East Tennessee’s Smokiest Treasure!
Located in Madisonville, Tennessee, Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams offers slow-cured country hams, bacon and prosciutto. In 1947, Albert Hicks, a dairy farmer by trade, started curing and selling his country hams. In 1973, Allan Benton and his father took over the business and began running it out of a ramshackle cinder block building located on Highway 411 North. Benton uses a mixture of salt, brown sugar and sodium nitrite which is rubbed onto fresh hams in a maple box. The hams are aged at least 9 to 10 months, sometimes longer. Benton also smokes hams in a wood-fired smokehouse out behind the shop. In addition to ham, he also produces bacon and prosciutto.
I had always heard and read about how personable the man is, and I have to say Mr. Benton lived up to his reputation! Mr. Benton is one of the most down-to-earth, affable and sincere gentlemen I’ve met. Underneath the country man, though, I detected a definite connection with and understanding of what’s happened with the explosion of his awesome products into the realm of gourmet cooking. Mr. Benton graciously spent time talking with me about his business, his experiences and just his take on life in general. I left the store armed not only with the bacon, but with a greater appreciation of the genius behind the smoky richness of his products.
Although Benton’s products are very popular today and used by chefs all across the country, Mr. Benton told me he struggled for the first 20 years in business! He began by selling to restaurants in the area and also to tourists and locals who made their way down to the building. For years, he lost money. But, he told me, despite the slow start he was determined to keep going and take his business to the next level. There was one particular incident that he considers the lucky break along his journey. He was continually looking to expand the business, and in 1991 took a ham and some bacon down to Blackberry Farm, a noted resort located in Walland, Tennessee. At the time, John Fleer was executive chef at Blackberry. Fleer used the ham and bacon, then called Mr. Benton and told him he’d like to develop an entire menu around the products. After that, Fleer began to let other chefs around the country know about Benton’s. Benton’s popularity took off from there.
Following the Fleer boost, in 2002 the Southern Foodways Alliance hosted a ham tasting event attended by hundreds of chefs and food writers. Mr. Benton received an invitation to and attended this event, and says this was another pivotal moment for his business. Mr. Benton told his wife after the event, “I think I’ve seen the promised land.” He gathered his 3 employees around him the following Monday morning and told them there would be some changes to his business plan. The rest, as they say, is bacon and ham history!
Hundreds of restaurants across the country use Benton’s products. You’ll find dishes with Benton’s products in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Napa, New Orleans, Charleston. Chefs like Thomas Keller, John Fleer, Emeril Lagasse and Sean Brock, to name a few, use Benton’s products in their creations. Mixologists have even begun using Benton’s in their drinks. A favorite of mine is the Bacon Old Fashioned at Patterson House in Nashville. Mr. Benton said that 75% of his business goes out the door via UPS trucks – that’s a lot of ham and bacon being shipped to chefs and customers around the country. He modestly states that the gourmet chefs around the country who use his products so creatively are the ones to whom he owes the success of his business, but anyone who meets Mr. Benton can see that he himself continues to be an integral part of keeping the Benton name at the forefront of gourmet cooking.
Today, in the same cinder block building but now with 14 employees, Mr. Benton contributes daily to the fundamental success of his business. On any given day, he can be found working in and around the store, fielding calls from customers, chefs and food reviewers and sharing stories with walk-in customers. Even though I only spent 30 minutes with Mr. Benton, I came away enriched and thankful to have shared the time with him. When I got home that afternoon and picked up my 9 year old daughter from camp, I told her about my adventure. She actually got angry that she wasn’t along that day! She loves Benton’s bacon and told me next time I went, I’d sure better plan on taking her. All ended well, though, she got her favorite food in the whole world for dinner that night…..