But forget the dry, leathery, additive-laden trucker’s fare you find at the gas station, says KRAVE Jerky founder Jon Sebastiani, who only started selling his moist, whole-muscle cut products seriously in 2011 and is now in 20,000+ stores.
KRAVE - which is marketed more like Godiva chocolate than Slim Jim - comes in gourmet flavors from ‘basil citrus turkey’; and ‘black cherry barbecue pork’; to ‘pineapple orange beef’, a “Hawaiian-inspired offering of tender top round sirloin domestic beef marinated in a blend of sweet orange, pineapple and tropical fruit”.
If the latter sounds more like something you'd find at a fancy restaurant than a gas station, that’s because to Sebastiani - who worked in the family wine business in Sonoma, California, before turning his entrepreneurial talents to meat snacks - premium jerky is every bit as enticing as good wine.
We had to distance ourselves from typical jerky in every way possible
“I had my ‘A-ha!’ moment when I was training for the New York City marathon and looking for healthy snacks,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“You’ve basically got 40 feet of chips and a sea of bars. I looked at jerky because I wanted something high in protein and low in fat, but looking at the meat snacks, I saw this sleepy, stale category lacking in innovation, quality and flavor.
“There were a few local artisanal players out there but no one had broken out and gone mass market with a gourmet jerky.
“I realized there was a huge opportunity for a premium, all-natural, flavorful product with some really interesting flavors, less sodium and no nitrites. But in order for this to work we had to distance ourselves from typical jerky in every way possible.
“On the one hand, everyone knows what jerky is, which is good, but on the other hand, the fact everyone knows what jerky is has also been the challenge, because people that know what it is have a negative perception of it, and we’ve had to overcome that.”
The target consumer is the ‘non-jerky user’
The result was KRAVE, preserved with sea salt and celery powder - it has a shelf-life of less than a year versus the standard of nearly two years - that’s made with whole muscle meat instead of meat scraps, marinated for 24 hours and baked, so it remains moist and tender.
The flavors range from spicy (garlic chili pepper) to sweet (grilled sweet teriyaki), while the target consumer is the “non-jerky user”, said Sebastiani, who designed the packaging to appeal to health-seeking snackers, women and “Moms that want to feel good about buying jerky”.
Celebrity backers include the winner of the 2009 New York marathon (who also came fourth in the 2012 Olympics), Meb Keflezighi.
As for distributors, Sebastiani deliberately steered clear of c-stores and gas stations and instead targeted natural retailers, then drugstores (CVS), and finally mass grocery and club stores as word started to spread (Target, Costco, Kroger, Meijer). He’s also struck deals with airlines (Virgin Atlantic), posh hotels, gyms, wine stores and the staff cafes at Google, Twitter and Microsoft.
My brand is up 400% year-on-year
The marketing and PR also reflects this women-friendly, all-natural, healthy image, with recent mentions in leading women’s magazines from Oprah to Glamor and Self.
“We went to the market in a big way in 2011 and we’ve just been on an amazing rocket ship ever since,” said Sebastiani.
“Today we’re in more than 20,000 stores and we’ve got 45 employees. My brand is up 400% year-on-year."
He added: "In the channels that KRAVE is in, we can draw two important and distinct data points: First, KRAVE is incremental to the category, often bringing women and children into the space; and second, where KRAVE is sold, overall category growth is up in the mid-double digits."
Meanwhile, KRAVE is generating "tremendous growth" in channels are not reported to IRI, such as airlines, sports arenas, hotels, foodservice, and corporate cafeterias, he added.
"I believe that KRAVE can become more than 10% of the category - which would position the company at around $250-300m/year. Our growth is expected to remain in the triple digits for the foreseeable future."
As for the top flavors, the best seller is sweet chipotle, but sales across the range are well balanced, he said, “so the 80:20 rule doesn’t apply.”
Today we’re in more than 20,000 stores and we’ve got 45 employees
So what’s the game plan now the business is really taking off? And what advice would he give to other budding entrepreneurs?
Right now, Sebastiani has his hands full managing the meteoric growth the company is experiencing, but further down the line he envisions KRAVE Pure Foods offering a broader range of products: “I don’t see myself running a jerky company for the next 10 years.”
As for advice, Sebastiani says the smartest thing he did at the start was secure enough capital to support the business during its rapid growth; first securing money from family, friends and angel investors, and second securing institutional investors.
“You don’t want to run out of capital. It takes courage to spend the money early on, but people underestimate the power of momentum.”