Like his father and grandfather before him, butcher Lou DeRosa lifts thick slabs of bacon from the glass case at Marconda's Meats and wraps them for a waiting customer.
Tucked away at L.A.'s landmark Farmer's Market, the little butcher stand is selling more bacon than ever — and at prices that tip the scale toward "crazy," DeRosa said. The Danish bacon rings up at $8.98 a pound for America's trendiest meat.
"Prices go up every six months, much more than your typical meat item, because everyone is buying it," said DeRosa, whose family has run the shop since 1941.
The country's love affair with bacon is coming at an increasing cost. The price of the popular cured meat has risen at more than three times the rate of inflation since 2008, the most of any meat, according to government price trackers.
Contributing to soaring bacon prices is California's three-year drought, which made feed for pigs more expensive. In addition, an unprecedented virus has killed about 7 million piglets since 2013, trimming the nation's pork supply by almost 12%, said John Green, director of marketing for the National Pork Board.
But mainly, he said, Americans' hunger for bacon is putting the sizzle in prices.
"Our supply is static since it takes nine months to make a pig," Green said. "That's troublesome since the real drive in bacon right now is consumer demand."
In June, shoppers paid $6.11 on average for a pound of sliced bacon in grocery stores, a record high, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four years earlier, the average price was $4.05 a pound.
At a Ralph's supermarket in Brentwood, James McMenamin, 27, considered nixing his bacon purchase after double-checking the price tag.
"It seems really expensive," McMenamin said, "but I still need that bacon fix."
Despite the soaring prices, bacon sales climbed 9.5% to a record $4 billion in 2013, according to Information Resources Inc., a market research firm.
Bacon is deeply embedded in American culture and has taken on the status of comfort food, said Ari Weinzweig, author of Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.
"There's an emotional attachment there," Weinzweig said. "It reminds us of childhood."
Americans are adding more bacon in more unorthodox places: in ice cream, sushi and sprinkled on chocolate chip cookies.
Restaurants are also weaving bacon into menus in more unusual ways to encourage a little impulse eating, Green said.
The salty meat can be found in the potato-bacon terrine at Wolfgang Puck's Beverly Hills restaurant, Spago, and in Denny's maple bacon milkshake.
Breakfast giant IHOP has amped up its bacon offerings.
Since 2010, the chain has added 23 menu items that incorporated bacon, "everything from bacon crepes to salads," said Marie Grimm, IHOP's vice president of culinary innovation.
And an industry first: a bacon-and-cheddar-cheese-infused waffle.
Grimm couldn't say how much IHOP has increased its prices because of rising pork costs because the chain's menu prices vary nationally, but she did say that the high price is an issue.
Bacon's soaring prices are putting a crunch on fast-food chains, where bacon dishes account for 30% to 50% of menu items at popular chains including Carl's Jr., Wendy's and Jack in the Box.
Drivers ordering bacon-topped burgers at drive-through windows will pay nearly $5 on average, the unofficial ceiling on fast-food burgers, according to SpenDifference, a restaurant supply chain co-op in Denver. Its recent restaurant chain survey showed that 93% of the 60 chains interviewed planned to raise prices during the second half of this year.
"We are in unprecedented times, with new markets and price levels we have never seen," said DeWayne Dove, vice president of purchasing for SpenDifference. "The service side is starting to pass along the cost of bacon."
In 2002, a Carl's Jr. bacon cheeseburger cost $1.39. By 2013, it cost $3.29 through the double whammy of beef and bacon price increases.
In addition to paying more for bacon, Dove says customers might be getting less of it.
"A lot of chains are adjusting portion sizes. What used to be three pieces of bacon now is two pieces of bacon for the same price," he said, noting that fast-food diners could soon be paying $6 for a bacon burger.
Plenty of bacon lovers are willing to pay.
Butcher Jim Cascone of Huntington Meats said price doesn't seem to matter when it comes to bacon. The Los Angeles butcher shop is selling 100 cases of bacon a week and has seen a 25% increase in consumption in three years.
"No one ever questions the price," said Cascone, who charges about $7.99 a pound for applewood smoked bacon, up from $4.99 four years ago. "One of my clients just had a bacon party. There's just something about it that romances eaters."
It certainly has that effect for Josh Goldstein, a 24-year-old personal trainer from Manhattan Beach, who says he eats half a pound of bacon every morning and wraps his Thanksgiving turkey in bacon every year. Not even price hikes would change those rituals.
"It has definitely become more expensive, and I buy so much it does add up," Goldstein said. "But bacon is my medicine. It makes everything better."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun