Jerky Week, Part 4: A Jerky Empire Rises

Think a store dedicated solely to beef jerky wouldn't work? Think the idea of franchising it is ridiculous? Think again, says Paul Lyons of The Beef Jerky Outlet, in Fast Company's fourth installment of Jerky Week. How jerky could conquer the nation--and even the globe.

Paul Lyons is one of the founders of The Beef Jerky Outlet. His first bold idea? Entire stores dedicated almost solely to jerky products. His second? Replicating that model across the country--and potentially around the world. In the fourth installment of Jerky Week, Fast Company caught up with Lyons to learn yet another way entrepreneurs are harnessing America’s insatiable hunger for meat snacks.

FAST COMPANY: Early this week, we've explored artisanal jerky, caffeinated jerky, and online bulk-order jerky. How is your business distinguishing itself in this burgeoning space?

PAUL LYONS: It’s the idea that having stores dedicated to this product is a viable idea no matter where in the country you go with it. There’s that kind of demand. Even with the success we’re having, people still give us funny looks when we say our stores are dedicated to the product of beef jerky.

In a way, you’re the opposite of some thing like Perky Jerky, which places its bags as impulse-buys as the registers of Office Depots. You are the Jerky Depot.

We don’t take these to the mass market. We set up stores in places with high-volume traffic. There’s just a percentage of people in this country who are attracted to all things beef jerky.

I can’t imagine ever wanting to go to a store that only sold beef jerky.

You might not be able to imagine it, but there’s people out there who are jerky junkies. We know there’s enough power in the idea of beef jerky within certain people that they drag other people along with them. They see the store and their eyes light up, they want to get in and see what it’s all about. They get in, and there are 100 or more different kinds of jerky, including exotics like alligator and kangaroo. We have some other items, too--sausages, popcorns, peanut butters--but make no doubt about it: Beef jerky is the primary focus.

Had anyone ever pulled off an empire of jerky franchises before?

No. Jerky Hut has sort of a franchise of people running around selling products--not at stores, but at events and fairs.

When I think of a franchise, I think of Golden Arches dotting the sides of interstates, coast to coast. Will we soon be seeing giant glowing jerky signs?

Well, we don’t know how big it can be. We’re still learning, still finding out ourselves. We’ve been dedicated mostly to what we might call low-hanging fruit: busy tourist areas and places like that where we know the right people go in sufficient numbers. So I don’t think it’ll ever be McDonald’s--it just doesn’t have that much across-the-board common appeal as hamburgers do. But who knows how big it can get? Our 12th franchise is opening next week, in Branson, Missouri.

But do you see it working in every state? Every city?

Certainly every state, and probably internationally. I think we’re still learning.

What’s the most unlikely place you’ve considered opening a store? You’d maybe be out of place in Manhattan, say?

People have certain stereotypical ideas in their heads of who eats jerky. “Oh, you’ve gotta be where the hunters are. Oh, you’ve gotta be where the motorcycle guys are. Oh, you’ve gotta be where the campers are.” But oftentimes the biggest customers are people you’d never think in a million years would buy as much product as they do.

Such as?

Such as: women. I’d say probably 50% of our buyers are women, and our best customers--those buying the most volume--are women. Women are oftentimes the buyers of things in families. Sometimes they’re buying it for their dad, grandfather, son, husband, and themselves. A guy might only buy for himself. Women are a little more thinking of others, let’s say.

Throughout this week, every conversation about jerky has turned to a conversation about manliness, or gender lines.

It’s interesting you say that. I’ve heard from several women that one of the reasons they like jerky is its kind of masculineness, its roughness. It reminds them of their grandfathers, when they were kids and grandpa used to have some. It transports them back to other times, and people they love: their fathers, their grandfathers. Women really do relate to this product.

So there’s a nostalgia market.

That’s another niche of it. And that’s true of the whole population, even men: It’s kind of rustic, kind of back-to-roots, kind of cowboy, kind of settlers... it’s all those things. It taps into all those feelings.

How do you feel about this artisanal jerky trend, embodied by SlantShack--the idea that jerky’s something you can sell at a farmer’s market, next to hand-churned goat cheese or whatnot?

I guess I would say, other than maybe the big boys like Jack Links, jerky’s kind of artisanal anyway. It isn’t mass-produced by big machines. I don’t know that that’s actually new, other than people calling it that.

I first learned of your company via a story called “Processed meat snacks gaining in popularity,” which was very stimulating, and which referred me to a case study of your business in the publication Convenience Store Decisions, which I was unfamiliar with.

That was the Dundee store, in Dundee, Michigan, north of Toledo, off of US-23. It’s right across from a 225,000-square-foot big box Cabela’s outdoor store. The place we turned into a jerky outlet was a convenience store. We literally took the convenience store products out and replaced all the cheese, popcorn, and things with jerky. And life has never been the same since.

The story I read reported that you took that location and boosted jerky sales from $500 a week to as much as $70,000 a month.

Yes, and we’ve done better than that, even.

So should all 7-11’s ditch their product lines and just stock jerky?

Not at all. It has to be the right place. But there are some convenience stores everywhere that could do exactly what I described and do much better.

What’s a final lesson an entrepreneur reading this should learn?

If you’re gonna do something, you gotta begin. There are a lot of ideas that people think are stupid and don’t give much of a chance. With the right person, perseverance, and a bit of luck, it can get done.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

For more from the Fast Talk interview series, click here. Know someone who'd make a good Fast Talk subject? Mention it to David Zax.

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[Image: Flickr user Aaron Escobar]

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