After earning the rank of Eagle Scout in high school and before enrolling in college, Bill Stitt’s father made it clear that he needed to learn a craft. Looking back, what he learned during this time influenced his education and eventually, his career.
“‘I want you to work with this man who’s a butcher,’” Stitt recalls his father telling him. He learned the techniques to breaking down primals and what he calls “the complete art of butchering.” The experience of working as a butcher sparked his interest in the hospitality industry and paved the way when Stitt enrolled at the Univ. of Mississippi. While studying restaurant management he also worked at a restaurant near the campus.
“I worked from dishwasher to chef to manager,” Stitt says. The restaurant also made its own bacon, a process Stitt was familiar with from his butchery days and something he contributed to creating. In what would prove to be a prophetic project, the bosses at the family- operated restaurant asked him to research pork belly to explore the culinary possibilities. He dutifully did research on the subject and learned about the opportunities to make bacon a bigger part of the eatery’s business. Unfortunately, he recalls, the owners told him “I don’t think people are ready to see the words ‘pork belly’ on the menu,” so “project bacon” was put on hold indefinitely.
After graduating from college, Stitt continued working for the same restaurant, however, he was anxious to get out in the world and utilize his degree at a more commercial level. Soon, he was hired by Maryville, Tennessee-based Ruby Tuesday Inc., at the corporate level and ultimately worked as a leader in quality assurance. During his tenure, Stitt heard about the legend that was Benton’s Bacon “because they were right outside the gates of Blackberry Farms,” a leading bed-and-breakfast operation based in Walland, Tennessee, which was purchased by Ruby Tuesday’s founder, Sandy Beall. And, reminiscent of his previous employers’ request, “Ruby’s actually asked me to study pork belly,” he says. The company sent him to Iowa and Illinois to learn about the production and processing steps of manufacturing bacon. “It was very educational,” he says. And, like his former employer, Ruby Tuesday officials concluded that diners were not yet ready to see pork belly as a menu item.
At that time, he was living in Alabama, working as the national director of catering in addition to overseeing the chain’s to-go program. As part of his development and advancement, the company asked him to move to Tennessee, which wasn’t a change he was willing to make. In 2010, Stitt made the decision to retire from Ruby Tuesday at the age of 42. “I had been with them 20 years,” he says, adding that he relished the time he spent with the company. But it was time for him to move on.
“So, I opened this little restaurant in Fairhope, Alabama,” he said, a casual dining spot specializing in burgers where diners could be serenaded by live musicians performing on a small, outdoor stage. He also built a secondary catering kitchen, spanning about 500 sq. ft., adjacent to the restaurant.
“I knew I was going to open my own place one day and I just pulled the trigger; that was the time to do it,” Stitt says. That restaurant is the Old 27 Grill. Part of the catering business included bacon production and was the start of the brand Stitt always dreamed of creating: Bill-E’s Small Batch Bacon.
A student of bacon
The decision to make his own bacon came after tasting dozens of options on the market and concluding that most options were either too smoky or overly enhanced with flavor. That coupled with the wealth of knowledge he’d learned after studying and researching bacon for his previous employers gave him the confidence to launch something different.
Stitt studied cookbooks, meat science journals and what is considered the culinary encyclopedia, Larousse Gastronomique, to learn all he could about the history and details of making bacon. He even went to Italy to learn “how this stuff was made in the beginning,” he says. “There are inventors and innovators,” he says, “and my goal is to become the best innovator,” by applying the old-school process to make a product that stands out among the rest. “I didn’t invent bacon, but I’m doing it the way it was supposed to be done,” the 49-year-old says.
“I realized that everyone was forgetting what this thing was all about,” he says. “You couldn’t taste the pork. So, I wanted to create a bacon that would be very chef friendly for me in my kitchen and that’s what I did.” He identified hogs that would meet his needs, which included Berkshire Reds and Chantilly Whites, raised without antibiotics in an animal welfare-friendly environment. He developed a method for creating the bacon in small batches and hasn’t wavered from it since then. After using the house-made bacon in his restaurant for some time, customers began asking if they could purchase Bill-E’s bacon. Soon, chefs also started asking if Stitt would supply their kitchens with his bacon, which meant he had to ramp up production and become US Dept. of Agriculture compliant to meet the demand of these requests. About two years ago, Stitt took the next step to building the Bill-E’s bacon brand. “I put together a plan to convert my little catering kitchen into a USDA facility,” he says. “And I did it,” despite many doubters and naysayers.
“I had my own smokers, I had a slicer,” and off he went. The bacon production is conducted just a stone’s throw from an outdoor stage where live music is part of Stitt’s restaurant and serves as a metaphor for one of the slogans behind the brand. “We make it behind the stage at the restaurant, so it’s cured, smoked and serenaded by songwriters,” he says. “When you get your invoice, it actually says who sang to your bacon.”
“Instead of me having these giant smokers with forklifts driving in and out of them, I use small, individual, custom-made smokers.” — Bill-E Stitt
“I have two companies: Bill-E’s Old 27 Grill and Bill-E’s Small Batch Bacon,” situated on the same swatch of land in Fairhope, Alabama, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in the booming county of Baldwin. He categorizes the restaurant as “super-casual dining, live music with outdoor entertainment. It’s a burger joint. We serve all Certified Angus Beef hamburgers and hot dogs on brioche rolls,” he says. Pork is a menu mainstay too, including items such as pork belly sandwiches and pulled pork, “and bacon on everything,” he says, including bacon-based appetizers and desserts.
Within the past two years Stitt has tripled the space for bacon processing to accommodate the growth as well as tripling the refrigeration capacity and the staff. And the word is getting out about the Bill-E’s brand, still made in small batches, but just more of them. “Jerry Lee Lewis orders my bacon,” Stitt says as an example of the popularity of the brand. “It’s crazy.” He says online orders come in from all over the world and he is constantly amazed by the demand. “It’s just a growing, booming little business.”
One of Stitt’s first customers is still a loyal customer today. The Original Oyster House in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and the eatery’s second location on the Mobile Causeway, both of which order through Stitt’s distributor, US Foods, reflects Stitt’s success and the growing demand for his bacon products.
“The whole goal was to keep everything small batch,” he says. “Instead of me having these giant smokers with forklifts driving in and out of them, I use small, individual, custom-made smokers,” with each smoker capable of handling up to 100 lbs. Stitt adds smokers as demand grows. Currently he and six employees operate 10 smokers with expansion space to add 20 more and triple his current volume up to 6,000 lbs. per week. He admits the process is labor intensive but points out that the bacon he makes is a high-end, premium protein that is designed to be a center of plate foodservice feature and not a component of an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet.
“When you make a choice to add Bill-E’s Bacon to your menu, you really need to know how to menu engineer, price things right and how to take care of it.”
Recipe for success
The federally inspected bacon facility operates five days a week during regular business hours. Stitt utilizes a blast chiller to facilitate more efficient production, but largely the operations are done the old-fashioned way, he says. Suppliers send him peeled and trimmed bellies two times per week, within 48 hours of slaughter. The bacon facility is divided into three designated rooms: raw, slicing and packaging. “I have a high-end commercial slicer, which is almost constantly being used,” he says.
“Right now everything’s hand-wrapped in butcher paper,” Stitt says, which he was advised against by other butchers but who he’s proven wrong. “You can’t even see the meat through a window,” he says of the packaging, adding that when the volume warrants adding packaging equipment, he’s ready.
“I already have the plans and specs for when I decide to go that far,” says Stitt, who takes the approach of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and for now nothing needs fixed. The shelf life of his product is 20 days if refrigerated and a year or more if it’s frozen.
“I’m making it the same way they did back when they were putting meat on a ship and they were leaving one country for another place and had no idea how long it was going to take them to get there. The whole goal was to recreate cured and smoked pork bellies the way our ancestors did it.”
Stitt has always used hickory wood and a dry cure, including heavy brown sugar, real molasses, kosher salt and a small dash of nitrate-free pink curing salt, using the bare minimum “to keep it legal.” After applying the mixture to the bellies, they are refrigerated and cured for precisely eight days before being hickory smoked, using a low-and-slow approach.
“Everybody asks me how much time it takes and there are a few things I keep a secret,” Stitt says. The finished product is sold frozen, as cured and smoked bacon. He says many of his retail customers will order a case of 24 lbs. of sliced bacon and merchandise five or six of the butcher-paper wrapped bellies at a time and keep the rest frozen. “It doesn’t affect the quality at all,” he says of the packaging and the freezing-thawing process. The bacon is sold sliced and unsliced, but Stitt always encourages customers to at least try the unsliced variety and few ever regret the decision.
At the restaurant alone, Stitt will sell about 100 lbs. per week to customers taking the uncooked product home, an offer that appears on the menu. The two businesses often promote each other. “We have people who don’t even know about the restaurant that come in to pick up their bacon and then they find out we have a restaurant.”
He has no designs on shifting his business model to either the restaurant or the bacon operation. “When you’re not losing money and you’re doing what you love, why would I walk away?” he says of the two businesses. “I like them both and they both feed off each other and they both market each other.”
The restaurant employs about 35 employees, says Stitt, who admits he works constantly and still enjoys it. Recently featured on the Cooking Channel’s, “Seaside Shacks and Snacks,” Stitt said the restaurant and his bacon brand are quickly garnering national attention. A food critic’s recent blog about Bill-E’s bacon ranked it among the top 3 in the country.
Stitt’s bacon is also sold online. At times when sales spike, especially during the holidays, he uses the staff from the restaurant to help fill mail orders.
Looking ahead, Stitt has high hopes. “Eventually my goal is to do the whole hog, but I just don’t have the space right now,” Stitt says. He is bullish on his small-batch approach to bacon production, but he does foresee a much larger facility in the not-so-distant future. But size can’t compromise his focus on small batches and traceability. Until then, Stitt is on the lookout for the right financial partner to be a part of taking the business to the next level, “to come down here and help me build a large facility but still follow the same processes and specs.” The opportunities for growth are waiting to hatch, he says. “It’s just got so much potential. It’s endless what we can do with it.
“Fast doesn’t work for what I’m trying to do,” he says, and there have been times when requests have come in for thousands of pounds of his product by a company, usually at a price that forces Stitt to politely decline. To them, he says, “You’ve got the wrong guy; that’s not what we do,” he says. “It’s a high-end, premium protein that we want chefs to treat as center of the plate.”
He says there’s room in the market for both the boutique bacon like his and the commodity product available. “I tell chefs all the time to continue to buy that commodity bacon; put that on your buffet, use it for your regular stuff. But then, buy Bill-E’s bacon and do a $2 upcharge,” he says, and history shows the better-quality option will win over diners at a surprising rate. “Folks will want my product. We don’t disappoint.
“We’re not cutting any corners and that’s the only way we’ll grow and grow properly,” Stitt says.