The Heim Barbecue Instagram account posted its first photo of bacon burnt ends on March 9, 2015. The next day, other pitmasters were likely taking their first cracks at crafting copycat versions. Such is the popularity of the sweet and savory cubes of smoked pork belly. Today it’s almost an expectation that a newly opened Texas barbecue joint’s menu will include them—often rechristened as “pork belly burnt ends.” Travis Heim has come to expect as much, yet it still prompted a double take when he noticed that a national grocery giant added them to its meat snack lineup.
Last weekend, Heim texted me an image from Kroger’s website. It showed a package of Pork Belly Bites sold under Kroger’s Private Selection label. The full name of the product is “Original BBQ Recipe Seasoned Pork Belly Bites Roasted and Charred With Crispy Burnt Ends.” That’s a whole lot of words to say pork belly burnt ends. Maybe the lengthy description of what’s in the package was a way to pack in as many buzzwords as possible, or maybe it was a roundabout way to avoid copying Heim’s bacon burnt ends moniker.
The pork belly in the Kroger package is pork jerky, not barbecue. It’s made from pork belly, and the layers of soft fat that remain are there to prove it, but the product is dried. If you’ve had strips of bacon jerky, the flavor will be familiar, although the texture is unique. What struck me is that the store made sure to add a badge on the package that said, “smoked and cured.” Smoked and cured pork belly is bacon by definition, and when it comes to food marketing, not many buzzwords are more valuable than bacon. I guess Kroger determined there was something more popular than bacon—namely, pork belly burnt ends.
Heim appreciates the homages, though he would prefer that those who copy his recipe call the product “bacon burnt ends.” His attempt to trademark the term was rebuffed, he said, because it included the word “bacon.” (Heim has successfully trademarked the tagline “Farm to Smoker.”)
The blatant copying used to bother Heim when he and his wife, Emma, opened their trailer in 2015. He now enjoys the idea of being influential in the culture of Texas barbecue. “People know that we started it, so now it doesn’t bother me as much,” he said. As for Kroger putting out its own version of pork belly burnt ends, he was certainly stunned and surprised when he saw the label. He still laughed it off, saying, “Of all the people that do bacon burnt ends and sell them, I’m probably fourth on the list of making money off of them.”
Heim said it’s an odd feeling to see barbecue restaurants across the world now offering their own version of the phenomenon dreamed up by Heim Barbecue back in 2013, when he first cooked them for a backyard Meat Club event. “There’s some place in New Zealand [Blue Ox Babe BBQ] that does them,” he said. “A place in Prague has them on the menu because they follow us on Instagram.” I sent Heim a photo from Ristorante Ducale in Erchie, Italy, which offered them as part of its special barbecue menu. Heim countered with photos from Way Down South Smokehouse BBQ in Oslo, Norway; TuinChef in the Netherlands; and Crosdales’ BBQ outside Sydney, Australia.
Bacon burnt ends are worldwide now, but still the most surprising place I found them was at the historic Kreuz Market in Lockhart. Opened in 1900, the joint is known for serving traditional meat-market-style barbecue. When I visited last year they were running a daily special of pork belly burnt ends, which isn’t exactly a Central Texas staple. When I told Heim this, he responded, “That’s insane.” It probably ranks right up there with a nationwide grocery chain drawing inspiration from a fairly recent Texas barbecue trend for its latest bagged jerky product. I guess the only thing more surprising is that the product’s name suggests that pork belly burnt ends are now more popular than bacon.