Here’s how Erik and Shannon Duffy launched Tender Belly bacon
Credit: Photo courtesy of Tender Belly

When Erik and Shannon Duffy were kids in Iowa, starting a bacon company together wasn’t exactly their dream. But due to some unforeseen circumstances and a chance opportunity to flex their culinary skills, the Duffy brothers launched Tender Belly in 2010 as a humane and environmentally conscious bacon company that sells some of the finest pork products in the US. But running a multimillion-dollar business didn’t happen overnight—it took lots of hard work and innovative business practices. Here’s how they did it.

“Well, we really started it out of… I don’t want to say ‘desperation,’ but I was definitely out of work,” Erik Duffy told me. “I had a culinary background and really wanted to get back into the kitchen without being actually in a kitchen, so I started making bacon in my garage and developed a recipe that was really damn good.”

First, they needed a rub. Erik insists that the dry rub recipe that makes their bacon particularly tasty is so simple that anybody could make it. “We got some bellies, made up the rub, and found a place outside of my garage to get it cured and smoked properly,” Shannon says. Then they started to send their products to friends in the culinary world to get feedback.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Tender Belly

“The first thing they said was that our bacon was really damn good,” Erik says. “And that’s really all it took for Shannon and I to get into the bacon business.”

Next, they had to perfect the recipe. Finalizing their special dry rub took a lot of trial and error. The Duffy brothers use a rub consisting of late-season maple sugar from Vermont, fresh juniper berries, and a hodgepodge of secret ingredients. Their unusual recipe strays from the typical brining method that makes most commercial bacon pop, sizzle, and shrink on the stove. Their bacon has far less water. And their first few batches were infused with, like Erik says, lots of desperation.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Shannon says. “My wife and I had just put a down payment on a house, and I was tired of working for people. That’s my side of the story. Erik was making bacon in the garage—which is highly illegal—so we found a plant in Arizona. Well, I mean, it’s not illegal to make it, but it’s illegal to sell it. It’s alright to sell it to your friends. Then we found a plant in Iowa, allowing us to make around two to five thousand pounds a week.” They told me their total startup costs were $800, and it took two months to turn a profit. Ask any entrepreneur and they’ll say that’s not bad at all.

For the first few months, Erik and Shannon had to convince the workers at the new plant to commit to making smaller batches to fit the demand of their clients. It’s not just these brothers’ passion for bringing home the proverbial, and metaphorical, bacon that keeps Tender Belly afloat. Rather, it’s their dedication to sourcing the finest pigs in the country and giving them the best possible lives before they’re turned into breakfast.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Tender Belly

“The hogs we use are heritage breed animals,” Erik says. “Vegetarian-fed, no antibiotics, and plenty of room to move around. From the beginning, that’s always been our M.O. We’ve messed with a whole bunch of different breeds, but we typically stick with Duroc now. Our goal for our pigs is that they only have one bad day in their lives.”

Tender Belly bacon takes a long time to make, sometimes up to two weeks. “It’s a cured product that takes a lot of time and effort to get to a point where we approve of it,” Erik says. All that extra time equals extra money, meaning Tender Belly bacon costs substantially more than the stuff you’d find in most grocery stores. Shannon suggests people look at their bacon the same way people think of expensive cheeses or whiskey. “If people aren’t aware of what dry curing is, or the quality of our bellies, or the spices we use for our rub, there’s always a little bit of sticker shock,” Shannon says. “But then we just let them taste it, and they instantly get it.”