June 8, 2016
by Joel Crews
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RJ’s Meats produces up to 13 varieties of bacon, including apple-cinnamon spiced, black pepper, dry-cured and short-back bacon (belly with loin still attached).
Rick Reams, owner of RJ’s Meats and Groceries is a believer in taking it slow. His company, founded in 1987, takes a deliberate approach to hand-crafting smoked and cured meats at his 4,000-sq.-ft. processing plant and retail store in Hudson, Wisconsin. Yes, demand is strong for his hams, sausages, brats and fresh meats, but perhaps the fastest-growing product line is RJ’s bacon. Reams contends it’s fast growing because of his not-so-fast approach to producing the premium bacon.
“We take our time with it,” he says. “You get out of it what you put into it.”
Compared to the large-scale bacon processing facilities where thousands of bellies are cranked out a day, RJ’s is a sharp contrast, with its modern cured bacon requiring up to nine days to process.
“I like to give all of my seasonings time to marry up,” Reams says.
RJ’s also makes its share of dry-cured bacon, which he says is in a league of its own and is on a schedule of its own, requiring up to three weeks to produce. RJ’s prides itself on small-batch processing of all of its products, with a tumbler and a smokehouse with capacities of 500 lbs., which is the ideal production target. Often, storage space is the challenge at the popular store, which includes just 1,200 sq. ft. of processing area, where bacon is the emerging king.
By keeping added water out of its bacon slabs, Reams says his products stand out among the competition. It starts with the raw material, he contends.
“I’m always in constant search for the best belly possible. I’m not here to give my customers discontinued product.” Belly thickness and consistent fat-to-lean ratios are critical to this goal and he relies on five different suppliers for those bellies, which he prefers to be fresh, never frozen. He says as demand for bacon has increased, the challenge has been in maintaining a steady supply of good bellies.
“I’m built on repeat business and making sure they can depend on the same quality and flavor of that bacon each time and it starts with the raw product,” Reams says.
After hand rubbing and inspecting each belly, Reams and his team tumble and then divide them into groups of six and put them in lugs, where they are rotated about every four days for up to two-and-a-half weeks to ensure consistent and thorough absorption of the seasonings.
“It’s labor intense,” Reams says, “but our customers appreciate it, so it’s well worth the time.”
RJ's Meats cooks bacon overnight whenever possible.
The bellies are then moved to an Enviro-Pak smokehouse retro-fitted with a wood-pellet generator to impart the rich flavor RJ’s bacon has become known for. Reams points out that he has discovered the flavor of his bacon products peaks by cooking the bellies to a slightly higher temperature than most processors. While many commercial bellies are cooked to an internal temperature as high as 128° F, RJ’s slowly smokes his bellies for about 12 hours with an internal target temperature of 140° F, in part to ensure the product achieves a higher level of lethality.
By holding the products at a higher temperature for a longer period of time, Reams says, “it changes the texture of the meat and the flavor development.”
RJ’s cooks its bacon overnight whenever possible to avoid variations in humidity that can occur during the heat of the day. Besides that, the smoking process is part of the customer experience and Reams intentionally located the processing area where the senses of retail customers visiting the store get a treat.
“The aroma gets out there and customers say there’s nothing like coming in here on the mornings when bacon or hams are finishing and coming out of the smokehouse,” Reams says.
By using pellets in his smoker, Reams has the flexibility to easily switch flavor profiles to include hickory, apple, maple, oak and occasionally beech wood.
RJ’s retail meat case showcases half slabs of RJ’s bellies, most of which is sliced to order. Reams makes up to about 13 varieties of bacon, including; apple-cinnamon spiced, black pepper, dry-cured, short-back bacon (belly with loin still attached), as well as its pressed-and formed, cottage bacon, made from chopped pork shoulder.
Some of the specialty flavor profiles Reams sells include: Aztec hot chocolate, five pepper and even a seasonal offering made by butterflying a belly and seasoning it with apple pie spice, cinnamon and pecans — rolled up and smoked to perfection.
While Reams produces gourmet bacon made in small batches, he says growth in that part of his business has been exponential over the past several years. Currently, RJ’s produces and sells about 1,500 lbs. of its traditional bacon per month from its retail counter in addition to about 300 lbs. of packaged bacon. The hand-crafted traditional bacon products are priced at about $7.29 per lb. while the leaner, extruded cottage bacon — fully cooked — is about $6.49 per lb.
RJ’s also sells its full line of bacon products online, through www.baconscouts.com while Reams is building an e-commerce-based website to sell shelf-stable products, such as summer sausage and salami.