That's quite a trade-up from 7-Eleven.
But, then, Murdoch's product is no ordinary jerky. In fact, his beef strips boast a moisture-to-protein ratio more reminiscent of kippered beef than beef jerky. And that's just the beginning. In partnership with Certified Angus Beef, Gary West processes product that is hand-trimmed; cut against the grain; marinated in a blend of salt, brown sugar, black pepper, and sodium nitrite; smoked over hickory chips; vacuum-packed in quantities from 1.5 ounces to 16 ounces; and sold for up to $25.
'The Angus product is USDA choice,' Murdoch says, 'so we have to trim a little tighter, and adjust the cure to account for the additional marbling. And we dial back on spices to highlight the taste of the meat itself.'
Among purists, there's no substitute for traditional-tasting jerky, but West also has begun manufacturing teriyaki, Cajun and cracked pepper varieties in an effort to expand the category beyond its flannel-and-denim origins. And, Murdoch adds, to appeal to women.
So far, the strategy appears to be working. West, which distributes through catalogs, the Internet and high-end specialty food shops, moves about 160,000 pounds of product annually, and is growing at a rate of 15 percent to 20 percent a year.
Exotic flavors and old-world craftsmanship may be jerky's ticket out of convenience stores, but Murdoch says product pedigree is becoming every bit as important. 'It's all about certification,' he says of West's affiliation with CAB. 'Consumers want to know the story behind their food.'
The low-carb craze gave jerky a boost, he acknowledges, but the current trend is health-consciousness. And women, he says, are particularly inquisitive about fat content, sodium, nitrites and the like.
No nitrites, please
Not surprisingly, West's latest project involved the creation of a natural beef jerky to complement the company's natural elk and buffalo strip lines. Oregon Natural Smoked Beef Strips, along with the re-branded Oregon Natural Buffalo Strips and Elk Strips, made their debut in January. Natural product, Murdoch observes, costs about $2.50 to $3 per pound more to source, but wholesalers and retailers are all too happy to pay a premium for it, no questions asked. The one non-negotiable standard among health food chains is no nitrites, a requirement West fulfills by substituting vegetable powder for sodium nitrate to achieve the desired water activity levels. West currently is working to lower salt and sugar content while developing natural versions of the company's original beef jerkys.
Truth to tell, jerky provides a surprisingly healthful foundation to build upon, deriving, as it typically does, from lean fresh meat that is low in cholesterol and fat, and high in protein. For jerky manufacturers -- and consumers -- the problem has been that packaged and bulk jerky product sold in stores tends to be over-processed, over-salted and, in many cases, stale. Fresh jerky, by comparison, is much softer, flavorful and nutritious, all attributes that niche processors -- including Boulder Colo.-based Distinctive Brands and Johnson City, Texas-based Whittington's Jerky and General Stores -- know they will need to provide in spades if they expect to curry favor with a more upscale demographic.
Accordingly, Distinctive Brands manufactures no fewer than three nutrition-oriented lines: Wild Ride all natural, Wild Ride antibiotic- and hormone-free, and Wild Ride zero-carbs. The nitrite- and preservative-free jerkys are available in flavors including 'hoppin' hickory' and 'gallopin' pepper' -- names that sound down home, even if the product's demographic isn't.
Company President Rob Calianno says the healthful lines were created 'to provide a point of differentiation to more of a premium customer.' Product is sold only in gourmet markets and specialty stores, and cut into one-sq.-in. pieces with an eye toward wooing women. 'The smaller squares make the product more tender than traditional jerky,' he says, 'and they're easier for women to eat.'
Calianno reports extensive growth for all lines, and says consumers can expect to see new flavors available sometime in the fall.
Whittington also is hitching its wagon to nutrition and health. In June, the company plans to roll out an organic beef jerky at the Fancy Food Show in hopes that lightning will strike as it did at last year's show, when it rolled out organic pork jerky to considerable fanfare.
Like other niche players, Whittington has seen its jerky sales boom in recent years. In 1999, eight stores carried Whittington product, owner Susan Whittington recalls. Today, more than 500 do, and in addition to more healthful ingredients, it's spice that's breathing new life into its upscale offerings. In the past six years, Whittington has supplemented its original jerky line with hot beef, garlic beef and teriyaki beef, as well as original and hot and spicy turkey.
Although the majority of Whittington product is sold in convenience stores, other formats, including gourmet specialty shops, delis and sporting arenas, have begun showing interest in her product. Because it sells for a premium -- from $24.50 to $34.50 per pound, depending on the region -- Whittington says it performs best in convenience stores when shelved beside another national brand. 'Consumers immediately can see that our jerky is different, justifying the higher price,' she says.
Feed their wild side
That may be changing as major players embark on a little social climbing of their own. Last summer, for instance, the Minong, Wis.-based Jack Link's Beef Jerky rolled out Marinated Tender Cuts, a soft-textured product with four flavors: prime rib, barbecue pork, chicken fajita and KC Masterpiece. Marketing Vice President Bret Ocholik says the line has enjoyed such impressive growth that a new flavor may be added this summer. Meantime, Jack Link's has redesigned its packaging to emphasize the brand's premium pedigree and launched a television advertising campaign encouraging men and women to 'feed their wild side' anytime, anywhere.
'Snack time often replaces meal time as consumers navigate their way through busy days,' Ocholik observes. 'Meat snacks are the perfect solution.'
Jerky's other heavy hitter, the Kent, Wash.-based Oberto Sausage Co., introduced a boldly spiced Steakhouse beef jerky last year, and in March launched Oh Boy! Oberto Sesame Ginger Beef Jerky. Having seen growth in Asian-oriented flavorings, especially its own teriyaki brand, 'We decided to add another new twist,' explains Oberto Marketing Vice President Mick Tyler. A desire to appeal to women and families also prompted Oberto's to launch Beef Jerky Crisps -- thin-sliced, oven-roasted rounds available in original, smoky barbecue and sweet mesquite flavors. 'They're like potato chips -- only a low-fat, high-protein alternative,' says Tyler, who says Oberto is already at work on new flavors.
Even so, it may take some doing for Oberto to keep pace with those wily small guys. Dagoba Organic Chocolate, for instance, has begun experimenting with a chocolate-coated version of Gary West's Hickory-Smoked Elk Strips.
'And you know?' Murdoch says. 'It's not bad.'
THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY
There's more than one way to smoke a jerky. Although Johnson City, Texas-based jerky maker Whittington's Jerky and General Stores constructed a new processing plant as late as 1999, its processing operations still rely more on muscle than automation -- and that's by design, according to owner Susan Whittington.
Jerky manufacture begins with hand-cutting select grade A strips with the grain to enhance tenderness. Deriving from inside round whole muscle, the strips are then hand-rolled in a spiced dry rub before being hung in a brick smokehouse for 16 hours. Smoke is piped in from outdoor, mesquite-burning pits and kept warm with gas heating.
Rather than employ dry rubs, Ceres, Calif.-based SnackMasters Gourmet Jerky employs a marinade of soy sauce, honey, vinegar, seasonings and liquid smoke. Slabs of top round are thin-sliced by machine, then placed in a tumbler. Next, slices are hand-placed on trays before being loaded onto racks for oven baking.
The meat is later cooled on gondolas, providing product with additional time to absorb the marinade before being sent to packaging. Besides beef and turkey jerky, SnackMasters also manufactures jerky made from salmon and ahi tuna.
I WAS A MAIL-ORDER JERKY
Non-traditional jerky calls for non-traditional marketing and distribution, especially for small niche players looking to bust out of convenience stores, which continue to ring up the majority of meat snack sales. Consider some of the following strategies:
Go glossy. Paul Murdoch says he decided to bypass conventional distribution channels when he bought the Jacksonville, Ore.-based Gary West Smoked Meats in 2003. High-gloss mail-order catalogs, including Cabela's and Norm Thompson, currently account for about 35 percent of his business, although Internet sales are growing fastest. By comparison, high-end groceries and specialty food stores such as Fresh Seasons in Portland, Ore., account for up to 25 percent of sales. 'They work better for us than traditional supermarkets do,' Murdoch says.
Network. As in Food Network. 'We don't advertise nationally, but we've gotten some good press,' Murdoch says. Food Network chef Sarah Moulton showcased West's Certified Angus Beef Strips on 'Good Morning America,' and Food Network's 'Unwrapped' also featured West. 'We got more orders the day after that than in the entire month of November,' Murdoch says.
Be a sport. Be Rob Calianno, president and CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based Distinctive Brands, who promotes his healthful Wild Ride lines by sponsoring outdoor sporting activities. He also caters to women, who he says account for 60 percent of jerky sales.
Be first. Ceres, Calif.-based SnackMasters Gourmet Jerky distributes Certified Natural Beef Jerky in some 76 Whole Foods Markets. 'We were picked up by Whole Foods in 1992,' SnackMasters spokeswoman Sue Ferrara says. 'At the time, we were one of the few natural jerky brands around.' The company also distributes at Trader Joe's.
Work the Web. Johnson City, Texas-based Whittington's Jerky and General Stores, which mainly distributes in convenience stores, has developed an ingenious Web site that turns online customers into regional sales representatives. If consumers refer their local retailer to Whittington, and the retailer bites, their commission is a free pound of jerky. 'We get a lot of referrals that way,' owner Susan Whittington says.