Chomping at the bits

by Joel Crews
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pile of bacon bits
Bacon ends and pieces have become more valuable to bacon processors as demand for bacon bits continues to grow.
 

Not unlike other types and cuts of meat and poultry products, including skirt steak and chicken wings, the byproducts of what seem to be a limitless demand for bacon have also become a red-hot commodity. The business of producing bacon bits, produced from the ends and pieces of uniform, mahogany-colored slabs has become a lucrative profit center for bacon processors.

The unique products require special consideration and measured handling throughout the cutting, cooking and packaging process and when it comes to bacon bit production, a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn’t apply.

Michael Richardson, COO of Cincinnati-based SugarCreek, one of the biggest bacon co-packers in the industry, confirms that bacon bits and ends have followed a similar path as their poultry brethren, chicken wings. Once an afterthought and an inconvenient byproduct, the demand for each has spiked. Richardson says, in fact, that the value of bits and ends has at times exceeded that of the coveted pork belly.

SugarCreek began operating in 1966, primarily as a raw, bacon-processing company, based in Washington Courthouse, Ohio, where a sister plant to a facility in Frontenac, Kansas, still operates, producing not only pork bacon and bits but turkey bacon and meatballs as well. SugarCreek operates three production and processing plants in Ohio as well as a recently opened 418,000-sq.-ft. facility in Cambridge City, Indiana, which is highlighted by large-scale sous vide, impingement and MPO operations.

The company, regarded as the country’s largest, independent bacon processor, was founded by John S. Richardson and is still family owned with John G. Richardson serving as CEO and chairman.

Producing, packaging bits

bacon bits coming off the processing line
Once an inconvenient by-product, the demand for quality bacon bits has spiked.
 

SugarCreek’s plants in Washington Courthouse and Dayton, Ohio, as well as Frontenac, Kansas, all produce bacon bits. Kansas and Courthouse capacities are almost identical and Dayton is more focused on microwave-produced products. Kansas utilizes both microwave and oil bath cooking systems.

“You can do a lot of different varieties of bacon bits,” Richardson says. “You can flavor them, you can tumble them; you can apply seasoning to them. People are looking for different ways of getting bacon as a snack or as an ingredient; it’s very much on trend and continuing to grow.

“Bacon bits, for us, is a very important part of our portfolio,” Richardson says. At SugarCreek, the ends and pieces of bellies was something his father, John, identified as a value-added opportunity back in the late 1980s.

“What’s evolved is all the manners by which you can cook ends and pieces,” he says, which ranges from utilizing oil baths to microwave and kettle cooking as well as impingement ovens. The method used is usually dictated by the application of the end user. The varieties range from lower-yield, fine bits to larger, high-yield “bacon chips.” SugarCreek even produces a bacon powder that can be applied to an even wider variety of products.

Prior to realizing the value created by cooking ends and pieces, SugarCreek sold them uncooked in a rollstock style package, a format that is still used today by many other bacon producers.

“But now, we have such a demand for bacon bits that we don’t even market a No. 2 or an ends-and-pieces bacon at all. We need every pound,” Richardson says. To keep up with demand, the company not only cooks and sells the byproducts of its own bacon, “we are probably one of the biggest buyers of bacon ends in the market,” he says.

potato soup topped with bacon bits
The business of producing bacon bits has become a lucrative profit center for bacon processors.
 

Applications include toppings for salads, soups, potato skins and pizza.

“We do bacon bits in packages as small as a half of an ounce up to filling full combo bins,” says Richardson, whose customers are spread across foodservice and retail segments. For retail use, “We use a vertical form-fill and seal machine,” Richardson says of the packets that are often used as a component in salad kits. For the packets, “everything is gas flushed fresh,” Richardson adds.

Retail customers want to be able to see the bacon so the packets are clear, but printable film could be used. Foodservice bacon production tends to be more conducive to using microwave technology. Customers’ applications dictate the type of bacon bits produced at the plants. Those using bacon on pizzas prefer higher water content in their bits to ensure they won’t dry out during the pizza cooking process. For them, the oil-cooked products are better suited as they are more resistant to drying out. Likewise, some customers require hickory-smoked products while others prefer liquid-smoke-infused flavoring. Dice sizes are typically either 3/4-in. or 1-in. squares and are 3/16-in. thick.

Retail pouches produced at SugarCreek are typically 2.5 ozs. up to 4 ozs. For club store sizes, it isn’t uncommon for SugarCreek to produce up to 20-oz. packages of bacon bits. At foodservice, the standard size is 5-lb. packages, which are usually packaged in a Multivac style pouch.

“There are times recently,” Richardson says, “and I’d even venture to say today, that bacon ends and pieces are more valuable than the pork belly itself.”

The bacon bits business has been on the right side of this bacon phenomenon, Richardson says. “We enjoy it.”

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