While Fusion Jerky only started hitting shelves in August 2014, San Francisco-based founder and CEO KaiYen Mai is not new to the jerky business.
Her family founded the largest jerky manufacturing business in Taiwan in the 60s and opened a USDA plant in California in 1980, and Mai has been running the US operation since 2003, which supplies Asian-style meat products to Chinese supermarkets in the US and Canada.
However, after a decade at the helm, she decided the time was right to launch something that would reach a broader consumer base.
“I just felt like I had the skillset and the time was right." Mai told FoodNavigator-USA. "People kept saying to me, your jerky is really good, why don’t you try and take it mainstream, and I started thinking, why not? It’s much better than all of these sugar-packed protein bars out there.
“To me Fusion Jerky is about offering the best of both worlds. Asian style jerky is tender and moist, but I wanted more natural flavors that would appeal to a mainstream American audience, but not your same old teriyaki and so on.”
We have a chicken jerky product, which is pretty unusual
She added: “I wanted to offer more than just beef, so we use chicken, which is pretty unusual, as well as turkey and pork. People also want no artificial preservatives, no MSG, no nitrites, and a gluten-free product with less sodium."
As for the branding, she said: “I definitely had a vision of what I wanted the brand to look like. I wanted a more modern take on jerky that would appeal to women and children as well as men. A lot of women eat jerky and it also appeals to people interested in Paleo and Atkins as well.
“I hired a pretty famous design company in San Francisco because packaging is everything with new products.”
I couldn’t find a plant, so I found a plot of land and built one
While the obvious next step would be to manufacture the new line at the family’s plant in San Francisco, or find a co-packer to produce it for her, Mai ended up buying a plot of land and build her own plant in Nebraska.
“There wasn't the room at our San Francisco plant, so I started by looking for a USDA plant I could just take over, but I couldn’t find something that was right, so I found a plot of land and built one.”
People don’t say: ‘Hey I’m going to go to the supermarket and buy some jerky today…’
So what kind of success has she had to date, and what was the route to market?
“When I started people were saying Oh your packaging is so pretty, you should target gourmet and specialty stores. And while I agree with that, I also wanted to aim for convenience stores,” said Mai, who exhibited at the 2014 NACS (National Association of Convenience Stores) show in Las Vegas and the Natural Products Expo East show in Baltimore last fall, and has been plugging her wares at Expo West this week.
“People don’t say, ‘Hey I’m going to go to the supermarket and buy some jerky today.’ It’s more like I’m shopping and there’s some jerky, I’ll grab some," she said.
"It’s an impulse buy that works really well in stores where there is a queue as you wait for a cashier and you can grab it. While a lot of convenience stores still don’t carry many healthy options, that’s starting to change.”
I wanted a more modern take on jerky that would appeal to women and children
Retail reaction has been very positive, said Mai, who has secured listings in stores from Bed Bath and Beyond, Food 4 Less, airport duty fee stores, TJ Maxx, FoodMaxx and Cost Plus World Market, to distributors including Unified Grocers, MTC (distributing to 1,500 c-stores), and C&S Wholesale Grocers, primarily in northern California.
“Retailers are allocating more space to jerky, which has become a hot product in the past couple of years, especially natural jerky. It’s a great time to have a healthier jerky that’s a little different.
"People also love the packaging. KRAVE is a competitor but their success is good for the jerky category in general. We also offer more variety as we do chicken.”
Interested in finding out more about the snacking companies and trends to watch in 2015? Register for our FREE, 60-minute snacking trends forum on Wednesday March 18 at 11.30am EST and put your questions to our expert panel:
- SHANE EMMETT - Co-founder & CEO, Health Warrior
- NIK INGERSOLL - Co-founder & CMO, Barnana
- DAVID CZINN & JOSH KAHN - Co-founders, Fruigees
- JON SEBASTIANI - Founder & CEO, KRAVE Pure Foods
- SEAN KELLY - CEO, H.U.M.A.N. Healthy Markets