When Mike Holland took over the specialty bacon production activities at Holland Brothers Meats in Duncansville, Pennsylvania, three years ago, he began visiting with other small plant operators who attended cured meats competitions at the state and national levels.
"They were the most generous people in giving their time and tips on how they improved their finished product," Holland recalls. "We're all competitors in the competitions, but we're all about giving our local customers the best product we can.
"Winning at the cured meats competition at the state and national level is one of the biggest boosts you can give your business. It's an industry recognition that your product is superior. The feedback you get from meat science and accomplished processors on what it takes to make your entry better is there in black and white."
Holland Brothers captured the Reserve Champion Award at the 2016 American Cured Meat Championships in Omaha in late July for its dry cured country bacon and the Reserve Grand Champion plaque for its heavyweight brine cured entry.
"We were doing the right things all along, but made a decision to switch the source for our pork bellies," the rising bacon processor explains. "We weren't pleased with the thin bellies and went to the thicker Canadian bellies that were available. That enabled us to get product with good rectangular shape and eliminate the pale color in the slices and still keep the flavor profile we wanted."
Holland believes that trying new approaches and curing methodology is worth the effort. He dry rubs his country bacon and lets it cure for 10 days. He also adds maple syrup to the meat side of the country bacon to optimize flavor and never wants to deviate from that process. The country bacon is not typically a tumbled product.
"Don't get me wrong," he cautions, "there are times when we have to make our injected bacon faster to keep up with demand. But our preferred method is to [only] tumble the bellies if we have to get product out overnight. But we have to maintain our standards for flavor and aroma."
When Holland talks about employing tips he's learned from others, that in no way limits his eagerness to experiment with new ideas in bacon production. He is fielding specialty bacons with flavor profiles that set the company apart.
"We make several styles of specialty bacon," he adds. "We've done honey barbecue, apple cinnamon, Cajun, pepper and chipotle lime. To us, it is important to make them for a limited time and then rotate what we are offering. That helps attract new customers and gives our long-time customers something new to try. A lot of those shoppers come in to see what we are coming out with next. A Hungarian bacon is a work in progress that we feel we will offer in the near future."
A key part of the company's strategy is to price the specialty bacons at only ten cents a lb. above the regular bacon. Holland says some processors think he's crazy for doing that, but he postulates that it makes the introduction of new specialty bacons easier for customers to try. If they like it, they keep coming back for more.
Holland keeps reminding himself that things he's learned from other processors are like fine gold. "This is truly an honor for them to share this information with me.
"One small plant owner told me about making dog treats," he notes. "Basically my only cost was for salt, casings and time. That one idea accounted for a great, profitable product. But the thing is, that's a profit center every year in our business."
Country bacon was a new product and category for Holland Brothers. Holland felt it would take him three years to perfect the product for the national competition, but he homered on his first at bat in the American Cured Meat Championships.
"We'll make it the same way whether it's for competition or for sale in our retail area," he concludes. "We may pay a bit more attention to the overall appearance and workmanship on the bacon we enter, but when we can come home and tell our customers that what we're selling to them is a national championship product and it has the same taste, flavor and level of quality as what we entered...well, it's case closed.”