When customers call Pederson’s Natural Farms, the Hamilton, Texas, all-natural pork processor, there’s a jingle that plays while callers are on hold about the importance of bacon, with a line in the song touting the product as “something special for my family, something that’s sure to make them happy.”
It’s a viewpoint that Neil Dudley, vice president of the 26-year-old company, says is a cornerstone of Pederson’s beliefs. And considering the company is responsible for increasing its production by 3 million lbs. of bacon each year, which amounts to more than 50 million slices, that creates a lot of happiness.
“Our company is going to be 1.5 times bigger at the end of this year than it was at the end of last year,” Dudley shares. “The No. 1 contributing factor to that is bacon.”
Pederson’s was started in 1990 and back then, its production was divided equally between ham, sausage and bacon. Sometime around 2005, bacon started to dominate the market and there was a titanic shift in the ratio. That’s also about the same time that childhood friends Cody Lane, president, and later, Dudley joined the company. Together, they have directed the growth that continues to this day.
“Initially, we were raising pigs, selling pork to Whole Foods and Central Market and as evolution happens, we made changes that made sense for us,” Dudley notes. “Soon after I joined, we started making bacon. It’s been on a big rise since then and incrementally gotten more popular.”
Additionally, Pederson’s products include 20 varieties of linked sausage products; four varieties of uncured ham; deli meats such as turkey, chicken breast and smoked ham; and all-natural ground bison and grass-fed organic ground beef.
But it’s bacon that is clearly the future of the company. Dudley credits the rise of bacon to its versatility and flavor and people getting over the idea that fat kills you.
“Chefs are into it, foodies, body builders, health nuts, rich people, economically challenged people; there’s no one segment to go after, it’s everyone,” he says. “God loves me because he made me a bacon salesman. Today, you can just walk in somewhere and say ‘I have bacon’ and people want to buy it.”
Dialing in flavors
Two years ago, Pederson’s added some new equipment to its facility to take advantage of the growth in the shelf-stable bacon segment – an idea Dudley now calls “the stupidest decision of all time.”
Not that Pederson’s wasn’t successful in creating a top-notch shelf-stable bacon product, perfecting a flavor and appearance for its pre-cooked bacon line, but the process was much more challenging than anyone imagined.
“We invested in a big spiral gas-fired oven and a big spiral chiller so we could make bacon that tasted like it came out of your oven at home or off your pan. We wanted to duplicate that in a shelf-stable product,” Dudley says. “We’ve seen too many out there that yield an undesirable product in flavor and texture.”
The company repurposed one of its dry storage rooms and spent about a year trying to figure out the best process and fine tune the cooking technology.
“We didn’t understand how much time it would take and how we’d have to start over every time,” he says. “There were really two or three people at the plant who wouldn’t give up and stayed with it day after day and it’s thanks to them that we figured it out and it got to running successfully.”
Pederson’s strategy for the category moving forward is somewhat cautious since many companies are chasing that segment these days.
“This snack category thing has blown up and we’ve been a big part of it. We’ve made protein meat bars that have gone big and had big exits,” Dudley says. “We’re not completely out of it, and will maybe do snack sticks, maybe protein bars, but at this point, we’re a bit bearish on the snack shelf-stable category.”
A bit more optimism
An area they are bullish on is the bacon bits segment, which continues to increase year after year.
“We take all of our ends and pieces made from our bacon production and turn them into bacon bits and crumbles and they are a highly sought-after commodity,” Dudley says. “We see this rising and an important part of the company.” He adds that the biggest buzz in bacon today remains the growing demand for no-sugar products, something that Pederson’s adapted and embraced early.
“Getting sugar out of bacon has been a really successful play for our company and is turning out to be similar for a lot of our competitors at this point,” Dudley says. “About five years ago, we first did it and it took until about last year for it to become big enough that the market is demanding it. Today, more than 50 percent of our company’s bacon falls into this category.”
The company also brings in bigger and smarter equipment to help improve its process and is not afraid to invest in technology to produce the best bacon it can.
“We have a bacon slicer that takes a picture of every slice of bacon with an algorithm that tells us how much is lean and how much is fat and makes some adjustments, so we can hit as close to possible our exact weight target,” Dudley says. “We take advantage of things that cost more money, are smarter and faster. We’re always tweaking and adding things to make it better.”
Late last year, Pederson’s acquired Nature Rancher as a pure play exclusive natural, antibiotic-free brand for Whole Foods. Dudley explains, the retailer was interested in bringing in one and the company was never going to be interested in being exclusive, so it made sense to buy an already exclusive brand so they would have an avenue to keep its business relationship going with them.
One of the biggest lessons that Dudley has learned since starting in the business concerns the importance of sourcing quality bellies, understanding that the raw material quality is worth the premium.
“We make the most money off the raw materials we pay the most money for,” he says. “It boils down to relationships and understanding feed rations. All that stuff the animals are going through before they’ve come to our plant, we’ve learned and know intimately.”
Once the skinned and square-cut bellies arrive, they are hung and smoked in one of the company’s three smokehouses, which can hold approximately 8,000 lbs. of bellies at one time, and are naturally cured.
“We never inject. We put all of our bellies into a big vacuum tumbler and they get between two to four hours to soak the solution up at their leisure, rather than five seconds of time,” Dudley says.
All three smokehouses are linked to Powis PLS controllers which digitally monitor and capture processing data throughout the production process, ensuring an ideal finished product.
As for seasoning, Dudley says that’s an evolution that continues year after year.
“We have lived in uncured bacon land our whole career and this company’s whole life, making a concerted effort to skip away from nitrite and nitrate and not have a preservative in our product,” he says. “It has been a journey of growth, steps back, jumps forward, with all kinds of innovation throughout the years.”
For instance, when Pederson’s originally took the nitrate out, it resulted in gray bacon, and although the flavor was strong, people just wouldn’t buy bacon that wasn’t pink. The company experimented with beet powder next, which produced purple bacon, and it sold better. Then it worked with chemists in Florida who developed a way to get pink bacon using celery juice, and that became the standard in the industry for about six years. Today, there’s a new mixture of spices that replaces nitrates that get the pink look consumers and customers desire.
Dudley is adamant about conveying Pederson’s commitment to its basic foundations for its business, which never includes cutting corners in the production process and a willingness to invest in resources and technology to ensure the company’s continued growth.
“We’re a successful company and have been here a long time, but we’re still nobody in the scheme of things,” Dudley says. “We’re one of the only companies not owned by any big multinational but consider ourselves to be the best little company for those people to watch and know what the trends are going to be. We are plugged into the consumers and that’s been a reason for our success.”