Eighty-six years ago, John F. Martin was a struggling farmer in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, doing the best he could to pay off his debts. One way he figured to do this was to begin raising poultry and produce to sell at a farmer’s market in Philadelphia, about 65 miles away. After doing that for 21 years, he opened a butcher shop and in 1961 established John F. Martin & Sons Meats. He started the shop right in the middle of the original family farm in Stevens, in Northern Lancaster County.
Fifty-three years later, in the middle of an explosion of love and consumption of bacon in the United States, the Martin family realized they’d run out of room to make this favorite product. “There was a big empty factory in Womelsdorf, near Reading, only 12 miles from us,” says Bernell Martin, 44, president of John F. Martin, a 3rd-generation member of the fourth-generation meat processing company. “It had been the Valley Forge Flag Co. factory and was sitting there empty for 10 years. It made great sense for us to split the bacon off, so we’d have more room at Stevens for our other meat products.”
The 190,000-sq.-ft. factory was a perfect site for Martin. The company moved all its bacon production up there. Plus, it gives the company additional space to grow in, he points out.
The company has two major niches when it comes to its bacon. Producing bacon for retail is one of them. The company’s customers in that segment include regional supermarket chains. But Martin’s also has many small and locally-owned grocery stores and food markets as customers, where it the bacon it sells are what Martin calls his “locally favorite bacons, the Pennsylvania Dutch style bacon.”
“I call it ‘regular’ bacon, although that may not be the right word for it,” he says with a laugh.
“We do different smokes, not just wood smoking. But all our smoking is real – no liquid smoke. We also offer hickory and apple-smoked bacon,” Martin explains. Traditional Pennsylvania Dutch style bacon is a favorite seller in the Southeastern Pennsylvania region and well beyond.
Then there is Martin’s other major bacon niche: “That’s co-packing and private-label. They’ve become a major part of our business.” These bacon products include cottage bacon, pepper bacon, maple bacon, low salt bacon, turkey bacon, maple turkey bacon, chicken bacon, Canadian bacon, and beef bacon. With the huge American love affair with bacon, people have developed tastes for all kinds of bacon. Martin’s regional-style bacons that are sold retail find their customers at the smaller regional grocery chains and independent supermarkets and small retail stores, including family-owned stores and farm markets in the Mid-Atlantic region.
But the privately-labeled and co-packed bacon varieties have gone national, to supermarket chains and distributors across the country. “We always did some co-packing,” Martin points out. “But with the increase in the amount of bacon we’ve been making, our co-packing and private-labeling just took off.” There’s no doubt that bacon is by far the biggest part of the company’s co-packing and private-labeling production.
Sources for Martin’s bellies for his bacon range far and wide. “For our raw materials, we have a wide array of suppliers,” Martin explains. “The bellies come from large slaughter plants, because we don’t slaughter ourselves anymore. These big plants are located across the US and in Canada. Then we also buy our bellies from regional sources, as well. So, it’s a pretty good mix.
Martin points out that there have been major changes in the equipment used in bacon-making, and that’s become a major area of investment for John F. Martin and Sons Meats. In the last eight to 10 years, there have become a lot more options for his company and others to process bacon. “Injectors, slicers, handling and packing, that’s changed so much,” Martin explains. “We’ve gone from traditional slicers to weight control. Automation is a growing trend in the bacon business, because labor is an issue.” Still, because of the growth of the bacon segment of his business – “bacon is the biggest part of our production,” Martin says – the company now has more than 250 employees, a far cry from that farmer struggling to pay his debt 86 years ago.
And it’s probably no surprise that John F. Martin & Sons most popular bacon is the traditional bacon. “Our traditional flavor is the smoked bacon, with the traditional hickory wood smoke, not real salty, and no sugar. We pump it, hold it a minimum of 24 hours, smoke it, and chill it for 48 hours, press it and slice it. That traditional bacon outsells all the other bacons – at least in my world,” Martin says.