When S. Clyde Weaver Inc. went into business 100 years ago, bacon was one of the original products the company made and sold, the others being ham, bologna and dried beef, with luncheon meats and cheeses coming later. The company is a midsize retailer that operates two stores with cafes and it maintains stands at eight farmers markets in Southeastern Pennsylvania – in Lancaster County, Lebanon County and suburban Philadelphia.
But bacon has always been one of the best-known and top-selling products for the company.
“That’s what we did at first and bacon has always remained one of our top products,” said Dan Neff, the third-generation owner and president of the well-known company.
But what Weaver’s bacon is probably best known for is retaining a continuous flavor profile that hasn’t changed over the past century. The bacon recipe and smoking methods remain much the same today as they were in 1920.
“We have been able to maintain the flavor profile of the bacon that we sold 100 years ago,” Neff said. “The company was started by my maternal grandparents, S. Clyde and Emma Weaver, so I’m the third generation of the family in this business. When the company began, many people, even those living in cities, did their shopping at farmers markets. At one time, there were five farmers markets in Lancaster City.”
Some years ago it seemed that farmers markets were dying out, but what goes around comes around. For many consumers, this custom of buying fresh products in farmers markets has come back in a big way, as customers today jam their way into farmers markets to search out more locally raised and created foods, including meat and poultry products.
“These farmers markets are not pop-up markets that are set up for a couple hours,” Neff said. “They are large indoor markets that operate two or three days a week, with two markets that are open only one day a week.”
Lancaster’s Central Market, where Weaver’s has a large stand, is the oldest continuously operating farmers market in the United States. And while the number and locations of some of the farmers markets where Weaver’s has stands have changed over the years, the idea behind the company’s retail operations hasn’t. The markets have always been and continue to be a center point in Weaver’s retail operations. Today, the midsized company has 60 full-time and 220 part-time employees at its stores, cafes and farmers market stands.
What sets S. Clyde Weaver’s bacon apart from many others on the market today is the technology used to make it. Neff said Weaver’s bacon is produced in a very traditional way.
“We are retailers, we don’t make our bacon,” Neff said. “Our bacon is made by local packers. Beginning in 1920 and for the next 65 years, until the mid-1980s, the bacon was made starting with a single smoke. We would start with a fully cooked bacon from our processors, and then apply a second smoking process to it. So, we would rehang the bacon and then give it additional smoke. It makes the character of the bacon very different.
“Then, in the mid-1980s, we decided to have our local processors do the second smoke, a dark smoke, as I call it. We didn’t need to be carrying out this step ourselves anymore. But the double smoking – the bacon being smoked for a second time – that is an essential part of our recipe.”
Neff explained the process.
“It is smoked at a low heat, enough to flavor the bacon without cooking it,” Neff said. “It makes a very different style of bacon.”
He said this additional process changes the bacon in basic ways.
“If smoking bacon once gives it a delicious smoky flavor, why not smoke it twice to make the flavor even richer?” Neff asked.
For most manufacturers of bacon, the time invested would be prohibitive. Weaver’s double-smoked process produces a bacon that has a sumptuously rich flavor. All of the bacon at Weaver’s is double-smoked. He’s also looking for a flavor profile in Weaver’s bacon that’s sweet, not salty. And he thinks the sugary nature of the bacon carries the greater smoke level, as well.
“That’s what our customers want,” he said. “As you know, customers have many different likes and dislikes when it comes to their food, especially products like bacon. The people who buy our bacon have a very strong desire for a heavily smoked product. If that’s what they want, that’s what we’re going to give them.”
The bellies Weaver’s bacon comes from are different, too. Bacon, since it’s a processed meat product, can come from a pig’s belly, back, sides or shoulders. In Great Britain and Ireland, back bacon is very popular, but in the United States, bacon, sometimes called side bacon or “streaky bacon,” typically comes from pork belly.
The bacon goes through a curing process, to preserve the meat. After curing, the bacon is dried off and then goes into the smoker for further preservation and flavoring. And while bacon can be wet-cured (with a liquid) or dry-cured, Weaver’s bacon, being traditional, is dry-cured.
“We’re always aiming for a lower moisture level in our bacon,” he said.
The other technical detail that sets Weaver’s bacon apart is where the bacon comes from. And while Weaver’s bacon comes from pork belly, like most other bacons do, Neff said his packers always use the smallest pork bellies available for making the bacon.
“We’re always looking for a 9- to 11-inch belly for our processors to use, while most bellies are 12 inches or wider,” he said. “Bellies in full size market hogs are very wide now.”
Neff believes the smaller bellies produce leaner bacon.
“Also, we wanted small bellies because we were putting the finished bacon on 9-by-12 vegetable parchment paper, so it didn’t soak up any fat,” he said. “That’s how we go to market, we’d been doing that since the 1930s and 40s.”
So together, the smaller pork bellies and the double smoking create the flavor profile that Neff wants – the flavor that the bacon has carried for the past 100 years.
S. Clyde Weaver offers several types of bacon for its customers. In addition to its traditional bacon, there’s a thick-slice bacon, a peppered bacon and pre-cooked bacon. The pre-cooked bacon is a trend that Neff sees growing in the meat industry, with time-constrained consumers wanting the producer or retailer to take on some of the work in preparing their food.
Many in the industry debate whether the skyrocketing popularity of bacon is sustainable or if it has hit a plateau. But most believe the bacon boom will continue to roll on.
Neff thinks the demand for bacon continues to grow because of the versatile use of the product in many different settings.
“Bacon originally was a breakfast meat – bacon and eggs, right? But now bacon has moved into a lot of different settings,” he said, including toppings for hamburgers and pizza, at lunch and dinner times. “Of course, bacon’s been on the BLT for a long time. But it’s even in combination with other foods – chocolate, you name it.”
Neff also is excited about the future of bacon in general, and Weaver’s bacon in particular.
“We want to maintain our bacon’s flavor profile – a full-flavor, smoked bacon,” he said. “That’s our heritage and we’re continuing it.”