In some ways, a lot has changed at North Country Smokehouse, in Claremont, New Hampshire, and in many ways, a lot has not changed. According to Mike Satzow, the third generation of his family to lead the company, the biggest difference since he and his family founded the company 41 years ago is it being acquired by duBreton, a subsidiary of Canada’s Les Specialites Prodal Ltee, almost exactly one year ago. DuBreton had been a pork supplier to Satzow’s company for 15 years prior to the sale. What hasn’t changed is the company’s success in the bacon segment, which has fueled multiple renovations at its facilities even after moving to its current location and has plenty to do with a current, massive expansion project. As for selling his company, Satzow says that decision was driven by his firm’s growth, especially over the last several years, and specifically for its applewood-smoked bacon – although the firm is also well known for its smoked ham and sausage products.
The Satzow family has a long history of selling meat and successfully running businesses in the area, including operating a Coca-Cola bottling operation while Satzow was in college, and where he worked growing up. By the time he graduated, the Coca-Cola business had been sold, but not before teaching Satzow some valuable business lessons.
“What Coca-Cola taught me was the value of having a high quality and consistent product and just servicing the heck out of the product.” He went on to apply that approach to the company that would one day be North Country Smokehouse.
“There was a time when you couldn’t give bacon away,” Satzow says, recalling the product segment’s reputation for being a fatty item, loaded with liquid smoke by many of the larger packers.
“We started making really high-quality bacon back in the early 90s,” Satzow says, after seeing an opportunity to deliver a leaner, naturally smoked product to consumers. After developing a longtime regionally popular maple cure. The company focused on quality at each stage, starting with the pork supply.
“We went out on the market trying to find a packer who provided us with quality and we never argued over price. We don’t argue over price when we sell it and we don’t argue when we buy it,” Satzow says.
The company started out making cob-smoked bacon, which was a New England specialty, using grounded up, dried corn cobs as the source for the smoke. While the method, which delivered a distinctive, pungent flavor was a hit in northern New England, outside the region, it was not nearly as popular. This led to the development of the company’s now-iconic Applewood bacon.
“It took us national,” Satzow says, estimating the product was rolled out in 1994.
With a high-quality belly supply and a wildly popular flavor profile, the next step in refining the process of producing the company’s signature bacon was installing European smokehouses in its facility. While considerably more costly than domestically produced options, Satzow says the imported equipment delivered higher humidity and the ability to better control the air flow, ensuring more consistent bacon production and the capacity to produce about 20,000 lbs. of bacon per week.
As for improving other processes in its bacon production through better equipment, Satzow doesn’t hesitate to admit the company would adopt what was being used at many larger operations. North Country utilizes vacuum tumbling and injection technology to enhance the quality of its bacon.
When it came to injection technology, for example, “There’s a tendency for people in the meat business to not look at what the competition is doing to improve its product,” Satzow says. “We’re always looking to see how the competition is improving their products and we try to emulate those processes we feel are viable. There’s a lot to learn.”
A self-proclaimed “equipment nut,” Satzow says the company has a history of investing in technology the large processors use that many of the smaller companies are not willing to purchase.
He points out that even with the best equipment there is still a level of expertise that is required to maximize the quality of the bacon. One of those tweaks is holding the bellies for several days after they are injected and tumbled and prior to smoking. And the special touches don’t stop there.
“We smoke it for much longer than most people do, bringing it to a higher temperature than most people do,” and then the product is held for even more time. From start to finish, each slab of bacon produced at North Country requires at least one week to finish. Today, the company’s core bacon customers are in the culinary segment.
“Our bacon process is a very, very long process,” Satzow says, and the final verdict, he adds, is in the flavor.
Since being acquired by duBreton, North Country benefits from the consistency of now being vertically integrated. Satzow says when it came time to address selling the company and considering options for his exit strategy.
“It made sense to go to them,” he says. “They were committed to the same qualities as me and wanted to continue selling into the same markets as me.”
With upwards of 60 SKUs, North Country is maxed out in terms of capacity at its current, 18,000-sq.-ft. facility, and it has far surpassed the days when its production volume was 20,000 lbs. per week. The continued growth is the reason behind the company’s new owner investing in what will be a plant nearly four times the size of the current plant and it will also be built in Claremont. Construction is scheduled to start this spring with a timeline of about 18 months to finish it. The additional space will allow the company to expand in some niche segments, such as nitrite free and Certified Humane as well as grow new products, including a soon-to-launch organic line of products. Product development of bacon bits is in the works too, which would potentially be merchandised in produce departments as a salad topping is another area of opportunity Satzow says could give the company a retail presence, but not in the retail meat case. After moving the bulk of production to the new plant plans are to utilize a significant part of the older Claremont facility for mail-order business.
“The focus of our business is we want to be a resource for people. We want to be a resource for people who want the best bacon, the best sausage, hams or the best pork,” Satzow says.