Three years ago at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show in Chicago, the talk of the show in the meat and poultry arena was the launch of Schmacon, self-proclaimed as “Beef’s Answer to Bacon” by Howard Bender, CEO of Schmaltz Retail Products and his Naperville, Ill., team. Traffic to the small-ish Schmacon booth was heavy, the atmosphere quite festive, and the word on the street was mostly positive, bolstered by Schmacon winning a FABI (Food and Beverage Innovation) Award from the NRA that year.
Soon after, Schmacon began a national rollout plan, focused primarily on foodservice, but also including retail. Expansion of the product was methodical but steady, until early 2017, when a partnership with Certified Angus Beef LLC was formally announced with the launch of Certified Angus Beef-branded Uncured Beef Slices (Schmacon). The partnership has given Schmacon a big boost, and what follows are interviews with both partners: Bender of Schmaltz Retail Products, and Brett Erickson, director, Value-Added Products for the beef brand.
Q&A with Howard Bender, CEO, Schmaltz Retail Products
Hanacek: Schmacon was moving along nicely since its launch at the NRA Show several years ago, but your connection with Certified Angus Beef has really altered the trajectory. Can you discuss how that connection developed?
Bender: Everything changed nearly two years ago, when our scientist held a conversation with one of the Certified Angus Beef brand’s business development folks. Their team was looking for somebody to produce a beef bacon under the umbrella of their brand. They found the same thing we did: The products out there were all disappointing. They liked ours and wanted to talk with us about developing an exclusive flavor profile using their product.
We worked through the process for a couple months because we had to certify and license our plants to produce product under that brand, and we had to work through the logistics of this new, co-branded relationship.
Also, our original product was very lean, which worked very well for our process. All of a sudden we have to work with a highly marbled product, and that really forced us to reassess the handling of the product. We were married to staying whole muscle, married to no chunking and forming, married to not overworking the product. We had to cater our process to the higher quality of Certified Angus Beef product. In the end, it’s a better product. I think it’s an unbelievable clone of pork bacon, and that was what Certified Angus Beef was going after. This is the very first time that anybody’s ever come to market with a premium beef bacon.
Hanacek: Roughly six months into production on this product, what percentage of your production right now would you say is your regular Schmacon versus this new variety?
Bender: It’s still a pretty even mix, but we are now leaning more toward Certified Angus Beef product.
I think our own brand and product is very strong, but ... the quality of their meat makes such a huge difference in the finished product. The controls and consistency I get from it coming into our plant are much more consistent and easier to manage. Schmacon could have never done that, but Certified Angus Beef can. We anticipate as we grow, that relationship will just grow stronger with both their company and their raw material suppliers. With that said, we’re not going to phase out our original product.
I believe that our ratio at the end of the year will be 20 percent our own brand and 80 percent Certified Angus Beef brand Schmacon, especially because of some of the specific growth we see coming on the West Coast, in the Middle East, and where we always thought we would be really strong: the East Coast.
Hanacek: “Beef’s Answer to Bacon” was an early marketing phrase that carried Schmacon through its first few years. Is that still a primary pitch, or has that changed at all?
Bender: It’s “America’s Steak Bacon.” I have that on a package and the USDA approved that statement on the package. But we have other attributes. [For the Middle East market], Halal is great. All-natural ingredients is great. No artificial nitrates or nitrates is great. Certified Angus Beef-branded raw materials is great. High, high protein compared to pork is great.
Hanacek: You’re still trying to get beef bacon on the map in comparison to the bacon products produced in other protein segments, correct?
Bender: What I would love, and what I think is going to happen, is you’ll see on the menu, pork, turkey, and beef bacon — it’s going to become as commonplace as the others.
The demand for the product is going to grow rapidly as companies start to figure out how to make it well. We will be a force in it, but my personal opinion is that Certified Angus Beef raw materials and their brand have brought us to this dance in a really serious way. It’s going to be a huge area of opportunity for all of us.
Hanacek: Do you expect that you’re going to reach capacity any time soon at the John Hofmeister and Son plant (in Chicago) that I toured for the story? What plans do you and the Hofmeister leadership have for the near future?
Bender: We’re slicing only foodservice over at Hofmeister right now. We’re actually looking for a retail stack pack machine right now for Hofmeister so that we don’t have to move product around. The only time it’ll be moved around is either to the freezer for export or to the high-pressure pasteurization plant for retail product.
Every time you move your product you introduce a new environment, new bacteria, no matter what you do. The faster and closer to the smokehouse you get it in a package, the better. That’s why we really want to get a retail stack pack machine in that room.
If we can do that then... we could be smoking all day and slicing all night, two shifts. One step at a time, sure, but I’m excited because we’re actually hitting some major broadliners in major markets that have already sold beef bacon before successfully. We’re converting their current product to ours. NP
Photo Courtesy of Certified Angus Beef LLC
Hanacek: Discuss the work that you’ve been doing with Howard Bender’s team to create your beef bacon.
Erickson: We wanted our formulation to be unique from Howard’s original product. Working with our culinary team and Howard, we developed a traditional bacon flavor with saltiness, smokiness and a just a hint of sweetness. Our product integration manager, Mark Gwin, also worked alongside Howard, his team and Steve Moore with BRANDformula to perfect the process. We’ve yet to see any other process that really replicates pork bacon as close as this does. It browns; it curls; it crisps just like pork bacon.
Hanacek: Discuss demand for this product both nationally and internationally.
Erickson: We had been hearing from some of our customers that they wanted bacon made with the Certified Angus Beef® brand, specifically in some international markets. Our beef bacon sets the bar on quality in those markets and in North America today.
Demand continues to grow among specialty meat distributors in foodservice. Howard joined us for a recent event with chefs and they raved about the product. … Retailers also sampled the product at our booth at the Annual Meat Conference. There is huge potential for this superior product in stores and restaurants as an alternative to pork bacon. It’s lower in salt and fat than traditional pork bacon. The product is naturally cured with sea salt and celery powder, not added nitrates or nitrites. Our beef bacon slices are meaty, too, making it a good fit for the protein and meat snack market.
Hanacek: Discuss what this partnership means overall to each side.
Erickson: It’s the right kind of product that fits the Certified Angus Beef brand level of quality and expectation. This unique product clearly allows us to differentiate from other beef bacons in this new category for us.
The quality of the cut used to make this product improves performance and customer satisfaction. With Howard, our culinary team, Dr. Phil Bass, Mark Gwin and our value-added product team, we collaboratively developed a product that takes the Schmacon concept that Howard created to a higher level.
Hanacek: Look into crystal ball as to where Schmacon is headed, particularly among your customer base.
Erickson: There is huge potential for this product in foodservice and retail both internationally and in the U.S., especially when you consider current consumer demand for protein and bacon products in particular. It brings quality and uniqueness to the category with natural curing and similar performance to pork bacon.
Certified Angus Beef brand Schmacon product brings beefy flavor to endless meal applications — whenever bacon is served at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It complements burgers, wrapped filets, salads, sandwiches, loaded baked potatoes, pizza, casseroles, chili and so much more.