Curtis McConnell’s home-curing hobby is now an e-commerce artisinal bacon business
Someday in the not-too-distant future, software engineer Curtis McConnell plans to revolutionize the art world through online authentification technology. Until then, he’s biding his time as “chief swinologist” at his hobby-turned-business, the Bacon Swinery.
McConnell, 48, got into making artisanal bacon at home about five years ago. He cured and smoked the crispy pork strips for Christmas gifts, experimented with different recipes and hosted tasting parties, pairing bacon with fine wines, cocktails and dark chocolate.
It was all done for fun until January, when his start-up art company hit a technical roadblock and stalled.
“I got really depressed and needed to find joy in my life. One of the things that brings me the most joy is bacon,” said McConnell, who lives in La Costa with his wife and their 8-year-old daughter.
In January, he bought 20 pounds of pork belly and started experimenting with unusual flavors. In February, he built an e-commerce website (baconswinery.com). And in March, he launched the business, which sells 16 varieties of artisan bacon products. Sales started slow but are now doubling every two weeks.
Shoppers can choose from bacon flavors that include sweet Sriracha, pumpkin pie, Italian espresso, cocoa mocha, al pastor and wasabi with soy sauce. The bacon is cured, smoked and partially cooked at a commercial kitchen in North County, then vacuum-sealed, frozen and shipped nationwide. The bacon sells for $8 to $10 per 10-ounce package.
Joining McConnell in his venture is longtime friend and work colleague Dan Bodenheimer of Del Mar and culinary consultant Bruce Knight of Carlsbad. They got their first taste of McConnell’s bacon last year and both agree that it’s got potential to be a monster hit with online shoppers.
Bodenheimer met McConnell in 2005, when they both worked for ProFlowers, a San Diego-based online floral retailer. His role as “chief swine-angelist” is overseeing online marketing. Bodenheimer said more than 80 percent of American gift-shoppers are women and many have trouble finding unique online gifts for men. That’s where bacon comes in.
“It’s a great gift for men and a gift women can give that women love, too,” said Bodenheimer, who lists bacon among his three great passions in life (chocolate and Lego are the other two). “Buying bacon for someone shows that you love them.”
Knight, who has worked in the restaurant and food service industry since 2007, is Bacon Swinery’s “chief swinerator” (or chief operating officer). He said the Swinery’s products are unique because they’ve pushed the boundaries of what bacon can be. He’s developing recipes that incorporate the flavored bacons, such as scallops with apple pie bacon, wasabi bacon banh mi, corn chowder with keto bacon and cocoa mocha bacon chocolate chip cookies.
“The artisan bacon market has always been about the smoking and the right wood to use. We’re looking at flavors people like and marrying them with the bacon,” Knight said. “The flavors we’re coming up with are not heavy or powerful. They’re more of an essence or flavor note like you can taste in wines. It’s subtle but it’s really good.”
Once sales are well-established, McConnell plans to open a tasting room and smokehouse in the fall, where they can make the product and host events for visitors to sample the bacons in paired cocktail tastings.
His ultimate goal is for consumers to see bacon as more than breakfast food. He has served it for dessert and, as a former bartender, he loves pairing bacon with mixed drinks. A few of his bacon flavors reflect that love, like the Manhattan bacon, made with Bulleit rye, the Old Fashioned made with bourbon and the Spicy Margarita, made with Black Barrel tequila.
“I like the idea of doing bacon tastings like wine tastings, but without the snobby pretext,” McConnell said. “Let’s launch a brand built around the idea of having fun. Let’s push the envelope and literally reinvent bacon.”
McConnell learned the art of bacon-making from his brother-in-law, a radiologist. The process begins with a slab of pork belly that is coated in salt and spices, wrapped in plastic, placed in the refrigerator and rotated daily for seven days. Then it’s smoked over apple wood and par-cooked. After a resting period, it’s sliced and packaged.
Traditional bacon is seasoned with salt, brown sugar and maple syrup. To create the flavored bacons, McConnell and Knight incorporate spices, liquors, coffee, chocolate and hot sauces. The apple pie bacon is cured with apple butter, nutmeg and cinnamon. The orange marmalade flavor is glazed with marmalade during the cooking process. Almost any flavor, he said, tastes better with bacon.
McConnell worked for many years in the e-commerce industry, but his degree from Princeton University is in physics with a minor in early medieval history. In 2007, he met Maurizio Seracini, who is world famous for his authentification work with Renaissance-era artwork. In 2013, they co-founded Great Masters Art Science & Engineering. McConnell and Bodenheimer were developing a new web technologies platform for determining real vs. fake art when their business hit a snag in January. But they say it’s just on hold for now.
“We still plan to revolutionize the art world,” McConnell said. “Until then, we’re making bacon and having fun.”