The small processor began curing and smoking meats for local farmers and had a strong and growing business. The company uses a dry rub and curing process that involves giving the pork bellies a wet bath and then hanging them in the smokehouse. It once was a seven-day process.
“We always made pretty darn good bacon since we opened in 1956,” owner Scott Cunningham says. “But we kept looking for ways to improve our product to bring it to the level where it met the changing expectations of our customers.” The company embarked on a never-ending search for ways to make the bacon better and produce it more efficiently.
In 1991, the family turned to tumblers that enabled the cure to evenly disperse throughout the belly and began using a pressurized processing oven that enabled them to reduce the production time from seven days to 24 hours. Their 1,000-lb. Alkar smoking system uses a cold smoke program that requires 15 hours and has a microprocessor that allows tracking of the smoking process and can generate the required HACCP records.
Scott said previous processing change greatly improved yield, but decreased the flavor and shelf life. He returned to the original dry rub and 15-hour cold smoking process.
“We went through many changes,” he recalls. “At first our self-built smokehouse did the job for us, but as demand for our processing services grew and we came under inspection years later, we began selling our own bacon and realized that there were many new technologies out there that we could take advantage of for a small-scale family business like ours.”
Scott says more than pork bellies go into the smoker at a time, so the increase in capabilities helped reduce both labor and utility costs. “We also made a decision to go with a vacuum packaging system to give our product a better presentation both at retail and for our wholesale and private label customers,” he adds.
Cunningham Meats invested in a Treif slicing system that is much less labor-intensive, utilizing a conveyor system and a belt that pulls the bacon from the blade at a slicing rate of 30 seconds per belly. Cunningham's markets their bacon in thick and regular (medium) slices and finds a ready market for their bacon ends. They also feature whole bacon slabs.
Flavors on offer include maple and sugar hickory smoked bacon and has expanded with a pepper flavor and a Sicilian version that’s made with rubbed red pepper and paprika. Cunningham’s bacon production has doubled to about 600 lbs. a week.
The finished product “sells itself” he believes. The 23-employee business has a solid reputation among its bacon customers. Those who try it comment on the fact that theirs is “bacon as it’s supposed to be.”
“I feel we have to see an efficiency ahead before we make a change, but nothing that lessens the flavor or value of our bacon product,” he adds.