Thorp, in Central Wisconsin, isn’t a very big place. Located halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, almost in the geographical middle of the state, the town has only about 1,600 people. But one thing the town does have is Nolechek’s Meats, a meat processing company that’s been operated by four generations of the Nolechek family, and makes lots of bacon in a big way.
The company makes the kind of products that are synonymous with Wisconsin: 30 kinds of brats, Polish kielbasa and other sausages, ham and prime rib. But Nolechek’s Meats makes 10 different kinds of bacon, much of it traditional, not some of the exotic bacons that can have sprung up today. Instead, they are varieties of bacon that are fresh and distinctive – the types of bacon that true bacon lovers savor.
Lindsey Fox, one of the owners and daughter of owner Bill Nolechek and niece of his brother, Kelly Nolechek, also a company owner, represents the fourth generation of the Nolechek family in the business. The company was started by Bill and Kelly Nolechek’s father, who was a veterinarian, in 1952. Today, the company has seven employees, and had more than $1 million in sales last year.
“Bacon is our No. 1 seller, that’s for sure,” the Nolecheks happily point out. The 15,000 sq.-ft. plant manufactures bacon with variety of thickness (regular, thick-cut and some on the thin side), as well as chicken bacon ranch brats, peppered bacon, apple-cinnamon bacon, rasher bacon, beef bacon and turkey bacon.
But their mainstay is honey cured bacon, including double-smoked, slab, butt bacon and raspberry chipotle flavored bacon. The The bacon in the store sells for an average of $7.19 a lb., with 2 lbs. for $11.99. Nolechek’s bacon is also available on www.baconscouts.com.
“I know there are all kinds and varieties of bacon being made these days, but our customers really like the smokiness and the hint of honey, so that’s our big seller,” Lindsey says.
Take, for example, Nolechek’s traditional hickory smoked, honey cured bacon. This year Nolechek’s was awarded an international gold medal by the German Butcher’s Association. “We also won the grand championship last year for bacon from the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors,” Lindsey says.
Right now, the company is curing its first test batch of no MSG-added traditional hickory-smoked, honey cured bacon. “It is something we are doing because we realize there is a demand and feel it will attract more loyal customers. It is important to listen to what the public is asking for and we are excited to offer a product that will reach a wider audience,” she explains.
A lot of Nolechek’s Meats bacon sales are in retail settings, but the company is building its wholesale operations as well. There’s a big market for turkey bacon in the state capital of Madison, Wisconsin, and home of the Univ. of Wisconsin’s biggest campus. Nolechek’s Meats is a state-inspected plant, but is also able to sell some products out of state online and is part of the USDA’s new Cooperative Interstate Shipment program, which allows state-inspected companies to sell some of their products across state lines.
Kelly Nolechek says the bellies are injected, then tumbled. The bacon hangs for a few days, then Bill and Kelly’s sister, Jen, hand slices the bacon. The cooking is done at 143? F. “A lot of places that make bacon don’t do that, but we do because it increases the slice ability and the shelf life of the product,” Bill says.
Kelly, Bill and Lindsey say their company has been going through a lot of positive change in the last few years, with change always being a part of a successful business. “Learning the business from Bill, my dad, and Kelly, my uncle, who learned from their father, who worked alongside his father, is something very special. Four generations have worked in this building, and it is full of history, tradition and legacy. It isn’t always easy, but nothing successful ever should be,” Lindsey says.
The Nolecheks also think the trend to small, locally produced foods is encouraging to producers like them. “People want locally produced products, and they like the idea that their meat and food is produced in small batches,” Lindsey says. “With being able to sell it online, people everywhere can enjoy our high quality bacon and other products,” she says.