Food companies have already moved bacon beyond your breakfast plate to put it on your burger and in your milkshake.
Now they want to put it in your pocket, purse or cupholder, in the portable form of bacon jerky.
The jerky — dried slices of real bacon — was first developed for mass distribution by a western Iowa precooked bacon plant. It has now caught the attention of packaged food giants like Omaha-based ConAgra Foods, which this winter is rolling out its own Slim Jim brand bacon jerky. The firm hopes for a boost to the Slim Jim line, which saw sales flatten in 2013 after three years of big gains.
Bacon jerky and its slimmer cousin, turkey jerky, are new additions to the fast-growing meat snack industry. At the intersection of two food trends — consumers are snacking more often and looking for foods high in protein to support their Paleo and other low-carbohydrate diets — jerky has been a bright spot in a decades-long slide in total beef sales.
Sales of jerky rose 46 percent from 2009 through 2013, to $1.24 billion, according to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. That fueled similar growth in the overall meat snacks category, which had sales of $2.31 billion in 2013, according to IRI.
“For a snack item, it's a lot healthier than a lot of other choices out there,” said Omaha butcher Frank Stoysich Jr., whose Frank Stoysich Meats makes two varieties of beef jerky along with bison and turkey jerky. Jerky and meat snacks make up 15 percent of sales at the 5170 Q St. shop, up from about 5 percent 20 years ago.
To keep the growth coming, meat snack manufacturers are now looking to new, spicy flavors and new proteins, mostly poultry and pork. (Tofu jerky recipes exist but haven't shown mass-market appeal.)
Iowa's contribution to bacon jerky came about by accident in 2009, when a team at precooked bacon manufacturer Shelby County Cookers, 60 miles northeast of Omaha in Harlan, was trying to create a thicker, “next generation” variety of ready-to-eat bacon.
“We didn't set out to make a meat snack,” said plant founding partner Brett Elliott.
But the plant vice president whom Elliott calls the business's “guru of bacon” and “mad scientist,” Bill Southard, happened upon a process that resulted in something more like jerky.
He fine-tuned the process, but the plant, which produces up to 2.8 million slices of precooked bacon a day, wasn't set up to market or distribute jerky. Its customers are mostly restaurant chains, not convenience stores.
So first they pitched the product to some of the nation's largest jerky manufacturers, hoping one would see the bacon innovation as a jerky sales engine. The firms were not convinced, Elliott said, so the team tried Memphis-based Monogram Food Solutions, maker of beef jerky and sausage snacks.
“While they were a significant player in the category, they weren't number one or number two, but they had a desire to be,” he said.
In 2011, the firms entered a sales and marketing agreement, and when the product took off, Monogram made an offer to plant owner Westin Foods of Omaha to buy the whole facility. The deal went through in October, and Elliott is now vice president and general manager of Monogram Prepared Meats. Westin Foods is an investor in Monogram.
Monogram now sells the bacon jerky under four brand names — its own Trail's Best and Wild Bill's, and licensed brands Johnsonville and Bass Pro Shops Uncle Buck's — and packs the product for sale under private label and also for national brands.
Bacon jerky sales have grown to where 10 percent of the pork bellies cured at the Harlan plant are now destined to become jerky. The Harlan plant is now adding another cook line, in part because of the jerky demand, which will add 30 jobs to the plant's staff of 175.
“Is it ever going to replace beef jerky? Heavens, no,” Elliott said. “But in that meat snack category, which has been a large, growing category in total, bacon has kind of found its spot. I think the upside is still considerable.”
And now that larger brands like Oberto and Slim Jim are marketing bacon jerky, “I think it gives affirmation that this isn't a fad,” he said.
Washington-based Oberto, the country's second-largest jerky seller, launched bacon jerky in October 2012, saying, “Now we are giving consumers the opportunity to eat bacon at the office, in the car, out camping or wherever they need a quick, satisfying snack.”
But the country's biggest jerky producer is not biting into bacon. Wisconsin-based Jack Link's considered it, but decided bacon jerky doesn't have staying power.
“We feel that bacon is definitely a trend right now and it's doing very well,” said Kevin Papacek, director of marketing. But he sees that growth as slowing and not viable in the long run.
“(Bacon) is not a product that people will snack on. It's more of a complement to a meal.”
Instead, Jack Link's is adding new flavors of beef jerky, such as Sriracha (the trendy hot sauce) and “burrito,” along with “alternative proteins.” Papacek said turkey jerky sales are about three times those of bacon and are a good way to get people to buy a Jack Link's product who wouldn't otherwise buy beef jerky.
“We're starting to see more female purchasers, and more heads of household and moms purchasing the product,” Papacek said.
ConAgra, though, does see bacon jerky taking off among its customers, who are predominantly teen boys and young men. Slim Jim sells the nation's biggest share of meat snacks other than jerky and has only a few jerky flavors. Those, too, are geared to this audience, in increasingly “daring” flavors like Kinda Hot, Freakin' Hot and Really Freakin' Hot.
ConAgra's Slim Jim team noticed bacon's popularity, and bacon-related posts to Slim Jim social media sites got an enthusiastic response.
That showed “we've got an audience that likes bacon,” said Dan Skinner, public relations/social media manager for Slim Jim and other brands.
In the summer and fall of 2012, the company worked with a co-packing facility that makes other brands' bacon jerky products to create Slim Jim bacon jerky, said Clint Rowe, a meat scientist who works in research and development for ConAgra.
“Bacon is bacon — it's very delicious,” he said. “We wanted to see if it was an arena we could participate in.”
Each producer has a proprietary process but, in general, Rowe said, pork bellies are cured and smoked, then sliced and cooked. Dehydrating the bacon turns it into jerky. Slim Jim developed it in hickory and maple flavors.
The product started shipping in December and distribution is growing, with a focus on convenience stores. It was set to roll out this month in Omaha, at stores including Bucky's, Kum & Go, Anderson's and Fantasy's.
Slim Jim has been a success story for ConAgra in recent years, and the firm hopes to keep that going, as some of its other flagship brands have seen sales fall. Slim Jim meat snack sales rose from $321 million in 2009 to $486 million in 2012, falling off slightly to $483 million in 2013, according to IRI data.
The firm is looking, too, at other ways to build sales. ConAgra recently tested new Slim Jim retail displays that it said increased sales 40 percent where they were used. The displays gave more space to best-selling items and touted the snacks' protein content.
Perceived health benefits are one reason meat snacks are a small but fast-growing portion of the salty snacks category, as measured by market researcher Mintel.
“The coming years may bring a renewed interest in the segment, due to expanding product innovation, as well as to a perception of healthier snacking that comes from being a relatively low-carbohydrate and high-protein offering,” the firm said.
The high-protein Paleo diet was the most-Googled diet of 2013, the search engine said. A February Women's Health magazine article advised women to keep turkey Perky Jerky — it's “perky” because it's caffeinated — in their purses as a healthy snack, calling it the “anti-Slim Jim.”
Competitor Oberto's bacon jerky package has pictures of lean men playing soccer, riding a bicycle, running and rock climbing.
But at Slim Jim, “We're not positioning this as a health food,” Skinner said. He mentioned the high protein content as a selling point, but called bacon jerky a treat meant to be enjoyed in moderation.
Bacon jerky doesn't have beef jerky's low-fat profile. A 1-ounce serving of beef jerky typically has 1 or 2 grams of fat, but a similar portion of bacon jerky has 8 to 9 grams. A bag contains nearly three servings, for about as much total fat as a McDonald's double cheeseburger, with more sodium and sugar than the burger.
Slim Jim fans don't seem concerned, judging from the brand's Twitter following.
Follower @Chazraps reacted to the bacon jerky launch, tweeting, “You mean to tell me you're now making my favorite food out of my second favorite food?”