There's no doubt that bacon holds a special place in the hearts of Americans. Uncontent just to eat it in old-fashioned strip form, we've made the 21st century a nonstop food lab of new ways to crumble it, candy it, wrap it, and stuff it into and onto every other dish possible. Shouldn't it be obvious that bacon sales are at an all-time high?
All of this hubbub about something as simple as smoky meat strips was what led Howard Bender to create Schmacon. Schmacon is a new bacon product made from thin strips of beef rather than pork, and it does have fewer calories and less sodium and fat than its porcine counterpart. But Bender didn't invent it in the name of better health; he did it all for the love of beef. It all started when he had some truly atrocious turkey bacon while out to breakfast with a friend, and realized that, as the saying goes, there "had to be a better way."
Although it recently fell short on its Kickstarter goal of $50,000, Bender has already found a market for Schmacon in pubs and diners across the country, and has big plans to get it onto supermarket shelves nationwide within the next couple of months. But what's less clear is how a nation enamored with the classic pork variety can be swayed to change directions and embrace strips that look similar, taste similar, and are still made from meat, but not the kind that they're used to. Americans love their beef, too—but can anything truly infiltrate bacon's long-standing throne? Bender, for one, thinks so.
I caught up with Bender as he headed out for a wholesale run to find out what inspired him to make his meaty masterpiece and what it will take to make Schmacon a household name.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Howard. What's the latest in terms of the development of Schmacon and getting it on the market? Howard Bender: We're less than a month away from being in grocery stores. We are right now taking orders for delivery in May. It's been in food service for just under a year and it's really starting to grow, but the retail rollout is a coast-to-coast effort.
What kind of restaurants are currently offering Schmacon? My first thought a year ago was that it would have been breakfast joints, because they're gonna have pork bacon and turkey bacon. Look in Chicago, Wisconsin, Iowa, and states that have some good distribution. There is a high-end country club in Chicago, for example, that has it on their bar and banquet menus. It's bizarre, but it's across the board.
So, why this product? Why not just eat old-fashioned bacon? I was never trying to develop a bacon because I was a health nut (I'm not), but I'm pretty sure that if I eat bacon twice a day, I'm going to die pretty young. I'm a huge beef fan and I eat it as often as I can. I was having breakfast with a friend and talking about what's out there, and since I'm a food development guy, I took a challenge with that friend to see if I could develop this [product]. I've found that I could eat Schmacon every day, but I have a reasonable bias. But we've had people tasting it and testing it out all over the country for over a year, thanks to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. I call it the evolution of bacon, because turkey bacon has made it into that marketplace, and I think Schmacon is part of the evolution of bacon. Schmacon definitely has a place in there with the aisle with the other bacons. And for someone like me who loves beef, this is a rock star opportunity.
How did you achieve a better health profile for it, relative to traditional bacon? When I was trying to develop [Schmacon], I had never made pork bacon itself, so I didn't try to emulate it. I was looking for a cut of meat that I could work with that was kind of rectangular, what I would call "cow belly," like you would say bacon is "pork belly." The first six months of the development of the product was finding the right cut for it. And the NCBA was a big help for that. So we developed this new cut of meat and slowly went through the process of working through each part, like the ways to get it crispy and curly.
What's the seasoning process? Theres a couple of steps in it. The original product was smoked and cured glazed beef slices. But the USDA wants a fanciful name, so it became "Schmacon," and that's the identity for us. That was the product we rolled into food service, but we were sitting around strategizing about going into grocery, and we went back into the lab and wanted to formulate an all-natural product. The new product is a smoked, uncured, all-natural glazed product. The seasonings and the meat help it crisp up very quick, and give it that special flavor that bacon has. When you eat it, you absolutely know you're eating beef, but it's so close in attributes to pork bacon that it still fits into that aisle and the craziness that pork bacon has today.
How did you come up with the name "Schmacon?" Bacon, Schmacon; homework, schmomework. You leave some of that stuff to the people on your team who are in marketing. I'm still hung up on the word "Schmacon." I don't know that I'll ever love it. It's Schmacon. A while ago, somebody came out and produced this kosher beef breakfast strip called "Fakin." I'm really glad that we aren't called "Fakin," because that says that your product is fake. On day one, I wanted to call us "Beef Bacon", but all of the other beef bacons that have been on the market previously weren't very good, so if you're going to go out and sell a product, do you want the beginning of your sales pitch to have to be, why you don't suck like those guys
Do you like the name Twinkie? Or Ding Dong? Think about some of the names out there. They're completely absurd, off-the-wall names. I'm not arrogant enough to say that Schmacon is a household name like that, but people hear the name "schmacon" and they don't forget it.
It's memorable. I think that you're correct in that. And it will make people want to know more. On the package right now it says "Schmacon: all-natural uncured beef slices," and it needs to say that, because what the hell is Schmacon?
How do you present Schmacon on a menu? Do you explain that it's made from beef or just say it's "Schmacon"? I think it's 50/50. I saw it on the menu of a brew pub recently, and they said "Schmacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich" and nothing else. I was surprised, because if I was a restaurateur, I'd say "Schmacon beef slices" or something like that. I think it's split, and places are doing a mixture of both. There are a number of large chains that have it in their kitchens right now, and they're going to call it whatever they want. They've got really expensive smart marketing people and they'll come up with something that really works.
But I think that the important part is that consumers can come to accept the idea that on a menu there can be pork bacon, turkey bacon, and beef bacon. They need to know that on a certain level it's OK, that it's not scaring anybody, and then it will really start getting some traction.
Thanks for talking with us.