Bacon has moved beyond the breakfast table, a trend that was evident by the variety of bacon and pork dishes offered to attendees of the 2012 Annual Bacon Fest held in Kansas City, Mo., this past month.

Bacon pierogies, bacon-topped brownies, bacon cheddar brats and even Bloody Mary cocktails spiked with bacon-flavored vodka were available for attendees to sample. All of those tasty products served to show that bacon can be more than a next-door neighbor to eggs – bacon has a lot to offer as an ingredient to dishes traditionally prepared for other day-parts.

“The Internet really started the bacon craze,” says Bert Lawson, manager of culinary and consumer services for Farmland Foods, Inc. in Kansas City, Mo. “Funny shirts, funny sayings — bacon had a quick, cult-like following. And all of sudden there were YouTube videos for Bacon Weaves, Country Fried Bacon and even the infamous Bacon Explosion.

“Then came the bacon-specific cookbooks, bacon-scented candles, bacon-flavored toothpicks; it has taken off,” she adds.

Bacon is a comfort food most associated with breakfast, but that connection has been turned on its head, according to data from NPD Group, a market research company. Bacon has seen the most growth in dinner-time meals as consumers add slices to burgers or use them as an appetizer ingredient, NPD says.

Consumer cravings

For the 52 weeks ending Aug. 12, total sales of refrigerated retail bacon (excluding Walmart) totaled $2.5 billion, up 3.5 percent from the same year-ago period, according to Symphony IRI Group. Private-label bacon led the list of the top-20 sellers at $587.7 million in sales, an increase of 6.3 percent from a year ago.

Despite a sluggish economy and increasing pork prices, bacon is one product that doesn’t seem to lose its appeal among consumers. In fact, consumer demand is driving bacon sales at Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods Inc., according to Brian Chrisman, Bacon Complex Manager, Consumer Products, Tyson Foods.

“Demand for bacon is very high,” Chrisman says. “We find our consumers are asking for more convenience — whether that’s using the product as an ingredient or in small portions.”

Consumers purchased more than 700 million lbs. of fresh, uncooked bacon between August 2011 and August 2012, reaching two-thirds of US households, according to retail and wholesale club data from Tyson Foods. Consumers also bought 17 million lbs. of pre-cooked bacon during the same period.

Bacon bound

So what is it about bacon that has captured consumers’ hearts and minds?

“Bacon is an interesting product that seems to break all the rules,” says Steve Goll, Tyson Foods director of R&D. “It’s not real lean, but people continue to consume it with great enjoyment.”

That’s likely because of bacon’s strong connection to the comfort-food trend, Lawson says. When people think about, taste or smell bacon, the sensory experience ties into memories of family and good times with grandma and grandpa. Breakfast was the meal when everyone gathered at the table and talked about school, the weekend or life in general, she says.

Bacon also improves the quality of a dish and heightens the eating experience, Lawson adds.

“The combination of smoke, pork fat, salt and sweetness brings complexity to your taste buds — something consumers crave,” she says. “Those are things that just don’t happen with a chicken breast or piece of fish. With bacon, just a small amount can go into dishes as a flavor booster. That’s why bacon turns into a ‘seasoning’ ingredient, not just another protein.”

Foodservice powerhouse

Lawson points out mainstream restaurants such as Denny’s and Burger King took bacon into the dessert category by topping ice cream sundaes with candied bacon pieces. The gourmet cupcake craze saw bacon as an ingredient in the cake and in the frosting as a garnish. Bacon appears as an ingredient in several dishes at Gram & Dun, a Kansas City gastropub that specializes in gourmet dining. The Gram & Dun Burger comes with chicken-fried bacon, the Loaded Baked Potato Gnocchi has house smoked bacon and the Happy Cake is a six-layer chocolate confection with salted caramel and bacon.

“On the foodservice side, you can be a bit more creative because customers are on the cutting edge and looking for unique flavors for a specific usage — in many cases, something to make a signature dish — for example, Peppered Bacon Bloody Mary Vodka,” Lawson says. “That is a very unique way to use bacon, and it is delicious. A restaurant would snatch that up and claim it as a signature dish.”

The demand for unique flavors has inspired product developers at Tyson Foods, which recently introduced a Steakhouse Style bacon, Bourbon Barbecue bacon and Brown Sugar Glaze bacon under the Wright brand, which is produced at the company’s Texas bacon complex.

Foodservice customers’ needs for slice thickness or slices per pound vary. Lawson says slices per pound is the most common increments in orders and typical ranges are 14-18 slices per lb. for thick, 18-22 slices for regular and 22-26 slices for thin-sliced bacon. Flavor depends on the salt-to-sugar ratios in conjunction with the type of smoked used (liquid or natural vapor) and smoke flavor (hickory, apple or cherry).

Foodservice providers that need to satisfy health and wellness objectives can still offer great-tasting bacon minus the salt and fat of conventional products. Kraft Foods Inc., Northfield, Ill. offers more than 100 products with either low, reduced or no-sodium, including Oscar Mayer Lower Sodium Bacon. Farmland offers lower-sodium bacon and less-fat, lower-sodium bacon. John Morrell Food Group, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc. has 50% Less Sodium Bacon under the Eckrich brand.

Celebrating the belly

The 2012 Annual Bacon Fest was a fundraising event for the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City (RIKC) that is becoming as popular as bacon itself. The event raised $96,000, with proceeds going toward medical rehabilitation, job placement and disability services for persons who have experienced a catastrophic injury, illness or limiting condition.

“In comparison to last year, it’s almost doubled in fundraising,” says Katie Lindgren, communications coordinator for RIKC. “It definitely has grown from years past and hopefully will continue to grow. We were very pleased with the turnout and the level of enthusiasm of the people there.”

Farmland Foods donated nearly 1,800 lbs. of bacon across all the varieties and flavors the company offers. The company also gave away fresh pork bellies to some of the participating restaurants to use in the vendor bacon recipe contest. This year’s winner in the vendor category was the Art Institutes International-Kansas City with its Bacon Benedict — cheddar biscuit, bacon sausage, poached egg and bacon hollandaise.

Bacon Fest attendees were also treated to a bacon-eating contest in which contestants were given five minutes to eat as much of the 2 lbs. of bacon placed before them. The winner was Randy Santel of Overland Park, Kan., who downed 1.9 lbs. of bacon in the allotted time.

Thanks to its natural attributes and a legion of fans, the versatility of bacon is expanding from comfort food to one-of-a-kind ingredient to…currency?

In September, Oscar Mayer launched a “Bacon Barter” promotion that invited consumers to follow the journey of actor-comedian Josh Sankey in his attempt to trade bacon for food, gas, lodging and other necessities while on a cross-country road trip. Sankey drove from New York to Los Angeles with a trailer carrying 3,000 lbs. of Oscar Mayer’s Butcher Thick Cut bacon. Sankey completed his journey on Sept. 23.