Most people know Steve Harvey as the good-natured host of TV’s long-running “Family Feud” game show as well as his own talk and variety show. Harvey also has a radio show, and worked as a stand-up comic for 27 years.
So what is a photograph of a smiling and bib-wearing Steve Harvey doing on the package of Easy Bacon, an innovative and new product recently created and introduced by Monogram Foods?
“Steve Harvey is a meat lover,” says Wes Jackson, president and CEO of Memphis-based Monogram Foods, which manufactures a diverse line of meat products, including smoked sausage, bacon jerky, corn dogs and other value-added meats. “One of his life’s ambitions is to be in the food business and, more specifically, the meat business.”
Make that the bacon business. Harvey is a card-carrying member of the country’s Bacon Nation. He likes thick-cut raw bacon fried in a cast-iron skillet. But as much as Harvey loves eating the end product, he’s not a fan of cooking it. Talk about a feud – Harvey could do without the grease and splatter caused by cooked raw bacon.
Easy Bacon, thanks to a proprietary roasting process during manufacturing, features a quick cook time, less grease and a faster cleanup compared to raw bacon. Jackson says Easy Bacon cooks in an average of two minutes versus eight to 10 minutes for traditional raw center-cut bacon. The cooking process results in about an 80 percent reduction of grease.
Easy Bacon is thick-cut bacon that is hickory-smoked. It is not precooked, rather it is partially cooked. The roasting process, which Jackson couldn’t discuss for competitive reasons, voids the product of grease.
“We cooked the mess out of it [for consumers],” Jackson says.
When Harvey heard about Easy Bacon, he wanted to be part of the venture. Jackson says Harvey’s representatives from his company, Atlanta-based HarCal Enterprises, initially contacted him because they knew Monogram Foods introduced celebrity-backed brands as part of its growth strategy. But Harvey didn’t want to be just a celebrity pitchman for Easy Bacon; he wanted to be a partner in the business. So a joint venture was formed. Monogram Foods will provide manufacturing, and HarCal will offer marketing and awareness for the innovative new product. The official name of the product is Easy Bacon by Harvey Foods.
After meeting with Harvey, Jackson realized Harvey has a “tremendous passion” for the food industry and promoting Easy Bacon.
“That’s the difference between this relationship and a celebrity endorsement,” Jackson says.
HarCal also sells apparel and offers financial services. The company aligns itself with products it deems can enhance peoples’ lives, according to Ceasar Davis, the company’s director of global business and strategy. Davis affirms that HarCal has been involved heavily in Easy Bacon’s creation, even suggesting that slices be made thicker and more flavorful during the development process.
“We expect to have one of the most successful launches in meat history. I mean that by no stretch of the imagination,” Davis says. “We want to convert raw bacon buyers to Easy Bacon.”
Easy Bacon was introduced to Atlanta-area retailers, including Publix, Kroger and Walmart, in mid-October. It will be introduced to other parts of the country next spring.
Easy Bacon’s origins
There’s nothing like Easy Bacon on the market today. It is, indeed, a breakthrough product. But behind every breakthrough product is a story, and Easy Bacon’s begins with Jackson.
Jackson grew up in the meat business; his father worked at Reelfoot Packing Co. in Union City, Tenn. Jackson worked at the plant part time during high school and college. He says working at the plant during school helped him pay for college at the Univ. of Tennessee at Martin.
After college, Jackson worked in sales for Reelfoot Packing. Later, he worked for Sara Lee’s Jimmy Dean brand, where he worked his way up to senior vice president of sales and marketing. Jackson moved to Cincinnati when Sara Lee moved its meat businesses there in 2000 and became president of Sara Lee’s Dinner Group, which had sales of more than $1 billion.
In 2004, Jackson, who says, “I always had a hankering to do the entrepreneurial thing,” teamed with Karl Schledwitz to begin Monogram Foods. The company started by acquiring King Cotton Meats and Circle B, two long-time Memphis-based brands, from Sara Lee. Jackson moved to Memphis, where Monogram Foods is currently based. At the time of the acquisition, King Cotton Meats, which includes hot dogs, corn dogs, smoked sausage, bacon and bologna, and Circle B, which features smoked sausage, were worth about a combined $8 million.
Sara Lee sold King Cotton Meats and Circle B, which are popular in the mid-South, because it wanted to focus on its national brands, according to Jackson. Eleven years after the acquisition and the beginning of Monogram Foods, the brands are generating $30 million in revenue.
“They are very healthy brands in their core markets, and they continue to grow year over year,” Jackson says. “Today, they are the smallest businesses in our portfolio, but they were the catalyst for us starting this business. They have helped us pay a lot of bills along the way.”
In 2011, Monogram collaborated with Shelby County Cookers, which manufactures ready-to-eat bacon products at its plant in Harlan, Iowa, to develop bacon jerky, which Jackson says was the first of its kind on the market. Monogram currently distributes four brands of bacon jerky: Bass Pro Shop’s Uncle Buck’s, Johnsonville, Trail’s Best and Wild Bill’s. Around that time, Shelby County Cookers also developed the roasted bacon technology. Monogram Foods then acquired Shelby in 2013, and Easy Bacon was on its way to development.
There is a reason why Easy Bacon isn’t cooked completely at the plant, which would classify it as precooked bacon. Jackson realizes that true bacon lovers want to cook bacon in a skillet, not reheat it in a microwave, because there is something about frying bacon that gives it the perfect crisp and crunch. That’s what Monogram has done – cooked the bacon to the point that it is almost done, but not quite.
“It’s like if you cooked bacon three-quarters of the way, put it in the refrigerator for a day, and brought it back out tomorrow and put it in a pan to finish cooking it,” Jackson explains. “You already eliminated a lot of the grease [when you cooked it yesterday]. It’s the last two minutes of the cooking process when the bacon starts to become crisp.”
The last two minutes doesn’t include the untidiness of the process, of course.
“You can wipe the pan clean with a paper towel,” Jackson says.
Jackson calls Easy Bacon “a game changer” in the growing world of pork belly pleasures.
“Anybody who loves bacon and tries this product … I don’t know that you would ever want to cook raw bacon again,” he says.
Easy Bacon is classified as “still raw” and will be sold in the refrigerated meat case. Jackson says Easy Bacon has performed well in consumer tests against some of the nation’s top raw bacon brands.
While there are also directions on the package to microwave Easy Bacon to finish cooking it, Jackson suggests frying it for a better result. Jackson believes many people don’t know how to cook bacon, which is another reason he hopes they gravitate toward Easy Bacon because it is so simple to cook.
“You almost can’t mess it up,” Jackson says. “You don’t have to know how to cook bacon to make Easy Bacon.”
The target retail price for Easy Bacon, based on current pork prices, is $3.99 a package. Consumers will find that a package of Easy Bacon weighs less than a comparable package of raw bacon.
“But remember, we have cooked all the grease out of this, which is part of the weight,” Jackson explains. “A package of Easy Bacon is equivalent to a 12-oz. package of raw center-cut bacon.”
Because it’s easier and faster to prepare, Jackson believes that precooked bacon eaters will discover Easy Bacon “and figure out there’s a better mousetrap.”
Harvey has compiled four 30-second advertising spots for Easy Bacon, currently airing on Atlanta radio stations. In one of the radio spots, he says: “Hey Atlanta, Steve Harvey here. Hot, crisp, thick, hickory smoked. I’m talking bacon, man. Can’t you smell it? Bacon makes everything better. And I’m making bacon better. I want you to try my new Easy Bacon from Harvey Foods. Skillet-fried bacon in under two minutes. Eighty-percent less grease. Easy to clean up. What’s not to love? You’ll find Easy Bacon wherever you buy groceries in Atlanta. Real bacon just got easy.”
While Easy Bacon will be promoted through traditional media, Monogram will take advantage of Harvey’s tremendous following on social media to help market the product. Harvey has nearly 4 million followers on Facebook, nearly 3 million on Twitter and 1.2 million on Instagram. Davis says Harvey wrote scripts for high-definition commercials that are being featured on social media.
“In today’s world, it’s more difficult to reach people because they are tuning out traditional media. Our biggest challenge is generating awareness,” Jackson says. “We think we will have a very effective social media campaign.”
While Monogram is committed to the tagline, “Bacon just got easier,” Jackson believes there are a multitude of messages that can be communicated about Easy Bacon.
“Certainly, bringing breakfast back to time-starved people will be one of the messages,” he says.
Jackson says research reveals that about 50 percent of at-home bacon consumption occurs on the weekends. The statistic tells Jackson that people don’t have time to fry bacon during the week. They will now with Easy Bacon, he adds.
Future plans may call for line extensions of Easy Bacon with different cuts and different flavors, Jackson says. The key is finding the right cut or flavor that is bigger than a niche. “Finding something that the consumer thinks is a great idea is always the challenge,” Jackson says.
But Jackson and Harvey believe they have found just that in Easy Bacon.
“People who love real bacon now have a better option,” Jackson says. “There is no sacrifice being made by choosing Easy Bacon over raw bacon. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”