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Robert D. Nueske achieved smoked success with Nueske's bacon

Tanya Nueske and her father, Robert Nueske. | Nueske's Applewood Smoked Meats photo

Robert D. Nueske turned pork bellies into savory bacon prized by carnivores, epicures and fine restaurants across the country.

His Nueske’s bacon, an 81-year-old smoked swine success, is available at specialty markets and delis, and eating establishments both rustic and gourmet. In Chicago, it’s been served at Alinea, Bang Bang Pie Shop, Mastro’s Steakhouse and GT Fish & Oyster. It’s been featured at Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster in New York City, Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, and Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. The New York Times dubbed it the “beluga of bacon, the Rolls-Royce of rashers.” Upscale catalog Hammacher Schlemmer billed it “the world’s finest, most succulent smoked bacon.”

Die-hard fans of the company have even named their pet dogs and cats “Nueske.”

Mr. Nueske, 67, owner and president of Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats, rode the porker train to success in a world gone hog wild for items like bacon-topped doughnuts and bacon-flecked chocolate. The Wisconsin native, who also had a condo in Chicago, died unexpectedly Monday after undergoing knee replacement surgery Jan. 5 at Rush University Medical Center, said his son, Justin. He had returned to his condo to recuperate when he fell ill. “They think it was a blood clot in the lung,” his son said.

Big and beefy, with a luxurious head of silver hair, Mr. Nueske was the picture of a meat-and-cheese loving Midwesterner, though his wife of 45 years, Darlene, didn’t let him have bacon every day. “I didn’t think it would be good for him,” she said. “It was a special treat.”

Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats has its roots in 1880s Prussia, relatives said. His grandparents immigrated to Wittenberg, Wis., with family recipes for spicing and curing meat. His father, R.C. Nueske, began selling smoked bacon, ham, sausage and turkey in 1933. Despite the Great Depression, he found success by driving his little meat truck up to the resorts of northern Wisconsin.

“Everybody loved it,” said Mr. Nueske’s wife.

When his father died in 1975, Mr. Nueske and his brother, James, decided to expand the business by building a new smokehouse in Wittenberg.

“Here in Wisconsin,” he once told the New York Times, “We’re meatheads among cheese heads.” Today, Nueske’s produces bacon smoked with applewood or cherrywood, and smoked poultry, ham and sausages.

The company prides itself on a good-quality product made in small batches. “I think the smartest decision he made was never wanting to be the biggest. He wanted to be the best,” said his daughter, Tanya, Nueske’s executive vice president.

Their hogs are fed a diet with a higher-than-normal percentage of barley, which helps to keep the bacon lean but tasty. The company works with families who are longtime, trusted suppliers of cross-bred Belgian Pietrain pigs with a good fat-to-lean ratio, his daughter said.

“They give us what we need to make a really good end-product,” she said. “We do a very old method. We do an applewood log smoking where we use the actual logs, and they’re smoked in single-batch houses, and one small rack of product at a time. It’s not like it’s tens of thousands of pounds. We believe the oils from the log are what permeate the meat.”

“I think bacon is just a little indulgence that makes everything better,” she said. “It’s like it can fix anything.”

Nueske’s has employed hundreds of residents in and around Wittenberg, three hours north of Milwaukee and an hour west of Green Bay, population just over 1,000. Mr. Nueske and his brother, who died five years ago, had reputations for being good bosses with low staff turnover. “His main goal was to be very fair,” his wife said. “He was not easily ruffled and never one to blow up at anybody.”

Mr. Nueske met Darlene Draheim at a New Year’s Eve party in 1966. She was 16. When he was drafted into the Army, serving as a medic in Germany, “We wrote letters to each other every day for two years,” she said. “He had twinkly eyes and had a kind soul, and we loved each other. After we met, there was nobody” else.

His leonine waves of hair were “kind of his pride and joy,” said his wife. “He would have hated to go bald, if he had lived to 75 and went bald.”

The couple raised their family in Wittenberg, in a house with a breezeway that connected to the old company plant. Five years ago, they purchased some land and started raising alpacas. Their Applewood Lane Alpacas are shorn once a year for their fine alpaca fiber.

Mr. Nueske enjoyed watching his flock. “We have guard llamas that protect them from wild coyotes and wild dogs,” his wife said. Guard llamas have been known to stomp at predators. “The llamas are quite tall and they are about twice as big as the alpacas. They keep their ears perked.” If they sense danger, “They let out a scream and the alpacas come running to the barn. A big alpaca is 170 pounds, and we have one llama [who] is about 450. She’s a big gal, Louise.”

Mr. Nueske also is survived by another son, Nathan, and one grandchild. Visitation is scheduled at 9 a.m. Saturday until his 2 p.m. funeral service at the Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School gymnasium in Wittenberg, Wis.

He will be inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame this year, his family said.