My mother never cooked a pork chop. Never once did a holiday ham grace the table of our modest suburban home. For a simple reason: we’re Jewish, and such things are forbidden.
But bacon was another matter. We had bacon all the time. With eggs of course, but also piled high on BLTs, the wheat toast smeared with mayonnaise. She served hot dogs wrapped in bacon.
Faith is fine, but bacon is “the most beautiful thing on earth,” as comedian Jim Gaffigan put it during a routine on the beloved cured meat. “Bacon’s the best!”
Isn’t it though? The public agrees. Bacon sales have surged over the past decade. Bacon prices are up 20 percent this year, with supplies at their lowest in 60 years, stripped by voracious consumer demand for everything from bacon donuts to bacon-infused vodka.
Amazingly, not long ago bacon was in decline. I was examining historical data and found myself reading the bacon entry in The Encyclopedia of Meat Sciences. It noted that in the late 1970s bacon was wilting; a study found that female heads of households were consuming far less bacon, due to cost, the bother of preparation and the trend toward quick, simple breakfasts.
“As late as 1989,” the encyclopedia noted, it was believed “bacon consumption is evidently in a long-term eroding trend.”
What happened? One problem with bacon was that you had to cook it, a messy process. It spattered and popped in the pan. You had to scrub your stovetop or microwave every time you cooked bacon.
Then along came precooked bacon. I usually have a package or two in my refrigerator, for use in salads. I wanted to find out when precooked bacon appeared and encountered that rarest of phenomenons: an online information hole. No Homage to Precooked Bacon home page. Nothing on the Oscar Mayer web site. Even the thorough, maybe even glorious Encyclopedia of Meat Sciences was vague. “About the same time” restaurants began topping their burgers with bacon, “precooked bacon became available.”
But I kept rooting, and a book on marketing coughed up two names: Tom Bush and Mark Schweiger, the men who gave supermarket shoppers the gift of precooked bacon.
“We didn’t dream it up,” Schweiger said. In the mid-1990s, he and Bush were brand managers at Oscar Mayer & Co. in Madison, Wisconsin.
“I managed the bacon business, part of the retail marking group. I suggested to my superiors that we take precooked bacon from the food service side to the retail side,” Schweiger said. “It was already being sent to restaurants — Hardee’s, Wendy’s — for bacon burgers. We decided the consumer was ready.”
Oscar Mayer looked at their idea and did what big companies do so well. It said “No.”
“The people above me said there were too many hurdles in terms of price value,” Schweiger said.
A pound of raw bacon, remember, cooks down to about half its weight in cooked bacon strips, and consumers might balk at paying the same amount for less product. “They thought it was too hard of a story to tell. So we went out on our own.”
They formed a company, SHK Foods (“SHK” stands for “seven hungry kids,” the number of their combined children). Ready Crisp Full-Cooked Bacon rolled out nationwide in 1995. At first it was sold in the refrigerator case, next to raw bacon. But the Ready Crisp packages were lost in the clutter.
“We weren’t getting the awareness we needed. We decided to merchandise it outside of the refrigerator case, because it’s shelf stable,” Schweiger said. “We created floor displays, as consumers were pushing their carts by. That’s when our business took off. We were doing about $30 million in retail when we sold it to ConAgra.”
Bacon is about a $4 billion industry. How much of that is precooked?
“Last time I looked, it’s a segment worth about $400 million,” Schweiger said.
So they saved bacon’s bacon?
“That’s true, but other things were happening,” said Schweiger, modestly. “Remember the Atkins Diet, the protein diets start coming along, and people were using their microwaves more frequently. And people just love bacon.”
Which left me with one final journalistic task.
So ma … what was the deal with bacon?
“People like bacon,” my mother explained. “That’s all.”