For former University of Wisconsin student Howard Bender, it’s always been about the food.

Whether from his days on campus working at various Madison restaurants to withdrawing from UW his fifth year to pursue a degree at the Culinary Institute of America in New York City, grub has always led the way.

Three and a half years ago, the smell of bacon combined with a challenge from a friend oddly-led Bender to a business venture creating a viable beef alternative to the pork breakfast item — Schmacon. Even so, he claims he hasn’t turned his back on the beloved pork product.

“I was having breakfast with one of my closest friends and he was eating turkey bacon and I asked him how it was,” Bender said. “He said it sucked. It was a challenge at that point whether I could make a beef product crisp and curly, and look almost identical to bacon.”

Due to an increase in global demand for pork alternatives for religious, health and other reasons combined with current bacon alternatives lacking quality, Bender felt he had a niche to fill.

After three and a half years working with a food scientist friend on how to replace pork with beef, Bender filed for patents and has since watched his beef alternative to bacon take off.

He said Schmacon is currently available at Hy-Vee grocery stores in Madison, and will be on shelves from Texas to New York by next year.

Bender also revealed a major airline, possibly British Airways, will soon begin offering Schmacon on international flights.

“I’m this little nobody guy who came up with this product that has already gone viral,” Bending said. “I’m honored, but it’s very surreal.” 

Bender said Schmacon, a brand of his larger company specializing in deli meats — Schmaltz Retail Products — is the best thing they’ve ever made.

He said it consists of whole muscle beef, meaning it’s lower in sodium and has half the fat and calories of regular bacon. Because of its lower fat content, after it’s cooked, the final product ends up containing more meat than a slice of pork bacon would.

Schmacon is all natural — it doesn’t contain any sodium nitrite or other harmful salts traditionally used for curing.

But for all the ways in which it differs from bacon, Bender said its best attribute is how closely it resembles its pork cousin. Schmacon’s quality was even high enough for it to be nominated for and win a National Restaurant Association award.

Despite the worldwide success of Schmacon’s launch, Bender said he never forgets his Madison roots. He’s originally from St. Louis, but he said his time in Madison during and after his college years inspired him in more ways than one.

During his time at UW, Bender worked at a variety of restaurants, from scraping the grills at State Street Brats to working his way up to the French inspired L’Etoile before heading off to culinary school during his fifth year.

“As I look at the different places I worked at in Madison, those were the people who inspired me to get into product development,” Bender said. “That’s how Schmacon happened, to some extent.”

When he made the return to Madison after graduating culinary school, he began to work at a local restaurant, Ovens of Brittany, until taking a position at Sysco, a food distributor. He worked for a year in Madison before the company moved him to Chicago.

He said it was through connections at Sysco that he met Tom Weigand, co-founder of Noodles & Company. Intrigued by their brand awareness, Bender was eventually inspired to open a Jewish style deli in Naperville, Illinois. Surrounded by meat products, his deli then led to his conception of Schmacon.

While Bender said he does have new product ideas in his head, he’s too consumed by the present to give them much cultivation. For now, he said he simply hopes for Schmacon to get the attention it deserves.

“When I go to Denny’s and look at the menu and it says pork and turkey bacon, my goal is for it to say pork, turkey and beef.”