If you are going to spend your entire life in the pork industry, you could scarcely hope for a better name than Joe Leathers. Leathers, who proudly inserts the nickname “Bacon Belly” between his first and last names, is now a retiree in Kansas City, Mo. But he has been a pig man since the beginning. “My whole career has revolved around the pork industry,” says Leathers, who was born in Austin, a southern Minnesota town where the pork-producing corporation Hormel has been based since 1891. It’s where Spam was born. “If you didn’t work for Hormel, you didn’t work,” he says.
Leathers began at age 21, back in 1970, wielding a knife on the killing floor of Hormel’s giant slaughterhouse for three and a half years, dispatching and dismembering hogs into the bellies, chops, and loins Americans ate. Over his three and a half decades in the business, he sold pork, bought pork, marketed pork, and managed the people and the pigs at the core of the pork business. In all that time, nothing prepared Joe “Bacon Belly” Leathers for Bacon Mania.
In the past decade, bacon has grown into an industry generating more than $4 billion in annual sales. It has moved from a breakfast meat to a food trend touching an incredible array of consumer goods, both edible and not, from bacon-heavy fast-food burgers and bacon-infused desserts at fine dining restaurants to bottles of bacon-distilled vodka and even a sexual lubricant formulated to smell (and taste) like bacon. More than cupcakes, ramen, or kale, bacon has become the defining food trend of a society obsessed with food trends.
Food trucks, barely in existence prior to 2008, now employ tens of thousands and generate more than $2 billion in revenues. The rise of specialty coffee and the Starbuckification of most coffee drinkers has shifted the production of the entire coffee-growing business to Arabica beans. Greek yogurt has shot up from an ethnic outlier to the default yogurt, remaking the dairy case, while trendy craft beers have triggered a bull market in hops, doubling prices over the past 10 years.
In terms of economic impact, nothing beats bacon. While most food trends tend to trickle down from the gourmet market into the mouths of mass consumers, that wasn’t the case with bacon. Bacon mania was sparked not in the kitchens of fancy restaurants in New York or Chicago, but in the pork industry’s humble marketing offices in Iowa, where people like Joe Leathers engineered a turnaround for an underappreciated cut of pig.
Bacon has been a staple of the American diet since the first European settlers, but until recently it was consumed in a predictable, seasonal pattern. The bulk of sales came from home consumers, diners, and pancake houses, which fried it up along with eggs for breakfast. “For a long time bacon was sold 80 percent at retail and only 20 percent in food service,” says Leathers, who worked selling and marketing pork to both supermarkets and restaurants over the decades. In summer, sales would spike along with the annual tomato crop—peak season for Cobb salads, BLTs, and club sandwiches. When the tomatoes ran out by October, bacon retreated to the breakfast table till the next summer. The pork belly futures contract was born at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1961 as a result of this cycle: Farmers with an excess supply of pork bellies sold them to cold storage warehouses, thus locking in a price long before tomato season hit. Pork belly traders made money speculating on the spread between the price of bellies on those contracts and the price they got when they finally sold the frozen meat to a smokehouse, where it was made into bacon.
All of this changed in the 1980s when powerful health and diet trends transformed the American food industry. Based on evidence that saturated fat and cholesterol were at the core of everything from heart health and obesity to cancer rates, eating lean became the collective mantra, and the food world responded by marketing to fat phobia. Diet sodas became the rage, margarine replaced butter everywhere, and the words “Fat Free” could sell a car. Bacon, which is essentially two-thirds fat, was doomed. “First the fat scare began, and then the nitrate scare,” recalls Leathers. “That was big. That was really the first food scare. I’ll bet you bacon sales fell off 35-40 percent.”
“Pork took a real beating during that period of time,” says Stephen Gerike, director of food service marketing for the National Pork Board, a trade association in Des Moines, and a former colleague of Leathers’. The pork industry’s response to fat phobia was to try to latch onto the popularity of ultralean boneless-skinless chicken breasts, then the darling of the meat case. “The emergence of boneless-skinless chicken breast on the market, well, it hadn’t really existed before that,” says Gerike. “Boneless-skinless breast was a phenomenon of the ’80s. That’s why we came out with our ‘Pork: The Other White Meat’ campaign.”
The Pork Marketing Board worked with advertising and marketing firms to position the pig as a sort of four-legged chicken—a healthy part of any low-fat lifestyle. The Other White Meat campaign launched in 1987 and was so successful at selling lean pork cuts, it actually hurt the rest of the pig. “The parts of the pig that were not white, middle meat, suffered from that period of time,” Gerike says. “Bacon was the big victim.” Bacon was sacrificed for the good of the hog, as producers chased the lean diet trend by drawing a line from pork loin to chicken breasts. “The common wisdom at the time was that the big guys would continue to market, sell bacon,” says Robin Kline, who worked with the Pork Board for more than a decade and now runs Savvy Food Communications in Des Moines. “But for the good of the entire industry, moving all the rest of that lean product was really what we defined as our job for the pork industry.”
As warehouses accumulated unwanted piles of frozen pork bellies, prices dropped, dipping as low as 19¢ per pound. The U.S. government encouraged meatpackers to sell bellies as a cheap export to the Soviet Union and as food aid to impoverished African states. “I was on a trade mission to sell bellies to Poland,” Leathers says. “We just had freezers full of bellies. There was such little demand that the U.S. was literally giving them away.”
No one in the pork business even dared mention bacon’s name. It was porcine non grata. Tim Maiers of the Illinois Pork Producers Association characterized the pork belly as a “drag on the carcass” at the time. Because the belly was the largest single cut on the pig, the corresponding price of hogs slumped, and farmers tried to salvage what they could from leaner loins and chops by breeding thinner, more muscular pigs.
By the end of the 1990s, pork farmers were hurting and began vocally pushing their industry representatives to do something, anything, to stir up demand for bellies. “Honestly, all of us marketing folks at the Pork Board were still wearing our narrow lean, lean, lean hats and talking about the Other White Meat,” Kline says. “But we had industry members saying, ‘You know, we’re getting a lot of sizzle around bacon out there. Shouldn’t we be talking about it?’ We all kind of get tunnel vision, and some of us marketing folks got really paranoid about it. We were talking about the Other White Meat. We didn’t want to jump on the fat side of things.”
A few Pork Board marketers, who worked with companies on the food service side of the industry (as opposed to retail), figured it couldn’t hurt to at least try to kick-start bacon sales. They came up with a plan to reposition bacon as a “flavor enhancer” to the restaurant industry, because there was a greater chance of diners accepting bacon when they ate out.
The desire was there. For years, fast-food outlets had been offering extra-lean burgers and sandwiches. At the same time, they were responding to the increased liability from food poisoning lawsuits (especially after the deadly 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box) by cooking all their burgers to well done. Lean hamburgers tended to taste like dry cardboard. “Remember when McDonald’s came out with the McLean? Well, that was a flop. It was a burger that had zero flavor,” says Leathers. “Now, if they were to put bacon on that, it would have been a huge success.” Adding a single slice of bacon to those sandwiches not only improved the taste and mouthfeel by multiples, but bacon’s low cost meant that they could be sold at a premium, tacking a healthy profit margin—Leathers estimates 50 percent to 60 percent—onto burgers.
The first chain to do this was Hardee’s, which at the time had a much larger share of the market than it does today. Larry Cizek, the retired head of food service marketing at the Pork Board, remembers sitting poolside in Orlando at an industry conference in the early ’90s, having a drink with Bob Autry, then president of Hardee’s. Cizek was complaining about trying to get restaurants interested in bacon, because everyone wanted lean products. “Well,” Cizek recalls Autry saying, “everyone says that you have to have the lean stuff on your menu, but by God, I only sell three, four lean sandwiches a day!” Cizek began telling Autry about the Sisyphean task of trying to move pork bellies, and Autry said, “I’m gonna come up with a sandwich with grease dropping down their chin and we’ll see what they say!”
The answer came in 1992, with the debut of the Hardee’s Frisco Burger, a line of sandwiches featuring bacon. It was to be a momentous event for fast food, and bacon’s fate, in America. “That’s the first time a chain ever put bacon on everything. It was tremendously successful,” says Cizek. “People would buy it, regardless of health cares. It just went.”
The rest of the industry watched Hardee’s bacon-driven success with growing interest, but wasn’t ready to jump in. “Hardee’s bacon offerings didn’t kick off any groundswell in the industry,” says Paul Perfilio, the Pork Board’s national marketing manager. “It set them apart with customers and they had quite a following. Other chains tried it through the 1990s—[Burger King], Jack in the Box, Arby’s. But it was all limited time offers. It never really stuck.” The main reason was that Hardee’s prepared bacon by cooking it from raw in each location, something larger chains were hesitant to do. Bacon created smoke, and tons of grease that could burn, coat every surface, and take up space in cumbersome traps, which had to be cleaned and the grease disposed of daily. The restaurant chains wanted bacon; they just wanted it without the costly mess.
In response, the Pork Board and its members began funding research to find the easiest, cleanest way to get bacon into more fast-food chains. Perfilio traces the origins of precooked bacon to the Department of Defense in the 1960s, and a man named Howard Dunham, who worked for the pork-producing giant Swift. This was simply bacon cooked, wrapped in paper, and sealed in a can. What the bacon folks were looking for in the ’90s was something a bit more sophisticated and simpler. “Unfortunately, these precooked bacon products were cooked in tunnel-driven microwave ovens,” says Perfilio. “When that happens, you start to lose flavor in reheating it. Everybody went to this stuff, but the volume was never consistent, because the consumer really didn’t care about having a sandwich with precooked bacon. They just wanted a sandwich with bacon that tasted good.”
The early 1990s was a time of great advancements in precooked bacon technology. Pork producers, food labs, and agricultural schools such as Iowa State University began investing substantially in precooked R&D. Hormel and Swift worked on microwaveable precooked slices for home consumers, while Chicago’s OSI and the now-defunct Wilson Foods poured their efforts into bacon spirals that would fit perfectly atop a hamburger, a neat solution that clients like McDonald’s required before they adopted the meat widely.
The Pork Board lobbied restaurant chains to develop bacon-based menu items, and subsidized recipe development and market research. Some of these were wild shots. Leathers recalls a prototype for Burger King that was a fried pork patty (almost like a giant pork nugget) topped with bacon, which died in the final stages of corporate recipe testing. “We followed the old rule ‘Keep It Simple,’” Leathers says, noting that while they occasionally played around with ideas like “bacon balls” or “deep-fried bacon strips,” the Pork Board directed its efforts toward having restaurants “put it on a burger.” Though the money spent by the National Pork Board on this effort was relatively small—a few hundred thousand dollars, spread over a decade, by one estimate—the investment paid off better than anyone could have imagined. “McDonald’s had more positive influence for the turnaround of bacon when they started adding it to sandwiches” such as the Bacon Double Cheeseburger and Quarter Pounder BLT, says Leathers. “Man, if you put two, three strips of bacon on their sandwiches, that’s a ton of bacon.”
“There started to be more of an awakening of the marketing departments of a lot of restaurant chains to offer more indulgent products,” says Perfilio. “Portions got bigger in everything. Fast-food chains saw they could offer a number of different sandwiches with not only bacon as a topper, but all kinds of other things. Around 2000 is when bacon became the third condiment behind salt and pepper.”
Burger King unleashed a Whopper with bacon, Wendy’s shot back with the Baconator, and then the whole industry went all in. “It went from putting bacon on a cheeseburger to adding bacon as an a la carte item,” says Maiers, of the Illinois Pork Producers. Today, more than two-thirds of American restaurants offer at least one dish with bacon.
Quickly, the fortunes of the lowly pork belly improved. “I can tell you that it does not take much of a change to materially affect the cost of the product,” says Steve Nichol, a meat trader with Midwest Premier Foods in Iowa. He notes that the impact of a single fast-food chain adding a slice of bacon to one sandwich on the menu was enough to kick pork belly demand into high gear. “When chains like Burger King and McDonald’s started really adding [bacon] to sandwiches on a regular basis, that’s when the market changed for the product. It went from being a very, very cyclical item to something that was consistent and growing. … If you increase demand of the product by just one-tenth of 1 percent, you push the price up much higher.” Pork bellies, long dormant, began moving up in price, from under 30¢ per pound in 1989, to almost a dollar in 2006. Sensing this momentum, the National Pork Board began using the catchphrase, “Bacon Makes It Better.”
The trend, which was still largely confined to hamburger chains, began to branch out. Though chefs had been wrapping tenderloins and scallops in bacon for years, a new generation led by Mario Batali and David Chang began openly praising pork belly and featuring it in dishes that drew tremendous media attention. Other chefs put bacon into cookies and jams, each new menu appearance inviting more praise, attention, and sales. Burger King will top your Whopper with as many strips of bacon as you can afford (someone in Japan ordered 1,050) and sell you a bacon ice cream sundae for dessert. Denny’s introduced an all-bacon Baconalia menu in 2011, featuring BBQ Bacon Mac ’n Cheese Bites and other dishes that were really just piles of bacon with some other ingredients. Baconalia was such a hit, South Park made fun of it.
The Internet, which was being conquered by Facebook and Twitter and the foodie blogosphere, devoured the bacon trend like a hungry dog. Some sites focused on selling “I ♥ Bacon” T-shirts and bacon bandages and other sundries, while others became forums for macho doomsday bacon recipes, with home chefs competing over how many pounds of bacon they could wrap and stuff around and inside another food object. Publishers handed out bacon book deals. There was a cable show called United States of Bacon.
All of this trickled down to the meat case in the average supermarket. Sales of good old-fashioned bacon increased dramatically, and vastly more variety appeared in the form of brands, cuts, flavors, and sizes. “Before, you could hardly find it,” says Leathers, who remembers his reaction to looking at the bacon aisle in a supermarket recently. “‘God, this is amazing how much linear footage is devoted to bacon.’ It’s high profit for a retailer. [Bacon has a] long shelf life, and it turns fast. You don’t see that with bologna, sausages, and ham. You see it with bacon.” By 2008, bacon had completed its journey from an ignored, unwanted meat to a viral meme—the edible equivalent of cat videos. That year, according to the website Babycenter, 11 out of every million babies born in America were named Bacon.
With each bacon lovers festival and Bacon baby conceived with bacon-flavored lube, the price of pork belly futures rose. At one point in 2010, futures jumped from 90¢ per pound to a record $1.40 in just four months. Bacon prices rose from about $3 a pound in 2005 to around $5.40 today, according to government statistics.
This incessant demand drained the volatility out of the pork belly futures market, and trading on belly contracts slowed to a trickle. In 2012, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ceased the trade in pork belly contracts, due to lack of volume. The shouts of the belly pit, where broad-chested men once made great fortunes on fatty pig parts, fell silent. “[Bacon’s] the reason the market died,” says Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics, a market research firm specializing in the pork business. “That market had a well-deserved reason for volatility. It was a speculators playground because it was so vulnerable. As the volatility shrank, the volume of the trades shrank.”
Despite frequent cries that we have reached peak bacon, the trend now looks like a permanent shift in dining habits. Sales in the U.S. are still growing about 10 percent a year, according to Marketresearch.com, a grocery industry website. That rate can’t continue—there is such a thing as too much bacon, even for Americans—and consumption will settle down at some point, maybe even decline some. Health concerns could flare up again, or pork belly prices could rise above $2 a pound.
Bacon, in Joe Leathers’s opinion, is just too useful and tasty to die. “It’s great in soup, sandwiches, salads, with eggs, you can wrap it around a roast or onions,” he says. “People just realized that. But I just wonder if people fully understand whether bacon is related to pork.” He ponders a moment. “I doubt it.”