Japanese Curry. Pho. Mango Habanero. When it comes to flavors, Lawless Jerky could be described as an outlaw. “[The] flavors are definitely unique—and awesome,” Tim Colley, president of Lawless Jerky’s Phoenix-based co-packer, Shannon’s Deli Meats, told FoodNavigator-USA.
As more high-end jerky comes to market, founder Matt Tolnick believes his continued experimentation with flavor is his differentiator. “I really want my flavors to be as distinct as possible,” Tolnick said. By that, he means not just different from other brands out there, but also distinct from the flavors he’s already released.
“It gets harder the more flavors I release. Though we’ve had a very well-received product up to this point, I’m never really satisfied, I assume there’s always a way to make something better,” he said, but he’s quick to add: “That’s an excuse for me to spend more time in the ‘kitchen,’ which is really the reason why I enjoy jerky to begin with—it keeps me in touch with my creative side.”
Tolnick started drying meat when he was a sophomore at Duke. An avid lifter, he was trying to find an easy alternative to protein shakes (“I broke a bunch of blenders”) and protein bars (“They have a lot of nasty ingredients in them”). But the costs were adding up, and he thought that the jerky available at the time weren’t any better than the super-sweet protein bars anyways. That’s when he and a group of friends decided to invest in a dehydrator.
“When I first got it, I followed the directions that came with [the dehydrator], but it did not make good jerky,” Tolnick said about the device he picked up at a popular chain store. He continued to experiment with his own methods and recipes, eventually remaining the only one from the group of friends that pitched in for the dehydrator to continue enthusiastically making jerky.
Upon graduation, Tolnick went through many career changes, from sports agent to lawyer. But jerky remained his passion, until one day he decided, as the Lawless Jerky website puts it, that “he could bring more smiles to more faces through his jerky than through his lawyering.”
A match for the microbatch
In many ways, this makeshift dorm-room project was the precursor of Lawless Jerky, and even with a packaged product on the shelves of over 5,000 stores, Tolnick is as hands-on as he was when making jerky in college. He thanks his co-packer for this.
“I hesitate to even call them a co-packer, because they’re a co-owner in our business, they’ve invested in their company as we’ve invested in ours,” Tolnick said about the family-owned and operated Shannon’s Deli Meats. With a much smaller minimum requirement than most co-packers, as well as a small staff, Tolnick can get the bespoke service he needs.
But it was a long journey to finally settle with what he calls “the best co-packers.” Having worked at Campbell Soup Company as a business analyst right after graduating from Duke, he was able to get a glimpse of the flavor testing process and applied a similar technique to test his own product to family and friends.
After an influx of positive feedback, he was confident enough to realize his idea. Back in 2013, he raised funds on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, meeting his $12,000 goal in the first 24 hours and reaching $32,000 after the whole 35 day campaign.
His first two co-packers, one based in northern California and another in North Carolina, weren’t good fits. “I got one tour at their facility, it was very hasty and very hush-hush,” he said about one of his initial co-packers. ”They said, ‘you provide us the recipe, and we’ll take it from here.’”
But Tolnick’s meeting with Shannon’s Deli Meats left a good first impression. It was nowhere near Lawless Jerky’s first headquarters in California, or the creative and sales offices in Brooklyn and outside Philadelphia, but its good reputation pushed Tolnick’s impulse for a visit, and its transparency from day one made decision-making easy. As the saying goes, the rest is history.
“The one thing we specialize in is that we work with a lot of chefs in the Phoenix and Scottsdale area—we’ve got the equipment to handle smaller batches without charging more for a minimum,” Tim Colley said. “Every client’s a little bit different, some are 100% hands-off and some are 100% hands-on. In Matt’s case, he provides the meat and spices to us.”
Sourcing meat, sourcing flavors
Tolnick’s Japanese roommates he found through Craigslist while living in Los Angeles opened a whole new world of flavors. Teriyaki sauce may be a popular and familiar flavor for jerky, but Tolnick went for Japanese curry, which he initially “didn’t know [there were variants] outside of India.”
As for his meats, Tolnick uses 100% grass-fed beef from a farmer in New Zealand. “A good friend knew the importer,” he said. “I’ve tried meat from [multiple countries], I don’t know why, I can’t explain why biologically, but the New Zealand meat’s texture and flavor is the one I’ve gotten the best feedback for.”
A bag of Lawless Jerky goes for $5.99 for 2oz., slightly less expensive than other craft jerky on the market. Tolnick hopes his whimsical flavors can win the hearts of more Americans. “We want to be a brand more people know about. We want more new flavors, and go from 5,000 stores to 15 or 20,000 stores,” he said. “We want jerky to be more than road trip food.”