While funding your fledgling Bacon Salt business (Seattle-based J&D’s Foods) with cash stolen from a three-year old is not cool, admits Lefkow – who signs off his emails with ‘bacontrepreneur’ – he’s paid his son back since: “he did sometimes ask me in the early days, what happened to my $5,000?”
Ironically, Bacon Salt tastes a lot better if you don’t actually use bacon, said Lefkow, who said early iterations of the product made with table salt and bacon dripping were “an absolute disaster”.
However, after going back to the drawing board, talking to flavor houses about the savory, salty, smoky flavor they were looking for, Lefkow and Esch finally settled on something (zero calorie, vegetarian and kosher) that hit all the right buttons, found a co-packer willing to fill 6,000 jars with the stuff, and started promoting it to bacon enthusiasts online, initially via MySpace and Facebook.
And things that taste like bacon, they discovered, are pretty popular. Within five days, they had sold all 6,000 jars, and within a month, they were processing 150-300 orders a day just from the website.
So what had initially appeared to be something of a “side project rapidly turned into a full time job”, said Lefkow, who was the first to quit the day job and devote himself to bacon 24-7, with Esch following a month later.
“You’d be amazed how many people are obsessed with bacon. You get these blogs that are dedicated to bacon. The University of Kansas has a basketball forum and someone said that they needed to get their hands on our Bacon Salt, and it just went crazy.
“MySpace had 35,000 people that said they loved bacon on their profiles, so we created a profile for Bacon Salt – as if it was a person – and spent our evenings engaging with people.”
Things moved very quickly after that, said Lefkow, who found a local seasonings manufacturer called Johnny’s willing to co-pack his wares for around six months before finding a longer-term solution. “Then we started getting into retailers, from Kroger to Walmart, Meijer, and Jewel Osco. Now we’re in around 15,000 stores.”
While the obvious place to put Bacon Salt is in the seasonings section – a mature category dominated by large players such as McCormick - retailers that have experimented with stocking it by meat, potatoes, eggs, or foods that it works really well with, have had great results, said Lefkow.
“We’ve also had a lot of success in non-traditional retail channels – places such as Camping World and QVC - and we still do a lot of business online, which is great, because the margins are better.”
‘We don’t take ourselves very seriously…’
While Bacon Salt remains the biggest seller, J&D Foods’ empire has now expanded well beyond the seasonings aisle, into croutons – which have been a big success – spreads (‘baconnaise’), microwaveable popcorn (a slightly tougher sell but still a hit), dips, rubs, truffle crisps, and some bizarre novelty items from lipbalm and shaving cream to, er, bacon lube.
The novelty products – yes, J&D's Foods really does sell bacon-scented pillowcases - might seem like a gimmick, but ‘meaty fresh’ Power Bacon deodorant and other bacon-inspired gifts from bacon soap to moustache wax have proved critical to getting the J&D’s brand on the map… and on the TV, he said.
“So much of the food industry is not fun, but we don’t take ourselves very seriously.”
Meanwhile, guerilla-style marketing tactics and viral campaigns (one particularly memorable one sternly warns consumers not to snort lines of Bacon Salt, however addictive it might be) have helped Lefkow and Esch get on Oprah, The Tonight Show, The David Letterman Show, CNN, and Jimmy Kimmel.
“They bring us a ton of attention, people look us up, and then see that we sell all this other stuff as well, and we can start to engage with them.”
We’re inventors and innovators
But while bacon is “core to who we are to a lot of consumers”, it’s “not the soul of the brand”, said Lefkow.
“We’re inventors and innovators, so when we go into a category, we might start with bacon, but it’s more of a beachhead that we can then use to expand into other areas.
“Take our croutons [which come in four flavors: bacon, pretzel bread, tomato basil, and everything… as in everything bagels]. Bacon isn’t our best-selling line.”
‘There’s nothing like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’
So what’s it like going into business with a friend?
It’s “like a marriage”, said Lefkow, who doesn’t disclose revenues at the multi-million dollar business, but says sales continue to grow very strongly, with the croutons doing particularly well – up 25-30% year-on-year.
“Our skills complement each other. I’m better at the finance, new product development and operations side of things and Justin is really good at the PR and marketing, events and so on. But we’ve also worked out ways of dealing with things and not blaming each other when things go wrong.
“At the start there would be times when I would be all over him about something in his domain or vice versa, but then we started to job share on a few things – share the pain - and there’s nothing like walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.”