Summer Fancy Food Show

Leveraging culinary connections: Side Project Jerky focuses on small-batch jerky

By Deniz Ataman

- Last updated on GMT

Source: D. Ataman
Source: D. Ataman

Related tags jerky Meat snacks

Side Project Jerky, founded by Marcos Espinoza in 2012 as a testament to his connections in Philadelphia's culinary industry and his interest in the small-batch artisan movement, has expanded to six flavors with nationwide retail distribution in specialty stores, he shared with FoodNavigator-USA at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City.

Side Jerky Project features the culinary expertise of chefs Jen Carroll for the Berbere Beef Jerky and Jonathan Adams for the Cowboy Beef Jerky, which is a coffee and balsamic vinegar-smoked paprika jerky, and Kiki Aranita for the Huli Huli Chicken Jerky, which debuted at the Summer Fancy Food Show.

For the Huli Huli, which exhibits flavors of pineapple, miso and Chinese five-spice blend, Espinoza called on Aranita’s sauce brand, Poi Dog, to develop the next SKU for Side Project Jerky.

Drawing on Aranita's Hawaii roots, Poi Dog's sauces celebrate classic Hawaiian flavors. While Espinoza and Aranita initially considered a version of the Hawaiian snack – super-thin, crunchy beef jerky chips – they opted instead for a chicken jerky version.

"The chicken just tasted better," Aranita explained.

She added that the popularity of thin beef jerky chips in Hawaii is an area she has not seen on the mainland but has potential to expand the jerky space.

“In Hawaii where I'm from, we are really into beef jerky crisps … like super thinly sliced beef jerky that is crunchy, crispy. And we have not really seen that here, yet. I know that there is one mainland operation making them but they are still not as thin as the Hawaiian ones, but I would say for the last three years the jerky chips have been going nuts in Hawaii,” Aranita explained.

Filling the void for artisan meat snacks and jerky

When developing the brand, Espinoza pointed out the “void in the meat snacks and jerky space for an artisan and small-batch product,” and sustainability.

With a day job in construction, Espinoza initially drew on his work in construction to deliver packaging sustainability in his jerky business.

“One of the things back then and it is still important, is sustainability. So, our attempt to that was upcycling old construction drawings, because the companies that I worked for would just throw them out … just pounds upon pounds of paper [that would] go in the trash. I would cut off any sort of identifying marks on the drawings … and these are just awesome kinds of details,” he explained.

As the brand grew, Espinoza’s upcycled packaging idea transitioned into printed packaging while “keeping that same aesthetic,” he said.

Espinoza was inspired by both his knowledge of making his own jerky and his passion for food, especially at the time when the category “was not very innovative,” he said.

“I do not know if that is a function of the consumer just not wanting to be innovative – it is a space where a lot of buyers favor quantity over quality,” where these larger brands may not prioritize a cleaner label, despite leveraging higher protein, he explained.

Balancing production quality with cost

Espinoza relies on his relationship with his co-packer who typically sources “beef at scale” from Pennsylvania or Virginia, which has helped keep the brand’s cost low because “jerky is very expensive to make.”

While Espinoza explored the possibility of partnering with smaller farms, his brand would “basically clean them out at a certain point and it was just a little bit more expensive,” which would double or triple the price of the final product.

Currently, Side Project Jerky’s products retail at $7.99 for 2-ounce bags on its website. The brand is available DTC and in specialty retailers nationwide.

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