Naperville deli owner's alternative to pork bacon: 'Schmacon'
No really, Schmacon.
It's a beef product that looks and cooks up much like bacon -- only better, says its inventor, Howard Bender of Schmaltz Deli in Naperville.
And now it's now available in grocery stores. Before that retail rollout earlier this year, Schmacon lovers could find the stuff only on sandwiches at Schmaltz's, Crosstown Pub in Naperville and Batavia, and a scattering of restaurants across the country.
Now you can count eight suburban Fresh Thyme stores, four locations of Valli Produce and Lemon Tree Grocer in Downers Grove in on the Schmacon trend, as those stores carry the product near pork and turkey bacons.
"People seem to love it. It definitely sells. I've suggested it to a few people just based on the fact that it's from Naperville, and they get it and they come back and say it's great," said Joe Junkunc, a manager at Lemon Tree Grocer. "It's something different and something local."
Bender describes Schmacon as an all-muscle cut of uncured beef that's sliced thin, marinated and smoked using spices that include celery powder and sea salt.
Two slices of Schmacon have 70 calories (25 from fat) and 340 milligrams of sodium. That's healthier than the same amount of pork bacon, Bender says, which has about 82 calories (28 from fat) and 376 milligrams of sodium.
"This was never created to replace pork bacon," he said about the new food he concocted more than three years ago after a friend acknowledged a dislike of the turkey bacon he ate with breakfast. "It was inspired by pork bacon."
As the owner of Schmaltz Deli, a Jewish restaurant that specializes in "overstuffed" sandwiches, Bender knows Schmacon has Jewish fans who don't eat pork because of religious or cultural tradition.
But when he created it, he had anyone looking for a pork bacon alternative in mind -- be it Jew, foodie or the average adventurous eater.
"This isn't to compete with pork bacon. It's for those that are looking for an alternative," Bender said. "For some people, they will say it's for religious reasons. But it's not kosher."
Still, running a Jewish deli has given Bender experience cooking many varieties of beef -- corned beef, brisket, pastrami, even beef hot dogs. So he was confident he could get beef to look, act and taste like the typical bacon so many people crave.
"I can get it to curl and crisp like pork bacon," Bender told his friend a few years back.
Working with a food chemist and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the same folks behind the "Beef. It's what's for dinner." commercials, Bender tasted and tested until he got it right. He's been "living the dream of Schmacon" ever since, which these days involves a lot of travel as he entices grocery chains such as Hyvee and Fareway to stock the product.
Schmaltz customers agree he hit the sweet spot, even on their first taste.
"It's almost like beef jerky but with amplified flavor," Arslan Dautovic of Carol Stream said after he got a sample of Schmacon with his lunch Friday. "I just can't believe the sweetness. That's not common at all with bacon."
A 10-ounce package sells for between $5.99 and $7.99 at grocery stores, or three 10-ounce packages sell through Schmaltz online for $21.99.