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Miami Smokers Bring Home The Bacon

Photo Courtesy of Ashley Brozic

When you think of Miami, sun, sand and endless fishing may come to mind. But what about bacon? No, it couldn't be, you think. That fried piece of pork belly is just an afterthought, a little garnish atop a Cobb Salad, right? Wrong. Miami's about to have a bacon explosion, and Miami Smokers has everything to do with it. Locals Andres Barrientos and James Bowers stumbled upon the idea while working together at Aaron's Catering. They then traveled to the boondocks of Tennessee to learn about smoking from the so-called Godfather of Bacon, Allan Benton. Fast-forward two years later and they're on their way to dominating the bacon market of Dade County (There's a bacon market in Dade County, you ask?).

Their products can be found at The Federal, Michael Mina 74, Azucar Ice Cream Company and the Marriott Biscayne Bay. Most recently, the duo has plans to expand their Little Havana studio into a USDA approved community bacon smokehouse with the option to allow local restaurateurs to cure their own meats, and they're hoping to fund the rest of their self-funded project through their Kickstarter campaign, which ends on January 3. Eater got the scoop on what the boys behind the Basel Biergarten are up to, which includes more restaurant gigs, a possible bar in the future and absolutely no chocolate-covered bacon bites.
-Ashley Brozic

So when did you guys team up to start Miami Smokers?
James Bowers: Right after the brunch series, when we were driving back from Allan Benton's in the car. We sat down with him and he gave us 50 years of smokehouse knowledge in a couple of hours and ended somewhere along the lines of 'If I was you guys, I would go back to Miami and do X, Y and Z.' We were working in the same catering company so we would spend anywhere from ten to twenty hours together a day.

Andres Barrientos: I saw more of him than his own wife did (laughs).

JB: So during that time, when you're bantering back and forth and making fun of each other, because that's what guys do, we were like 'Oh! We should do this,' and started brainstorming, bouncing ideas back and forth, developing the whole business plan for Miami Smokers. And then we met with Allan Benton and came back to Miami and did X, Y and Z. He's a lot older and wiser than we are and we like to not recreate the wheel.

What makes your bacon better than everybody else's?
JB: All the bacon that we have curating right now is gorgeous Berkshire pork. It's all pasture-raised, with no hormones, no antibiotics. The pork is gorgeous. When it comes out it's like bright red, almost like beef, and pork's not supposed to be like that. The pork industry has branded it as white meat.

AB: You know, we're never going to say that bacon is healthy; there's no way around it. But, in the realm of that then the least that we can do is make the best that we can. And we start off with the best pork that's grown the best way, and in the process we don't add anything artificial. We don't add anything other than salt and sugar.

JB: We use natural cane sugar without being processed. It has all the molasses still in it. It's golden.

AB: Yeah, it's evaporated cane juice.

JB: We use kosher salt and chili peppers

For all of your bacon? Do you ever switch it up?
AB: It's priorities. We're going to do more stuff in the future but right now we need to finish getting the basics together.

JB: It took us well over a year to perfect the recipe that we have now and that's what we're sending out. We've done some smaller batches like the peppered bacon- the peppered bacon was awesome- but once we're fully set up we're going to start doing different kinds of charcuterie. A couple of variations of the bacon all on, like, a smaller scale, will be sent out commercially. We'll start doing some hams- we'll do a 9 month, a 12 month and an 18 month cured ham- the jowl, which is in [the curing room] now. We're working on perfecting the jowl, which is the cheek of the pig and it's used primarily in carbonara. When we talked to Scarpetta they wanted pancetta and guanciale. They said 'If you guys make that, we'll buy it.'

What are some of the other restaurants that you're thinking of selling to?
JB: The Eating House and LoKal are the next two on the list.

AB: Tongue & Cheek.

JB: Aqualina, hopefully Scarpetta. Then we're going to really start hitting restaurants.

AB: We've kind of taken a step back from doing all that a little bit, really over the last month of December and some of November, partially because we were getting really busy with the Basel Biergarten. Instead of really going out and trying to get new accounts, we've been trying to tidy up the shop and get it to a point where, I mean, it's not done, but at least we can produce out of here and have people over to see what we're doing. You know, before we'd have a lot of people like the guys from Tarpon Bend want to come check out our facilities and we were like 'hmm…'

JB: Yeah, Tarpon Bend is on our short list of sales.

AB: Yeah, so every [restaurant] that starts following us on Twitter, I basically make a mental note and go 'Ok, well those are the next people we're going to start targeting.'

JB: And Yardbird and Swine.

AB: Oh, yeah, we're actually working with 50 Eggs too. We're already into Swine.

I feel like that would be the perfect fit for you guys.
AB: Well, I'll tell you what. Yardbird was one of the places I had in my mind when we did the brunch. I thought if they're gonna make their own bacon, we're gonna make our own bacon too. So the other day, [James] and I are having breakfast there and, we're known for making little offhanded remarks to people on Instagram and stuff, he orders this this maple glazed donut with bacon on it...

JB: [Andres] ordered a Cobb salad (laughs).

AB: And so of course I take a little picture of it and post it on Instagram saying 'This is pretty good, but it would be better if it had Miami Smokers bacon on it.' Within 15 minutes, John Kunkel sends us a message and says 'Hey, send me your email address. I'd like to talk to you.' That's how I got us into the Michael Mina restaurant. The corporate chef was in town and he made some comments about Miami so I said 'Hey, if you really want a local's perspective I'd be happy to show you around. Plus, I'd be happy to show you some of the Miami Smokers Bacon too.' One thing led to another and that's how we got in there.

JB: Our goal, essentially, is that every place that has Nueske bacon, we want it to be a place that has Miami Smokers bacon. That is our direct competitor.

AB: It's definitely not bad bacon. You know, we wouldn't want to compete against anybody that has bad bacon. That's why we're not competing against Oscar Mayer.

JB: Yeah, Nueske bacon is good. They are the largest artisan producer in the country. We can only hope to produce as much as them one day.

AB: No, we don't hope. That's what we're setting out to do.

So are you trying to keep Miami Smokers local or do you have plans to extend it beyond Dade County?
AB: We're using every bit of the local branding and support as possible but the idea is definitely to get as far of a reach as we can. We're definitely a bacon factory and that's what we've set out to do.

JB: I think from what we've accomplished so far, we have a good brand. People will look and be like, 'oh, what is that?'

AB: Yeah, they think we're a cigar shop way too often. That is the one caveat to our branding.

JB: In the back area we're working now to build a USDA manufacturing facility and that will allow us to start distributing on a larger sale. So we'll start selling to Epicure, Whole Foods and stuff like that. That'll be hopefully at some point next year.

So what do you have planned for this community-wide smokehouse you're building with the Kickstarter campaign funds?
JB: So to have a USDA space you have to have a lot of security involved; you can't just go in and create stuff. This is essentially going to be our creative kitchen and this is where we'll put the coolers we'll make from the Kickstarter. One of the biggest challenges when we were working with the catering business was that we weren't set up in a proper facility to cure meats. You have a walk in cooler that's shared with 2,000 people every weekend, from Friday to Sunday, so you have food coming in and out. Hot stuff. Cold stuff. Humidity changes. The cooler door is constantly opened and closed and the temperature changes the whole day. It's not an environment conducive to curing meats. If you have some variation throughout the process you can have mold growth. We've learned the hard way. We've had to throw out lots of batches perfecting our process.

AB: It hurt my soul so much!

JB: By soul he meant wallet (laughs). It's one thing to go out to a club and spend $500 on a bottle; at least you know what you're getting. Another thing is to throw out $500 worth of pork because mold grew.

Yeah, that's pretty gross.
AB: Man! That was terrible. We had to do that a couple of times. It was so sad.

JB: That happened because we were working out of an environment that wasn't perfect for it and that's the challenge for everybody. The chef from the Biscayne Marriott has all these recipes that his family has had forever, with different sausages and stuff they used to do. If there was an area where he could come work with us and recreate some of those recipes, he'd love to have them in his restaurant.

AB: So we had been trying to get a hold of Bradley and Michael Schwartz forever, which is like, impossible, and we finally spoke to them and they said 'oh, well, you know we make our own bacon,' and I was like 'yeah, I know you make your own bacon. It sucks though, doesn't it? It's a pain in the ass to do it in the kitchen.' They were like 'yeah, you're right,' and I'm like 'well, on top of doing the bacon, we're trying to make these curing rooms for people like you guys. You can rent the space and you can have it totally set up, however you want it to be,' and they're like 'Oh wow! Now we're talking! That makes a whole lot more sense.'

JB: There's a lot of people who have great recipes and great ideas but they don't have a proper area to set it up. Like here, we're going to put a lot more coolers that are going to be temperature and humidity controlled. I mean, you can create everything from andouille sausages to pancetta. In order to do anything on any type of production capable level, you need to have a facility large enough to do that. We want to create that and work with local restaurants and local artisans to create these recipes and help promote charcuterie around Miami. It's not that we're going to establish Miami as the charcuterie capital, but there are a lot of really gifted chefs here and we'd like for them to have a place that they can come and we can work with to develop or they can come to utilize space.

How many of these curing stations do you plan on having for yourselves and the restaurants renting space?
AB: The idea is to have three curing rooms that are all the same but different, with slight variations in temperature.

JB: For the USDA side of the shop we're going to have three curing rooms because, for our bacon process, we need three different rooms as we go through the month of curing. I hope that we can have six different rooms and maybe some smaller ones.

AB: Ultimately we'll have the capacity to do private labels.

So when do you expect to break ground for this new project?
AB: Let's say, it's probably going to be closer to February.

What about the everyday customer? Will we see a Miami Smokers restaurant in the future?
AB: Hopefully we'll have a bar. There's a lot of "ifs" and my philosophy is to under promise and over deliver so, I mean, to tell you now that we have restaurants planned? No, we don't, but there's lots of plans for stuff and James and I are the type of people who will go out and do it.

What are your roles on the team?
AB: Good cop, bad cop. He comes off a lot nicer than I am, but believe me I'm the nicer one.

JB: I can't disagree (laughs). No, we work really well together and that's why we're partners now. We both have some good strengths, we both have weaknesses, but we complement each other. With any partnership there are times we disagree with each other but we seem to usually find a way to come up with a solution quite amicably and move forward.

AB: We mediate our problems very well.

JB: And that's going to be one of our biggest strengths for our business. That's one of Andres' biggest strengths. When it comes to catering, say you're at an event. Something always goes wrong. How do you come up with a solution that's in the moment that's going to move you forward? That's probably what one of Andres' biggest strengths is.

AB: I'm a problem solver.

JB: I'm cute. [laughs]. I'm a lot better with details, so probably organizing and planning.

What do you have planned for this bar? Any bacon-inspired drinks?
JB: The bar would start off as a beer and wine bar until we get our liquor license next year. They will all be Florida brews, very similar to the Basel Biergarten. The wines are good because when a group of guys comes with someone's wife and she doesn't want to drink beer, there's wine. And if she's there happy, then the guys are there happy.

AB: The wine we had at the beer garden was honestly an afterthought but…We're going to curate some cooler wines and create a cool wine list.

JB: We're going to try and stay as local as possible. I'm sure we'll have our candied bacon for sale, small bites and snacks. We also want to promote the pizza shop next door, which is Mancinis. The idea at the moment is that Mancinis will have pizza and the bar will have the beer and wine and the ambiance and atmosphere. We want to really help build these local Miami brands and really go back to having your local smoke shop, your local pizza shop, your local artist. This area's being revitalized. People are pushing out of Brickell because they either can't afford it or there's not any more construction available. I think we're positioned really well and we should take advantage of that. This could be, like, the next Wynwood but actually have something that happens after 5 p.m.
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