Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville, Tenn., didn’t really come up with a revolutionary way to make bacon. The success of the company’s “legendary” bacon lies in the simplicity of its approach to making it the same way it’s been made for hundreds of years.
“Our bacon is different than most bacon, as it’s dry cured and hickory smoked,” said Allan Benton, owner. “The intense smoky flavor isn’t for everybody. But thank goodness enough people like it to keep us in business.”
Benton’s business began in 1947 when Albert Hicks, a dairy farmer in Eastern Tennessee with about 40 cows, started curing and selling country hams and bacon out of a building behind his house. In the fall of 1973, Benton talked Hicks into letting him lease the building in his backyard and running the ham and bacon business himself. Then in 1978, Benton moved the operation to its current location in Madisonville.
When it comes to making the bacon, Benton’s starts with dry curing pork bellies by hand, using a mix of salt and brown sugar.
Once cured, the meat stays refrigerated in coolers at 38˚ F for about 20 days. Next, the meat is dried for 10 days and then hangs in a smokehouse for three days.
Benton’s cold smokes its meats (at temperatures below 130˚ F) using only hickory wood in a small, wood-stove smokehouse behind the business.
“It’s not rocket science, it’s the same recipe my grandparents used to cure pork in the log smokehouse behind the house I was born and raised in (in Scott County, Va., in Southern Appalachia),” Benton said.
Benton’s sources its pork bellies from producers in the Midwest, mostly from Missouri and Iowa, he said, adding that he’ll buy pigs from wherever he finds fresh pork.
As for the bacon slicing process, Benton said the company chills the meat to 10˚ F to 15˚ F and then slices it on Anco bacon slicers that he said have proven to be reliable. Benton’s has been using Anco slicers for decades.
Finally, bacon is hand-packed mere feet from the smokehouse, vacuum-sealed and boxed to ship.
“It’s shelf stable and ships unrefrigerated in the US year-round, so you can put it on your kitchen counter for three weeks,” Benton said.
One online order of Benton’s Hickory Smoked Country Bacon contains four, 1-lb packs of bacon for $32 plus shipping.
Word travels fast
Besides selling its smoky bacon in the retail store attached to the Benton’s facility, the company does a large portion of business through its website and sells directly to smaller grocery stores and restaurants.
Benton said the first restaurant to order directly from him was celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s highly acclaimed restaurant, Craft, in New York City.
“Within three weeks to the day, we were selling to seven restaurants in New York,” he said, including another celebrity chef, David Chang, and his restaurant, Momofuku.
Seven years ago, a friend said Benton had become an overnight success.
“But I told him, ‘I’ve been in business for 47 years,’” Benton said. “When I started, I didn’t have enough money to advertise. My dad’s philosophy was that if you make good enough quality products, that will keep you in business.”
Benton added, “I’ve been blessed to run the business for a long time. We try to offer the best customer service we can and buy the freshest pork you can get.”
Benton said the ham and bacon demand peaks seasonally too, usually around the holidays from October through December.
“We get so many orders in December, we can’t get all of it physically out in a timely manner,” he said. “We also get lots of retail orders and from restaurants, so we stay very busy that time of the year. Our business rises and falls with the restaurant industry.”
For the first 20 years of Benton’s 47 years of making bacon, he said he could barely keep the doors open and he spent many sleepless nights worrying about paying the bills.
Many years later, he said the farm-to-table movement really benefited his ham and bacon business.
“What I am making is a very natural product cured only with salt and brown sugar,” Benton said. “Our unique, smoky flavor profile has also helped us stand out.”
Once the bacon craze of the past 10 to 12 years hit, Benton said his company has been riding the coattails of that movement ever since.
“Who knows, they may be eating plant-based bacon in the future,” he said.
As for his future as a legendary bacon baron, Benton concluded: “I’ve been around 72 years, and I’d like to be around 20 more and make it to 92.”