Bacon bowl challenge: With a little effort, it works
08/05/2014 12:52 PM
08/05/2014 4:22 PM
But wait. There’s more.
You must have heard about the Perfect Bacon Bowl by now. It’s a mold that lets you turn the world’s most popular food into edible dinnerware.
How can you miss it? It has its own infomercial, with lots of sizzle and smiles. It’s an Internet sensation, with videos of bloggers making their attempts. It’s been on “Good Morning America” and in Jay Leno’s monologue.
In Charlotte, it’s our civic duty to greet this meat: The Perfect Bacon Bowl is a hometown invention. In a nation so obsessed with crispy, fatty deliciousness that we’ve started weaving bacon blankets and dropping bacon into our candy, the chance to have our bacon bowl and eat it too sounds irresistible.
But when I tried the bacon bowl for a story, I ended up as unhappy as a vegetarian ant at a meat lovers’ picnic.
And that’s how I ended up with four members of the Edison Nation product development team in my kitchen, all wrapping, zapping and bowling.
As publicity flops go, Mary Dickson handled this one well.
Dickson is the public relations manager for Enventys, the Charlotte-based company that spawned Edison Nation, an online club for would-be inventors, and the TV show “Everyday Edisons.” Currently on hiatus after four seasons, it’s a sort of “American Idol” for clever people.
Edison Nation also has a division called “As Seen on TV” that looks for gadgets that can be added to the ASOTV lineup. They’re not the only ASOTV team; a lot of design companies make the products that are sold under that trademark. But Edison Nation’s division has brought the world things like Eggies, a holder that lets you make hard-boiled eggs you don’t have to peel, and Party in the Tub, a light-up bath toy.
The latest is the Perfect Bacon Bowl, a black plastic form that looks like a flattened lemon juicer. Wrap three strips of bacon around it, put it in the microwave, toaster oven or oven and you get a bowl made of meat you can fill and eat.
That’s the idea, anyway. Like everything in the kitchen, results may vary.
Just before Father’s Day, I got a set of molds to try. I followed the instructions, but my bacon shrank, and my bowls popped off their molds. I ended up with something that looked like an arts and crafts project from sad-kids camp. Flattened pork pucks, not bacon bowls.
So I wrote about it, and I quickly got a note from Mary Dickson.
It was a very nice note. Polite, respectful, only mildly regretful. And Dickson included an offer: Come to the Edison Nation office and let us make you a bacon bowl.
That sounded a little like “don’t try this at home,” so I made a counteroffer: Come to my house. Then we can put that bowl through its paces in a real home kitchen.
Several days later, I got a reply: We’ll be there Friday, and we’ll bring our own bacon.
You’ve seen it on TV
It was actually hard to resist Mary Dickson’s offer to drop by the Edison Nation office. As cool workplaces go, the Enventys building is sort of a Rube Goldberg invention all its own. Located in an old hosiery factory off Cedar Street near Bank of America Stadium, it’s all wood floors, exposed brick and creative touches, like an upside-down bike hanging from the ceiling and Pogo sticks parked by a door.
They do a lot of industrial design, working with nationally known companies to create everything from football gear to medical devices. They also run Edison Nation, where hobby inventors pay a small fee, usually $25, to submit ideas. Around 5,000 ideas a year are sent in just for As Seen On TV.
The best of those ideas get sent to the ASOTV division run by Anna Curry. They look through all of them, watching for the 24 or so a year worth producing. Of those, they try to find three that will make it to shelves.
Curry says a successful idea has a “wow” factor. It might solve a common problem, like the Gyro Bowl that keeps kids from spilling snacks. Or it hits a trend, like Hot Huez, an easy way to paint rainbow streaks in your hair.
Or it’s just so cool you can’t suppress your “gotta try that” reflex.
It also has to have low overhead, with a 5-to-1 ratio for materials (if it sells for $20, it can’t cost more than $4 to make) and it has to be small enough to package and ship easily.
‘This is gold!’
In June 2012, Jeff Browning, the director of product development, was scrolling through the submissions when he called out a quote the team will always remember:
“Winner, winner, chicken dinner! This is gold!”
A Utah man named Thom Jensen had sent pictures of an aluminum-foil mold he used to make bowl-shaped bacon.
First, Browning had to make it more solid than tin foil. He settled on a polyresin called Micropure and found an old steam-injection plant in Port Gibson, Miss., that could make the molds.
In July 2013, they started testing. The eight people in the ASOTV office all play multiple roles, doubling as hand models, food stylists and test subjects. For the bacon bowls, they cooked bacon. A lot of bacon.
“We made hundreds of bowls,” says Lauren Traudt, the domestic marketing manager. Every day, they went home with the smell of bacon clinging to their hair and clothes.
In the Bacon Bowl commercials, that’s Traudt frying boring ol’ bacon in a skillet, serving bowls to her friends (including Curry) and pronouncing her love for “super-healthy turkey bacon bowls!” (Browning is in there too, tossing a football with his hungry “buddies” in the den.)
Over time, they got fond of the Bacon Bowl. But the reaction still surprised them when it went viral and hit TV. Between November and February, they sold more than 2 million two-mold packages.
And then, in their own hometown, a certain food writer said she didn’t like it.
Here they come
On the morning of June 27, my doorbell rang. In marched Jeff Browning, Anna Curry, Lauren Traudt and Mary Dickson, with an entire case of Perfect Bacon Bowls.
They also brought a half-dozen eggs, a package of microwave macaroni and cheese, and Browning’s preferred brand of bacon: Aldi thick-cut.
“It’s all about the bacon,” Traudt said. “The fattier, the better. It gives it more structure.”
Aldi is also cheaper, which helps. Bacon Bowl success takes practice. Since every bowl involves three strips, you can run through a pound in just a few tries.
Before they arrived, I had been making more attempts. Oven bowls take longer, but turn out better. I still had trouble with the microwave version, though. When the strips shrink, the bowl rises up and tilts, like a bacon beret.
On my seventh try, I got a decent bowl. When the team hit my kitchen, they pronounced it “pretty good.”
Browning got right to work, quickly spraying and wiping cooking spray off a mold. (Got that? Spray, then wipe.) He cut a slice in half and crossed the halves on top, then wrapped two slices around the sides.
“Fat side down” on the instructions means the side with the lean streak goes on top. When the bowl is removed, the meaty part will be toward the bottom, adding structural stability.
Browning also trims the ends off the strips. He calls them “dog ears.” At home, he feeds them to his dog, Cooper.
With our molds in the oven, we talked business. The As Seen on TV division has to fight the bad reputation of infomercial products – that air of hucksterism that dates back to Ron Popeil and the Pocket Fisherman.
These days, a product can get a bad review on the Internet in just a few days. You can sell a million quickly, but you make more money with a product that lasts. And that means a product that delivers on its promise.
“The consumer gets to vote with their dollar,” Dickson says.
We took the bacon bowls out while they were still floppy. (They crisp up as they stand, so don’t overcook them.) Then we filled them with scrambled eggs and mac and cheese and had a tasting.
The bowl isn’t a bowl that sits on a plate. It’s a hand-held food, like a cookie or a burger. It’s still an awful lot of bacon, though. Since the strips are wrapped in layers, it’s like eating three slices in three bites.
As an invention, though, the Perfect Bacon Bowl is a perfect American story: You just have to keep trying until you get it right.
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