especially from out-of-staters. He ships animals hunted in Colorado to homes all over the nation. Regardless, this time of year is always a little wild in his shop.

“There’s not a game season that’s not insanity, but it’s super fun,” he said. “Our volume increases by a factor of 10 this time of year.”

The fees hunters pay go back to CPW, helping them manage wildlife populations and state parks. Watson said hunters are part of that management, who can be directed as needed to cull herds that might grow too large without natural predators on their heels.

“Hunting is a tool in their pockets that can help shape the landscape for success,” he said “And as hunters, it’s a very consumable process.”

Employees slicing up meat at Meat Cleaver's wild game and beef processing center.

Andres tellez (left to right), Armando Perez Diaz and Alex Cifuentes slice up elk meat in the Meat Cleaver’s Tennyson Street game processing center.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Watson relishes in his business, a celebration of a more intimate way to eat and a symbol of Denver’s past.

Animal processing has long had a place at the table in this town.

A century ago, the city’s northern neighborhoods were home to large slaughterhouses that surrounded the National Western complex and employed many of Denver’s European immigrants. There’s a reason the city runs bulls down 17th Street each year.

For about as long, some Denverites have flinched at their city’s “cow town” reputation. Residents have filled neighborhoods with statues and European flourishesto change Denver’s image. But Watson said his clientele probably never minded the monicker.

“You gotta remember, you want to take a look at demographics of Colorado, it’s red. There’s like three freakin’ blue counties that vote for everybody, and we’re standing in the middle of the biggest one,” he said. “I get to work with a lot of rural, agriculture-oriented people and businesses, and I don’t think they ever wanted to shake the word ‘cow town.’”

A deer carcass hanging from an old school rail system inside the Meat Cleaver wild game and beef processing center.

A deer carcass hangs from an oldschool rail system inside the Meat Cleaver game processing center’s Tennyson Street headquarters.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The city has changed around Meat Cleaver in its nearly six decades in operation. Tennyson Street’s main corridor, a few minutes south, is a prime example.

But Watson said his business still belongs here, and his customer base is definitely still nearby.

“Totally, and I think it’s bigger than people think,” he said.

Watson is proud to support the city’s hunting community and that his business plays a role in helping people know exactly what they’re eating.

“This is way tactile, and super real, and eating it gives you a different food experience than maybe our public food chain can provide,” he told us.

A hunter picking up his processed deer from the Meat Cleaver wild game and beef processing center.

Hunter Rob Thompson picked up his processed deer, from the Meat Cleaver game processing center on Tennyson Street, just in time for Thanksgiving.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

It’s something that Rob Thompson, a longtime customer who was picking up his processed haul when we visited the shop, said he thinks about.

“That was a main reason for me to get involved in hunting. I wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s really important to me now.”

Watson’s joy in this work is getting to know people like Thompson, people who share his love for the outdoors and appreciate a hands-on approach to their meals.

Beef Dry-aging in a cooler at Meat Cleaver wild game and beef processing center.

Dry-aging beef in a cooler at the Meat Cleaver’s game processing center on Tennyson Street.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

But everyone else can still touch his world: Meat Cleaver recently began dry-aging top-tier steaks for restaurants like Fruition and Mercantile, so he’s found his way into the other Denver that’s grown up around him.

The only trouble with running a game processing center is Watson often finds himself too busy to get out and hunt, at least during rifle season. He’s had to adopt a bow, to make his way into the woods when so many customers aren’t pulling up to his warehouse with fresh kills in their trucks.

Old photos, mostly of Lucas Watson and his family, on the wall at the Meat Cleaver’s game processing center on Tennyson Street.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Meat Cleaver owner Lucas Watson is also a unicyclist, and keeps his rig at his Tennyson Street business.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Meat Cleaver owner Lucas Watson helping a hunter move his deer carcass into the Meat Cleaver wild game and beef processing warehouse.

Meat Cleaver owner Lucas Watson helps hunter Jay Vicic move his deer carcass into his warehouse on Tennyson Street.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

A knife stuck in some elk meat at Meat Cleaver's wild game and beef processing center.

A tool of the trade stuck in some elk meat, behind the scenes at Tennyson Street’s Meat Cleaver game processing center.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite