Bacon is an integral part of the carnivorous offerings at Paradise Locker Meats, based in Trimble, Mo. Owners Mario and Teresa Fantasma purchased the company in 1995 and operated it in Paradise, Mo., until a 2002 fire destroyed the plant and pushed the owners to build a new plant in nearby Trimble, where it has operated since 2003. The company’s offerings are much more diverse than just bacon as its operations include slaughtering up to 350 animals per week, which includes multiple species and allows the company to offer an array of premium products to retail, foodservice and online customers.
But according to Nick and Louis Fantasma, the second generation of the family who run the day-to-day operations at the plant, the production line dedicated to bacon production stays busy and demand shows no signs of slowing. Nick, whose role at the plant crosses from marketing and customer service to operations and product development, said the bacon craze is well documented and its popularity continues growing.
“I feel like the introduction of the celebrity chef and making cooking a mainstream past time has afforded people alternative options to use things like bacon for,” he said. “Thirty percent of the bacon consumed is eaten outside of breakfast and so people are not only enjoying the sugary, salty goodness for breakfast, but have figured out more and more ways to incorporate it in other dishes.”
Louis Fantasma, plant manager, said Paradise’s bacon products are differentiated by the quality of the breed of pork (Berkshire) and the time-tested techniques used to process the bellies. It’s part of the reason the plant hasn’t automated its bacon production.
“Quality is our game and we still hand craft most of our products,” Louis said. “Also operating in small spaces really limits what we can automate when we produce so many different products.”
Louis and Nick discussed the details of Paradise’s bacon processing business, from innovative new product development to the technology and techniques it uses to produce its popular belly-based offerings, with Supermarket Perimeter's sister publication, MEAT+POULTRY.
“Bacon has woven its way into so many things as consumers flock to anything and everything bacon,” Nick said. “I don’t think there’s really a ceiling for the demand.”
MEAT+POULTRY: What are the standards you require of your pork suppliers to ensure the best quality and consistency of bacon?
Louis Fantasma: Most of our bellies we use for bacon production come to us in the form of live local hogs grown more naturally, outside and without antibiotics. Berkshire pigs get us bellies that are a bit fattier than your traditional commodity bellies, which means even tastier bacon — who wants lean bacon anyway! We look for pigs with larger bellies that are nice and thick that produce a really good slice of bacon. While most of the bellies are procured in house, we do supplement our [raw material] supplies from producers that share our values when it comes to breeds and how the animals are raised.
M+P: As a family-owned company, are there traditions that have been preserved in terms of recipes or the techniques used to produce your bacon products?
Nick Fantasma: Our bacon cure has been one recipe that has stood the test of time. When Dad first formulated our bacon cure recipe in 1995, he spoke with many different producers and worked with Excalibur to come up with a recipe that we think has a really good balance of salt and sugar flavor. Our bacon started out as a dry rubbed bacon; we would hand rub all bellies with our seasoning mix and stack them in tubs to cure in the cooler followed by a rinse prior to smoking.
M+P: How has the product mix of bacon at Paradise evolved and what are some of the factors that have made new product offerings feasible?
Nick Fantasma: After we relocated (from Paradise, Mo. to Trimble in 2003) and opened our retail store, we started working with new clients and we acquired a vacuum tumbler and started wet brining all our bacon. With the bacon craze continuing to grow in the early 2000’s we saw a need for some diversity in products and started to play with alternate varieties of bacon. That led to the development of the smoked pepper bacon, jowl bacon and shoulder bacon, which was an idea we got from another processor in southern Missouri who sold the product as “hillbilly bacon.”
M+P: What are some strategies you have utilized to promote the variety of bacon products?
Nick Fantasma: We’ve always tried to maximize the dollars out of production, so we have always sold the ends from the bacon we slice. Also, starting in 2017, we created a bacon-of-the-month program where we experimented with different flavors in an effort to have some new exciting products for our customers. That program only ran through 2019, because it was of course a nightmare for production and labeling to keep up with. We had a lot of fun with that program and out of it came one of our current bacons, jalapeno bacon. Through those couple years we came up with numerous different bacon flavors including Cajun, Italian, rolled and cooked garlic/peppercorn/rosemary/cherry pancetta, raspberry chipotle, cherry habanero, cinnamon apple, bourbon and brown sugar, chili and garlic, honey chipotle, pumpkin spice, whiskey and brown sugar, chipotle lime, double smoked, orange cranberry, corned beef, barbecue brown sugar, whiskey and peppercorn and jalapeno peach. That doesn’t include any of the varieties of private label bacon we’ve produced for other clients.
M+P: How much bacon does Paradise sell at retail and online in a typical year? What is the best-selling product? In terms of total volume, how much bacon does Paradise produce on a weekly basis?
Nick Fantasma: On the retail side, including e-commerce, we’ve sold about 18,000 to 20,000 lbs of bacon each year over the last few years. Our sugar-cured bacon is by far our most popular product sold online for three years in a row.
Louis Fantasma: With one bacon production line, we process 2,000 to 4,000 lbs per week across all of our brands. That volume is pretty consistent as it is mostly driven by our slaughter capacity. However, there are times of the year, usually in the summer and into fall, when we do supplement our supply and produce more.
M+P: Is co-packing a significant part of your bacon business?
Louis Fantasma: Absolutely – I’d say 70% of our production is private label co-packing. We have found lots of success in being able to source great pigs here locally and working with our customers and our co-packing customers to co-pack bacon without additional costs in transportation. We make several different kinds of bacon and are able to be flexible with our production process to offer different options. These are co-packed and shipped to customers from coast to coast.
M+P: Can you describe the bacon production processes and specific technology you utilize to differentiate your products?
Louis Fantasma: Most of our bacon is tumbled but we also do a bit of dry cured production. Extra time in cure helps us produce great flavor. We love our Kerres Smokehouse for bacon production. Our proprietary smoking process makes our bacon stand out from the rest and consistency is key. We do not press our bellies as part of our production process. Most of it does go out sliced and packed in various forms from retail to foodservice packaging. We love our Fusion Tech slicer, and we love our VC999 thermoformer for packaging.
M+P: As a family-owned business that produces premium bacon for a discerning customer base, what types of lessons have you learned to ensure success?
Nick Fantasma: One big lesson we’ve learned is the type of customer that is interested in our bacon versus other brands. Since we have a breed-specific program and our hogs produce more fat than other hogs, our bacon is fattier than other brands and definitely [fattier] than store bought bacon. We rely heavily on customers who not only are looking for a closer connection to their food supply, but looking for a unique, higher quality product. While our bacon may have more fat content than others on the market, the flavor from our cure, the fact that our standard slicing is what store brands consider “thick” slice, and our connection to local small family farms is a big reason why our bacon is unique.
M+P: Talk about the value of some of the partnerships your company has established with foodservice customers who promote the Paradise brand name on their menus.
Louis Fantasma: We are a small business and our relationships with our small farms, and these other small businesses is everything. We support each other and exist because of each other.