Recessions motivate restaurateurs to innovate with food, and this one is no exception. Feeders find new ways to present classic dishes with a dual purpose - to stimulate demand and trim costs. It's no surprise that lower-cost ingredients, particularly tasty ones like bacon, often make their way into this picture.

Mintel Menu Insights data compiled for show a 26.5 percent rise since 2005 in the number of menu items of all kinds that include bacon at all quick and full-service restaurants. Between 2005 and 2009, the number of bacon-topped burgers at the 580 restaurants measured by Mintel rose 35.8 percent from 424 to 576.

Let's call this trend a Bacon Bonanza. With it comes a sodium surge, such as the 2,070mg of sodium reported to be on McDonald's Angus Bacon & Cheese.

Regardless, restaurants view bacon as a way to add flavor, aroma, crunch and satisfying mouth feel using a cost-effective ingredient. Fast-food patrons, in particular, want to quell their hunger for a low price, and the QSRs that serve them are in a pitched price battle. Nutrition looks to be a secondary concern.

Indeed, Heather Lauer, author of the book Bacon: A Love Story, contends that guiltless bacon indulgence is also part of a backlash against the "constant bombardment" of nutritional messages, reported the Chicago Tribune. "Current food trends focus on eating real and eating local. There's nothing more real than a delicious strip of bacon."

Three out of four U.S. households (73.1 percent) might well agree; that's the percentage that bought refrigerated bacon at least once during the 52 weeks ended June 27, 2009, according to Nielsen Homescan Consumer Facts data.  More than 80 percent are repeat buyers, and many are price-sensitive (27.3 percent of refrigerated bacon dollar sales occur on deal).

Recent sales trends overall suggest that the recession has led many consumers to ring up the bacon at retail. Dollar sales of prepackaged, UPC-coded products of refrigerated pork bacon have risen by 4.0 percent to $2.49 billion in U.S. food, drug and mass merchandiser stores (including Walmart) during the 52 weeks ended Nov. 28, 2009. This followed a tiny 0.3 percent uptick in the prior 52 weeks.

Equivalized unit volume figures (16-ounce basis) are similarly dramatic - a 7.7 percent EUV rise in the latest 52 weeks to 732.7 million pounds, following a 2.9 percent EUV gain in the prior year.

Two smaller segments have also advanced. Dollar sales of refrigerated turkey bacon  were up 5.4 percent to $168.6 million in the latest 52 weeks, following a 12.1 percent rise in the prior year. Beef and canned bacon grew by 40.7 percent to $10.0 million in the most recent 52 weeks, after a slight decline in the prior year.

By contrast, the last time F3 covered the refrigerated bacon category was exactly two years ago. At that time, we reported a mere 0.4 percent bump in dollar sales of prepackaged UPC items over the four years ended Nov. 3, 2007, in U.S. food, drug and mass merchandiser stores (excluding Walmart).

As long as current high-profile events like BaconFest Chicago attract chefs and sponsors who in turn inspire new uses of bacon and new demand, this growth cycle could continue for a while.

Source: Phil Lempert