Hold the “B” in the BLT? Unthinkable. But apparently even bacon connoisseurs have their limits as rising bacon prices at retail, at least, have led to a slight decrease in unit sales. Are restaurant sales next?

They seem safe for now, if the new offerings from Denny’s and Wendy’s are any indication of bacon’s popularity.

For a limited time this spring, Denny’s was offering a BBBLT sandwich — which contained no fewer than eight strips of bacon — a Triple Bacon Sampler, the Ultimate Bacon Breakfast, Pepper Bacon with Eggs, Bacon Flapjacks, Bacon Meatloaf and the Maple Bacon Sundae as part of its “Baconalia” promotion at its 1,600 locations.

Not to be outdone, since the end of 2009, Wendy’s has added to the menu or maintained the Bacon Deluxe Single, Bacon Deluxe Double, Baconator Single, Baconator Double, Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, Double Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, Jr. Cheeseburger Deluxe, Double Jr. Cheeseburger Deluxe and Crispy Chicken Deluxe. The fast-food chain has also replaced its previous bacon with thick, center-cut applewood-smoked bacon for a sturdier texture and stronger taste.

Quiznos’ Chicken Bacon Dipper, a sub made to be dipped into hot cheese sauce, was recently launched this spring, as well.

And White Castle is another example of a fast-food restaurant, at least, that is adding more bacon items to its menu with two new Bacon Sliders and Loaded Fries that contain bacon crumbles, ranch sauce and cheese sauce.

Price matters

“We are definitely seeing a decrease in demand for retail bacon as prices have climbed higher — consumers love bacon but they have a price tolerance,” says Kristin Clemmer, director of marketplace strategy and communications, Fresh Mark, Inc., based in Canton, Ohio. “What is a weekly staple when prices are low becomes more of a splurge when prices go up. When the prices dip back down — the demand goes up again.”

This summer, CNBC.com reported that the price of pork bellies, which are used to make bacon, had increased from 94 cents per pound to $1.30, with indications that it could rise to $1.50, or $150 per 100 pounds. Indeed, MarketWatch.com has estimated prices as high as $1.70 to $2.00 per pound.

Rising pork belly prices coupled with high corn prices (near $8 a bushel in June), which are causing farmers to reduce their herds, equals pain at the meat case for most consumers. In fact, bacon averaged $4.77 per pound at retail in May, with CNBC reporting that it could reach $6.

Despite high pork belly prices, the state of bacon is good, says Geoff Feil, senior brand manager, Oscar Mayer for Kraft, based in Madison, Wis. 

He notes that pork belly prices averaged more than 25 percent higher in the first six months of this year than last. Indeed, pork belly prices are nearly 70 percent higher than they were in 2009.  That said, bacon category sales are up nearly 15 percent year to date, says Feil. 

“This is due to pricing that has been set by the industry to offset the high cost of pork bellies,” says Feil.  “Unlike bacon dollar sales, category pound sales have declined this year. With prices up, consumers are purchasing fewer actual pounds.” 

Even with rising prices last year, 634 million pounds of refrigerated bacon was sold at retail, with $2.4 billion in dollar sales, reported SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm.

“We won’t see a huge decline in bacon sales, because bacon is a known quantity to consumers and a nice way to add flavor to any meal,” says Patrick Fleming, director of retail marketing, National Pork Board, based in Des Moines, Iowa. “Bacon is a guilty pleasure, but it has always survived because people are willing to indulge a little from time to time, just like they do with ice cream, for example.”

All proteins are priced high right now due to rising feed costs, notes Fleming. The Agriculture Department has even estimated that meat prices will continue to rise this year as much as 6 percent to 7 percent.

Foodservice operators haven’t seen a decrease in demand as prices rise, notes Clemmer.

“Foodservice operators don’t have the flexibility to change prices as quickly as retailers do, and there is still a strong demand for bacon in the foodservice sector,” says Clemmer. “We predict that the demand will remain fairly constant throughout the rest of the year.  However, if high prices continue in the long term, we will see some operators altering their menus to decrease their use of bacon in 2012 and beyond.”

Due to price increases across the board — from commodities to gas — consumers understand that operators are forced to raise their food prices, says Sara Monnette, director of consumer research, Technomic Inc., based in Chicago.

“They don’t blame operators because dishes are more expensive,” she says. “But it’s hard to say at this point if demand for bacon will decrease if prices continue to rise.”

New opportunities 
at retail

At retail, bacon has been a growing category for quite some time — trendy but dependable, crispy but savory.

“In the last few years, bacon has almost become a condiment; it can be added to any dish to make it better,” says Fleming. “It goes with more than just breakfast.”

For this reason, pre-cooked bacon maintains steady growth because it can be easily added to any dish, whether it’s a burger or a salad, notes Fleming.

“Pre-cooked bacon is still a growth opportunity,” he says.

With the start of another school season, parents have another reason to seek out pre-cooked or regular bacon. “Sales always pick up when school starts,” says Fleming.

In addition, although breakfast is a growing segment for restaurants, particularly quick-service restaurants, home-cooked breakfasts will pick up again with the start of the school year, he says.

Fattening up menus

Consumers are increasingly turning to new bolder flavor options, such as applewood, smoked and premium, and thicker cuts at retail and restaurants, says Fleming.

And they are pairing these stronger flavors with other entrees and salads. In fact, Technomic’s “2011 Center of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend” report said that three different types of bacon — regular, smoked and applewood-smoked — were ranked among the top five varieties of pork in entrée salads.

In particular, 62 percent of consumers found regular bacon to be appealing in entrée salads, with 33 percent enjoying applewood-smoked bacon as an ingredient in salads and 25 percent appreciating smoked bacon in salads.

However, applewood-smoked bacon has increased in popularity the most as a salad ingredient, according to year-over-year data. In 2008, only 19 percent of consumers who eat pork on salad said they would like to try applewood-smoked bacon, while 33 percent of today’s consumers said it was an appealing option.

“There could still be more opportunities for these flavor profiles since they complement a variety of dishes,” says Monnette.

Bacon is naturally a popular ingredient in weekday and weekend breakfasts, but more consumers prefer to eat bacon at restaurants during the weekend (19 percent), noted Mintel International’s February 2011 “Breakfast Restaurant Trends” report.

During the weekend, men are more likely than women to order more substantial breakfast foods, such as platters, eggs and sausage, while women are more likely than men to order lighter choices, such as turkey bacon, sausages and egg whites or egg substitutes in platters and sandwiches or wraps, said Mintel.

The skinny on bacon

Although bacon is largely viewed as an indulgence, healthier options such as turkey bacon are also striking a chord with shoppers who are interested in health and wellness, but want to enjoy the taste of bacon.

“Turkey bacon is the fastest growing segment in the bacon category,” says Feil. “Dollar and pound sales are up year to date. Consumers seek better-for-you options, and turkey bacon fits this need.” 

In addition, the turkey bacon segment is benefiting from the higher prices in the pork bacon market as turkey bacon retails for approximately 25 percent less than pork bacon, says Feil.

“Retailers continue to increase the number of turkey bacon SKUs they place on the shelf due to segment reliability and new innovation, such as our new Oscar Mayer Turkey Bacon with Lower Sodium and Sea Salt,” says Feil. “We expect the turkey bacon segment to continue to grow in the future.”

Whether consumers use bacon to add some punch to entrees, they have shown their loyalty to this crunchy, savory protein. It remains to be seen how strong those ties will be as prices seesaw back and forth this year.