Each week, Fast Talk brings you conversations with innovators across countless industries. This week, we’re focusing on one oft-overlooked business in particular: the business of beef jerky.
You may have thought that those salty sticks of meat you grab at the 7-11 couldn’t possibly be improved upon, but the three passionate jerky innovators we’ll be talking to this week intend to show you just how wrong you are. For our first Jerky Week chat, we caught up with David Koretz, the COO of SlantShack Jerky, which hopes to bring artisanal jerky to the bodega-frequenting masses.
SlantShack’s business model also involves, as pictured throughout, a line of beef-jerky formal wear. More on that later.
FAST COMPANY: Thank you for being the first participant in Fast Company’s first-ever Jerky Week, which will probably also be our last-ever Jerky Week. How do you feel?
DAVID KORETZ: Being the first in a week full of jerky puns is alright with me.
Is it dangerous running a business with so much punning potential?
The biggest challenge is making sure we don’t push it a little too far. I sign most of my emails “Happy jerking.” Sometimes you shoot an email off and think, “Huh, that might be someone my mom’s age…” But then I’ll be at the market, and a bunch of 50-year-old people will be doing all the jerky innuendo along with me.
You claim to have invented “the only online jerky customization machine in the universe.” How can you be certain?
We haven’t come across any other jerky-builders out there. You see chocolate bars and cookies, but no jerky. We’re fairly confident we have the only one. In all our extensive Googling and research, we’ve yet to come across another one.
The universe is pretty big, though.
There could be some Martians doing something similar, but then you’d have to assume cows exist off of planet earth.
Call me old-fashioned, but when I think of jerky, I think of Hulk Hogan snapping into a Slim Jim [ed. note: a more savvy reader notes below that it was in fact Macho Man Randy Savage who did the snapping]–not this custom, artisanal stuff you’ve got.
We’re trying to push the envelope a little, so you have a meat alternative to pair with your sopressata, prosciutto, or pancetta. We view it as a versatile meat, something you can pair with wine and cheese, or if you’re going on a ski trip, you can toss some in the backseat.
Wait a second, you just listed about a dozen yuppie things at once. Are you trying to rebrand jerky?
That’s our goal. In college I used to go to the snack store and buy a pack of Oberto at 11 o’clock, and it’d carry me through to 4 in the morning–but I’d feel awful afterward. When you make it at home, you’re like, “This can be done really well. You get good steak, you dehydrate it…” People at markets say, “I love jerky, but it’s always so shitty.” And we’re like, “Yeah, that’s the problem with it.” You can take any food and make it well. You see people do it with Twinkies, too.
We started about three years ago in our friend Josh’s apartment. His roommates jumped on board, making marinades and cooking it. “I want mine sweet, I want mine spicy…” We started in a few markets in the New York area back in 2009. But it’s not very legal to make jerky in an apartment, so we shut that down, moved our operations to a family farm in Vermont, and formed an official company in the summer of 2010. About a year ago, I left my job in litigation consulting to run the company full-time. We’ve moved to almost 150 retail locations, and we launched in Whole Foods in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut region a month ago.
Your company’s mission is partly to take the values of the artisanal food movement, but to try to scale it and make it more widely affordable.
So much food is over-processed stuff. You look at the ingredients list, and it’s like going through a chemist’s laboratory. Artisanal food is great, but the question is, who is it serving? How can you get this well-made product on shelves not just at Whole Foods but also at the corner bodega, or in a food desert? Artisanal products are expensive. Well-made food is expensive; well-made anything is expensive. One question is, how can you create efficiencies? Also, we have different meat offerings at different price points: standard USDA industrially produced meat, and also 100% grass-fed beef. Later this month, we’ll unveil a new meat type, sourced specifically from local farms. So we’re looking at how luxury items might enable us in the long run to take a slimmer margin on your not-as-luxury items, so then we could take that and put it in locations where we’d serve more people.
When will SlantShack Jerky be available at my corner bodega?
There’s a program in New York called Healthy Bodegas that we’d love to get involved with in the next few months. In the longer term, we might be able to lower costs by innovating new products and finding new uses for different cuts of beef.
What are some innovative jerky products you’re developing in what you call SlantShack Experimental Laboratories?
Last summer we made jerky formal wear. So we have jerky bowties, a jerky eye patch, and a jerky tiara. We called it the Jerky Haberdashery Line. It’s clothing you can eat.
I think the going rate on the eye patch is $12,000.
How many have you sold so far?
Zero. We just have a working prototype.
Any other innovative uses of jerky?
During Hurricane Irene, we proposed jerky life rafts, if people needed them. Jerky will absorb more water than sandbags.
Would that float?
For a little bit. Probably. I think you’d just have to use it more as a way to absorb all the water, so you can get back to land.
At that point you’d eat the life raft, if you were hungry.
Yeah, you’d definitely eat it.
Your online FAQ has the question, “Who is Jerk McGurk?” How frequently is this question really asked?
Jerk McGurk is one of our most popular rubs, so people ask at markets. Depending on our mood, we tell one of several stories about Jerk McGurk’s legend and travels. One tale has him being the original breeder of the cattle we use in our jerky. Another has him off in the Scottish Highlands, working on new prototypes of animals to turn into jerky. We can never be too specific about his whereabouts. He might also be out there searching the universe to make sure there are no other build-a-jerky’s around.
[Images: Cidney Hue and Mariana Cotlear]
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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