“There’s a lot more you can do with a slab of bacon than cut it into strips.”
From that simple insight, Camilo Velasquez and Elisa Lewis have built The Baconer, a firm devoted to the art and science of getting the most out of one of the most flavorful – and popular – meats on the market.
“I started with lardons,” says Velasquez, but right there a basic problem emerges. What the heck is a lardon? And why would anyone buy it if they don’t know what it is?
First, a lardon is basically a small cube of bacon that can be fried or baked just like any familiar slice of bacon. And next, once you look at one, you immediately sense the possibilities. Mix some into scrambled eggs? Add a bunch to pasta? Throw a few into a burrito?
But until Velasquez got his potential customers to see (and smell) lardons, they were a tough sell. So, like so many foodie entrepreneurs, Velasquez started at local farmers’ markets – well, actually, he started long before that.
“I came to this in a roundabout way,” he says. He grew up in Berkeley, went to San Francisco’s Urban School, studied at the Fashion Institute in Los Angeles and later came to Oakland’s California College of the Arts.
That led him to a job with Coach in New York, where he worked with leather (“just a different part of the animal,” he says). He and Elisa, though, had always loved to cook, so they started an underground supper club in Brooklyn.
“I learned through that,” he says. “That was my crash course in cured meat.”
And like many others, what started as a hobby soon became an obsession. Velasquez set up a backyard smoker and focused not on barbecue, but on bacon. And he experimented with new ways to enhance the flavor, adding a sous vide step to the usual process, and coming up with something special.
When Velasquez returned to the Bay Area for another job opportunity, he started hitting farmer’s markets, drawing customers by cooking up lardons or bacon steaks in his stall.
“I couldn’t understand why no one was doing this,” he says. “You go to the store, there are 25 kinds of bacon in strips,” so when he started in January 2017, he was breaking new ground.
“The first couple years I was at my day job, and this was on the side,” he says, but in October 2018, the Berkeley Bowl wanted to put Baconer products on its shelves.
“At that point, we were interested in the idea of being in grocery stores,” he says, “but there’s a lot involved” – mainly preparing the bacon at a USDA-approved processing facility. After some searching, Velasquez found a kitchen in Cloverdale, and the retail side of the Baconer made its appearance at the Berkeley Bowl.
Now Baconer products can be found at Diablo Foods, Bi-Rite and Market Hall, but like so many businesses, the pandemic got in the way. “We like to come into a grocery store and do demos,” he says, “and we make the whole place smell like bacon.” But groceries still haven’t returned to in-store demonstrations, so that part of The Baconer business has stalled a little.
But the web has treated The Baconer well, especially after a feature on the Today Show and a writeup in Bon Appetit. People could, and still can, order all The Baconer products on-line, including lardons, bacon steaks, ground bacon and yes, bacon strips.
“We’re looking to grow on-line,” says Velasquez, “and we’re expanding our product line,” but he knows that the pricey bacon they sell isn’t going to land in Safeway any time soon.
“We’re a super-specialty product,” he says. “We don’t want to jump all in – we want to take it one step at a time.”
Or one lardon at a time – whichever works best.
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