Wednesday, January 15, 2014

More Benton's Bacon on the Way

When I pulled into the parking lot at Benton’s Country Hams on my annual smoked pork restocking run over the Christmas holidays, I was surprised to find the cream- and green-painted building had more than doubled in size. To the right of the original loading dock stretched an entire new wing in the final stages of construction.

Allan Benton, the king of Tennessee hams and bacon, has been smoking and curing meats since 1973, when he took over the smokehouse from a retiring dairy farmer. For the first 30 years, the operation barely broke even.

Then, John Fleer, at the time the executive chef at the Walland, Tennessee, resort Blackberry Farm, introduced Benton’s superbly-smoky products to the fine dining world. Before long they were being served in restaurants as far flung as David Chang’s Momofuku in New York City and San Francisco’s Brasserie & Bar.

The new wing at Benton's Country Hams

Years ago, Benton made the decision to focus on quality, not quantity, taking a year or more to age his hams. (Large-scale producers turn out theirs in 90 days or less) and using the same cure recipe as his grandparents did. These days, more than half of his output is sold to restaurants across the country, and mail-orders from home cooks has continued to rise, too. As it has, waiting time for shipment has slowed to five weeks or more.

Finally, a little over a year ago, Allan Benton decided it was time to expand. “I didn’t have a choice,” he told me, as we stood in the entryway to his curing room, where hundreds of hams and bellies hung temptingly from old wooden racks. “It's not that I want to make more money. I just don't like giving bad service.”

The tiny retail room on the left side of the building--complete with its lone cash register and a glass deli counter filled with sausage and cheese--will remain unchanged, but in the new wing Benton is adding more cooler space, prep areas, and packing space so he and his team can produce and ship more hams and bacon to eager customers.

Once the new expansion is complete, Benton says, “Our goal is to ship within two or three days of the order.”

And that is very good news for Allan Benton’s far-flung legion of fans.

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