Richard and Kate Hanley discovered what is now one of their most innovative products by accident.
“One day we were cooking some mushrooms at the house, and totally burnt a batch,” says Richard Hanley, who along with his wife Kate owns a natural salad dressing company called Hanley’s Foods based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “They oddly tasted like bacon—and my wife and I looked at each other and said, maybe we can make a salad topper out of this.”
Hanley’s Foods started off selling natural salad dressings in local farmers markets around seven years ago, but has since moved into stores like Whole Foods. When Hanley overextended the mushrooms’ time on the grill last year, he and Kate were already thinking about expanding the business into other salad. The crispy mushrooms, they figured, could work as a healthier and more sustainable stand-in for people who like bacon on their salads (though if you like the classic Bac’n Bits, those have always been vegan).
The Hanleys took their idea to the Louisiana State University AgCenter, an incubator that helps build out cutting-edge food ventures. There, they finessed the flavor and figured out specifics, like the product’s shelf life (two years) and the health benefits compared to bacon (no cholesterol versus 10mg per serving). And the boom in interest around plant-based meat alternatives, Hanley said, convinced them to take the product to market. “The water consumption factor, the resources available, the scalability—it’s overall a better and more sustainable way to make food,” Hanley says, referring to plant-based products. Mushrooms in particular are compelling—they’ve been used by fast food chains like Sonic in “blended burgers” because they closely imitate meat, and fashion startups like Bolt Threads are using the root structure of mushrooms to make a leather-like material.
Because it’s still new, the Hanleys have mainly been selling the bacon-esque mushroom toppings, called Bacom Bits, at farmers markets in Baton Rouge. “The reactions have been phenomenal, and it’s not like this is Austin or Boulder or Portland, this is Baton Rouge—an over-seasoned, cracklin’ kind of town,” Hanley says. Going off the initial reaction, the Hanleys have launched a Kickstarter to help them boost their production capacity, and Whole Foods and Ralph’s market have already pledged to distribute the product regionally. They’ll also be sold on Amazon. Bacon bits are just a tiny sliver of the overall meat market in the U.S., but if mushrooms can convincingly mimic such a beloved product, it’s more fuel for the already-booming plant-based meat takeover.