Ed Woods’ expertise as a bacon processor dates back about 45 years, when he worked at the Wilson Foods pork plant in the Kansas City Stockyards. By the time he left the company, he was in charge of the plant’s bacon processing operations. Woods grew up in the food business as his father, Goodrich, founded the retail store that is now known as Woods Smoked Meats Inc., in 1947. Ed, who earned a degree in food science and nutrition from the Univ. of Missouri, learned about commodity pork production and volume-based bacon manufacturing in the late 1960s during his tenure at Wilson. He knew when he joined the family business, assuming the role as CEO in 1985, that he wanted to maintain a focus on quality bacon, not quantity at the custom plant he operates with his wife, Regina, in Bowling Green, Missouri.
He laughs recalling the days at the Wilson plant, where it was routine to “kill the hog in the morning, pump it in the afternoon, smoke it that night and ship it the next day. There’s not much time for flavor development,” he says. Woods requires his bacon to “rest” for up to four days after seasoning, tumbling and injecting, “and the country bacon sits for about 10 days,” he says. Time adds flavor, color and aroma, he says. “Good things take time and if you don’t have to, there’s no sense in getting in a hurry to crank it out,” he says.
As a diverse, small meat company, Woods is known not only for its “Sweet Betsy from Pike” brand of premium bacon, but also for its expertise in custom slaughtering and processing whole animals as well as crafting award-winning ham, sausage and unique products for customers frequenting Woods’ retail business.
Through the years though, Woods has earned a reputation for producing premium bacon and that part of his business has especially thrived in the past five to seven years. In earlier years, Woods dry rubbed bellies and let them sit for days to produce country bacon, which was a staple at the store dating back to the 1970s. In the late 1980s that process was supplemented when the company bought its first tumbler and a few years later invested in injection technology to enhance the product. To keep up with demand today, Woods operates three smokehouses, with a total capacity of seven racks of products and three tumblers. The benefits of the equipment investments was almost immediate, says Woods.
“Using the tumbler really helped control the salt level,” he says, eliminating some of the inconsistency inherent in a rub-only process. Not surprisingly, the yield of the bellies improved with the addition of the injection step.
But even with equipment that ensures consistency and quality products, Woods says a quality-in, quality-out approach is essential. When it comes to sourcing raw material he’s learned which suppliers deliver the most consistency when it comes to lean-to-fat ratio, trim, size and shape. The target belly size is between 11 lbs. and 13 lbs., and Woods doesn’t use a bacon press in his shop, but does utilize a Biro slicer. The combination of technology and quality raw material pays off.
“It makes a nice thick, wide slice,” he says, and customers paying between $4.99 and $5.69 expect a memorable eating experience.
Woods offers a growing variety of flavored bacons as demand continues to increase. The company sells up to 300 lbs. of bacon per week at its retail store in addition to the bellies it processes as part of its custom-processing business, located in the small north-central Missouri town near the Illinois border.
Among the bacon varieties and flavors sold at retail, available at the shop or online, are: hickory smoked, apple smoked, country style, peppered, Cajun, honey barbecue, apple cinnamon and chipotle lime. The hickory smoked bacon is easily the most popular bacon sold at Woods.
Woods says he develops new flavors by collaborating with his ingredient suppliers, and many of the profiles are offered as pre-mixed seasonings, ready to apply. Others, including the Cajun bacon, have a home-made formula. “I’ve always made that,” Woods says. “That’s kind of my own concoction.”
He said in a small town like Bowling Green, innovation and new flavors are the key to keeping customers coming back. About a 90 minute drive from St. Louis, near the bridge that connects Missouri to Illinois, Woods says much of his retail and customer business comes from the Illinois side of the State Line as commuters make the trip to and from Illinois.
“We’ve always tried to make our bacon using extra flavors to make it taste different than what you can buy in a store.”
Woods’ product is packaged using a rollstock machine to produce 1-lb. packages with black film on the back and a label on the front. The bacon is all sold in a stack-packed format “It’s a nice looking package,” says Woods, adding that unlike many of the big-name bacon brands, Woods is proud to sell his bacon in 1-lb. packages as opposed to quietly shifting to 12-oz. formats like many big-name brands have done.
Woods makes up to about 175 different products, including ham, sausages, bacon and more. “We’ve got to give people a reason to come out here to buy their meat.”
Health conscious consumers occasionally ask about the curing agents used in most bacons. Questions about the use of nitrites sometimes come up, for example.
“I try to tell them that if they eat any green, leafy vegetable, they’re eating 10 times as much nitrite as there is in a pound of bacon,” Woods says.
Woods sells bacon directly through his website as well as through a third-party website, baconscouts.com, which features premium bacon from a variety of companies.
“Everybody is so crazy over bacon anymore,” he says, adding that the popularity is fueled by bacon themed festivals and inclusion of it in many forms and as an ingredient in a growing number of recipes.
Bacon-mania isn’t a trend Woods would have ever predicted, especially consumers’ acceptance of premium products at a premium price.
“Twenty years ago if you said you’d be getting $5 per lb. for bacon, I’d have laughed at you,” he says.