A lot has happened for Howard Bender, who formerly spent the bulk of his time focused on his Schmaltz Deli in New York. Bender refocused his energy several years ago to develop beef bacon, known as Schmacon, achieving significant success in the foodservice market after rolling it out in 2013. But he wasn’t even close to stopping there. An entrepreneur at heart, Bender saw the next opportunity in the retail segment, where he envisioned Schmacon competing with traditional pork bacon and less-traditional alternatives, including turkey bacon and a handful of other beef bacon products. Since rolling out the retail version of Schmacon just over two months ago, Bender is assured of having his product on the retail shelves of more than 2,000 grocery stores.
Bender still owns the deli, but thanks to an established management and operations team at the shop, he has been able to focus his attention on the beef product that is trumping all other segments of his Naperville, Ill.-based food company, Schmaltz Products LLC. Bender, a classically trained chef, is now spending most of his days sitting across the table from the next big retail customer as the product is garnering commitments from companies ranging from HEB, Safeway, Hy-Vee and soon Kroger stores.
“My world is Schmacon,” says Bender, whose schedule in a typical week will include a mix of promoting the product on cooking shows and during cooking segments of various TV programs while setting up meetings with the next potential customer.
Creating a retail offering presents a new set of challenges, pushing him and his team of marketers, R&D experts and processing partners to refine the product and its production to appease consumers while fitting into the rhythm and infrastructure of commercial manufacturing practices.
When the foodservice version of the product took off, including winning a 2014 innovation award from the National Restaurant Association and securing national distribution, Bender began thinking about ramping up production and distribution channels to the retail segment and now is off and running.
Procuring the beef belly for the product is achieved using the traditional methods of breaking down a primal, using a portion of the plate, which has no bones. The goal is to get a pork belly-shaped cut initially, Bender says, noting that “we just have to manage it a little differently than a pork belly. It needs to be very rectangular because we can’t press it out of the smokehouse.” He adds that the beef bellies allow slicers to run at the same speeds and yields as pork bacon, thanks to careful management of the Schmacon cut. The only additional processing time occurs because of the day of extra dwell time in the smokehouse.
Revising for retail
Addressing clean-label issues, extending shelf-life and adding new flavor profiles are just a few of the plates Bender has been spinning as Schmacon hits retailers’ shelves.
“We’ve made some significant changes that have transformed it into an all-natural product,” he says. “When we first started, we were using pink salt all day long and doing a smoked-and-cured product,” which changed with the expansion into the retail market where consumers have come to expect better-for-you, cleaner offerings. This same conversion of the retail product is planned for the foodservice offering, expected to be completed later this fall.
A significant enhancement to the production of Schmacon, now that Bender is targeting retailers, is high-pressure pasteurization (HPP), which gives the product a cleaner label and longer shelf-life while serving as a food-safety intervention. Contracting with American Pasteurization Co., a Milwaukee-based tolling company, Schmacon retail products all are treated with HPP and will soon include the foodservice products.
Despite the additional production cost, which Bender says can range from 15 cents to 30 cents per lb., “In my opinion, it’s worth every penny of insurance for the consumer,” he says, “by utilizing only water and pressure to keep the product as natural as possible and protecting the consumer as much as possible.”
While Bender is currently working with the US Dept. of Agriculture on a shelf-life study to quantify the exact number of days, his initial estimates are as high as 180 days.
“Pork bellies are injected, they’re hooked, they’re smoked and they are bacon-pressed,” Bender says. Especially with beef, however, the quality of the meat going into the production line defines the outcome. “You can’t make a bad piece of meat a good piece of meat,” he says. “It just doesn’t work.”
One of the challenges of rolling out a new retail product has been gaining widespread acceptance and commitment from a wide variety of co-processors that are willing to add a non-traditional product to their mix.
Bringing in a new product, complete with new specifications, food safety requirements and even packaging, isn’t always a seamless proposition for processing partners, and most operations can ill afford disruptions in their daily production schedule.
Bender and his R&D partners at Brand Formula spent six months developing Schmacon before ever approaching a bacon processor. Brand Formula’s Director of Product Innovation, Steven Moore, along with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association worked together to discover a beef cut that would work within the parameters and capabilities of most processing facilities were accustomed to traditional bacon production. To make this worthwhile for potential co-processors, Bender says, “I knew I had to have a product with a high throughput and a high yield.”
The next step was identifying processors able and willing to cut the proprietary beef belly, one of which was identified in in Mexico and another in Canada. For the next step, a plant in each of three states – Iowa, Illinois and Indiana – agreed to partner to perform the cooking process, which is accomplished by smoking the cuts to 165 degrees F, considerably longer than pork bellies. Finally, “one of the largest bacon slicers in the US,” in Ohio, acts as the co-slicer and packer for the products.
The benefit of adding HPP to the process turned out to make a significant difference once these plants all agreed to be partners.
“It’s a monstrous difference when you are producing in the Midwest and want to sell it in San Diego,” Bender says of the logistical benefit of the additional shelf-life.
While Schmacon is smoked to what is considered a fully cooked temperature of 160 degrees, it is still considered ready-to-cook by the US Dept. of Agriculture, due to the fact it is sliced in a ready-to-cook slicing room. For now, the product instructions state “crisp and serve,” which can be achieved by placing in a 450-degree oven for about seven minutes.
“Because it has already been cooked to 160 degrees, (all the consumer needs to do is) get it up to temperature to crisp it and you’re done,” Bender says.
While Schmacon isn’t technically categorized as RTE by the USDA, there are opportunities for this type of application. In fact, Bender recently secured a deal with an unnamed international airline, which is serving Schmacon as a bacon-bit-style product on the airline’s overseas flights.
Schmacon is available in one thickness and is now shingle packed for retailers after it was initially only available to foodservice customers in layout format. It is also available as pre-cooked Schmacon bits in a 20-lb. bulk crumble box that is RTE. Bender was also recently asked by a foodservice distributor to offer a stack-pack style bacon, which he plans to begin production on in the fall. Another distributor has asked Bender to create Schmacon in whole, unsliced slabs.
Schmacon gets its unique flavor from a crust that is applied (versus a rub that is used on many pork bellies) that has been described as delivering a pepper-pastrami flavor. While that crust is the original flavor first created, Bender is experimenting with new flavors, including sriracha horseradish, pecan and maple, all of which are in the testing phase.
“I hope that some of the other guys that are making beef bacons will come to us and talk about adapting our method,” Bender says, hoping to make beef a bigger part of the retail aisle currently dominated by pork bacon and, to a lesser degree, turkey bacon. Bender’s goal is to give consumers a choice, whether it’s on menus or in the retail case.
Looking forward, the opportunities for Schmacon are many, including a forthcoming partnership with an unnamed brand of high-quality beef that will soon hit the market. Additionally, Bender has been approached by a processor of buffalo meat to negotiate licensing the Schmacon technique and technology to introduce a buffalo-based version of the product.
“You’re going to see our product in a number of different places, that’s for sure,” Bender says.
The goal with the current retail push is to get Schmacon on the shelves of 2,000 grocery stores within the first six months of rolling the product out to the market. Retail agreements with Safeway, Hy-Vee and HEB have provided a solid base of business to work from. Negotiations with Kroger and Giant Eagle show even more potential for the program. He says there is no tip-toeing into this market, largely because the co-packers Bender works with prefer long, consistent production runs versus less efficient, batch processing.
“Slow, sure ramp up in this industry ensures a slow, sure death,” he says. “You have to be able to go from zero to 100 mph.”