“We were just doing what every other hillbilly in Tennessee was doing in their own backyard,” Allan Benton, owner of Benton’s Country Hams, recalls fondly about how his business was founded. Forty-two years ago, fresh out of graduate school, Benton took a job as a high school guidance counselor, and then promptly resigned once he saw what his meager salary would be. He knew an older gentleman who had been curing ham and bacon in an old building, so Benton took over the lease and started his own curing business.
Benton’s business was born from humble beginnings, with all of his money going into building up the company, while the employees used an old outhouse as a bathroom. Benton used the same family recipe for curing his grandparents had used in their log smoke house in Virginia, and wrote to universities around the country with food programs on how to improve his business. Benton laughs, “Some wrote back, some didn’t, but I read everything I could get my hands on, and learned everything about food technology and techniques I could. I wanted to be the best, like European prosciutto.”
Nowadays, Benton’s bacon takes 4-5 weeks to produce, and the ham takes two years. “For the ham, we use a propriety dry rub of salt, brown sugar, and black and red peppers that induces moisture. The meat stays in a fridge for 4-5 months, and then is aged for 18-24 months,” Benton says. The bacon and ham are also available hickory-smoked, smoked on-premise in their smokehouse out back. Ham and bacon is the only thing that Benton’s sells, and he plans on keeping it that way. “It’s quality not quantity. What I’m doing I’ve had a lot of help with. The chefs give us a lot of help and support too, all over the country.”
And what chefs they are! Tom Colicchio’s Craft in New York City was the first New York restaurant Benton’s ever sold to; Benton didn’t know who Colicchio was, but, as a country boy, he was excited to sell his goods to a restaurant in New York City. Word spread fast, and in just three weeks, seven more restaurants were carrying his ham and bacon. Benton likes to tell the story of how celebrity chef David Chang—before he was a household name—walked into Craft’s kitchen, where Chang used to work, took one whiff of the bacon, and promptly ordered it for his newly opened restaurant Momofuku. Today, Benton’s Country Hams now has over 100 accounts in NYC alone and not just restaurants; the cities most famous speakeasy PDT—short for Please Don’t Tell—makes a Benton’s Old Fashioned, with bacon-infused bourbon.
Over eighty percent of Benton’s sales are to restaurants, and the rest is sold through their store and website, shipped to customers across the country. Even with the high demand, Benton’s only has 20 employees, and although he has been asked to expand his business, it’s not about money: “I could retire, but I like having a reason to get up and come to work in the morning. It’s not a dollar that motivates me, but a compliment. I want to make exquisite ham and bacon.”