Flavor Faves

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Justin Esch and Dave Lefkow were sitting in Miami late in the evening during a business trip in 2007 when they had the idea of creating a bacon-flavored product for the masses. They weren’t sure what the product would look like or how they would fund it, but thanks to luck, perseverance and their expertise in a nascent technology called social media, their food company, J&D’s Foods, took off. Today, customers can find their bacon-inspired products—from bacon-flavored microwave popcorn to bacon-flavored envelopes—in more than 15,000 stores in 11 countries.

The men founded J&D’s just as bacon flavoring was becoming the new megatrend, appearing in everything from cupcakes to vodka. Washington state has been particularly supportive of the niche industry, embracing products like Bakon Vodka (bakonvodka.com) and a bacon jam from the Skillet food truck (skilletstreetfood.com). But the company with undoubtedly the biggest influence—and greatest success—is J&D’s.

After inspiration struck, Esch and Lefkow needed to finance their first batch of Bacon Salt, which contains no meat and, like all their products, is certified kosher. Here a bit of good luck intervened. Lefkow’s three-year-old son Dean won $5,000 on America’s Funniest Home Videos and provided the initial investment. The first 3,000 bottles of Bacon Salt were made. And the loan has been repaid.

Esch and Lefkow used their background in social media to exploit a little-known feature of MySpace, which at the time allowed anyone to query the profiles of users. They searched for people who indicated an appreciation for bacon and amassed a list of 73,000 potential customers. Over the course of a weekend and with the help of friends, they sent messages to those people on MySpace.

The hard work paid off. Buzz about Bacon Salt spread across the internet. When the product was ready, Esch and Lefkow posted the message on MySpace and Facebook. They say they became profitable in the “17th hour” of the company and sold out of Bacon Salt in two days.

Building on that momentum, J&D’s hoped to expand into area grocery stores. They succeeded on their third try with local chain QFC. That eventually led to a national deal with QFC’s parent company, Kroger, in 2008.

The founders reached out to media personalities to increase visibility. In 2009, Esch and Lefkow contacted The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which prominently featured their Baconnaise product, a bacon-flavored mayonnaise. Despite (or maybe thanks to) Stewart’s comically unfavorable reaction, sales skyrocketed. Interviews on ABC World News and The Oprah Winfrey Show soon followed.

Today, J&D’s, with seven full-time employees, contracts with multiple manufacturing plants that employ hundreds to make 19 products—the latest being bacon-flavored croutons.

Esch says the company was well positioned as the bacon craze exploded, but he credits J&D’s success to a number of factors. “The food industry is a really capital-intensive, low-tech industry,” he says. “Not having a background in the food space and instead having one in social media and internet marketing worked really well for us.” He also cites Washington’s vast angel investor network, including the ZINO Society, as being instrumental in helping J&D’s and a wide variety of other area startups get off the ground.

“Seattle has always embraced entrepreneurs on any level,” Esch says. “People can try new and different things but the community of people here will support them. We have an incredibly diverse economy.”

As for the future of bacon-centric products, Esch says he’s not not the least bit worried, asking rhetorically, “Are people ever going to not want to eat bacon?”

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