Jerky is the food that helped win the American West. For the pioneers and frontiersmen who learned the craft of making it from American Indians, the portable strips of smoked, dehydrated wild game (and, later, beef) kept them alive when no other nutrition was available.
Since then, jerky makers big and small have transformed the frontier staple into a $1.5 billion snack-food industry, according to the global market-research firm IRI. Now jerky is found everywhere, from hikers’ backpacks to children’s school lunch boxes. The “no mess” snack food is poised to go even more mainstream, with giant chocolate-maker Hershey’s recent $300 million purchase of “gourmet” niche jerky-maker Krave of Sonoma.
Taking a relatively minuscule piece of the jerky market is Ryan Dye, who started Midtown Jerky Co. of Sacramento two years ago. His three flavors are sold in 3.25-ounce foil packages with an image of the Tower Bridge ($7 to $8). The company’s motto: “Freshness plus quality equals awesome.”
“You really don’t need a hook to set yourself apart,” said Dye, 33, who previously worked in restaurant management. “You just need to do something better than everybody else.”
Q: How did all this start?
A: Growing up in Roseville, we always had an old dehydrator in the house. I liked to play around in the kitchen from a young age, and the dehydrator was the tool that prevailed over everything else. I was making jerky during the years I was in the restaurant management business (with P.F. Chang’s and Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill), and people kept saying, “This is really good, you should do it for a living.” So I sold my worldly belongings and gave up my lifestyle to start the jerky business from the ground up.
Q: What are the flavors?
A: Sesame Citrus, with orange juice in the marinade, topped with white sesame seeds. Black Pepper, which is chewier than the other flavors, sort of a cowboy style to take on the trail. Sweet Heat is my favorite, with brown sugar and crushed red peppers. The beef is taken from whole pieces of top round and eye of round, choice grade and above.
Q: Where else besides online and farmers markets is the jerky sold?
A: It’s in about 40 corner stores in the midtown area, and (larger places such as) Preservation and Kupros Craft House. We have a verbal commitment from Nugget Markets to serve all their locations, and we’re going into about 40 Save Mart stores, (both) in the next three weeks or so.
Q: Your jerky is processed at a local commercial facility, using your proprietary recipes. How’s that working?
A: There was lots of trial and error. We did test batches ... for two months to get the cook time and thickness of the beef just right. The biggest hurdle was getting the jerky to come out of a commercial environment tasting like it did coming out of my home kitchen when I was developing the (seasonings and marinades) recipes. I was producing 2 pounds at a time (during R&D), and now we’re coming out with 100 pounds at a time. I’m selling between 4,000 and 5,000 bags a month.
Q: What’s the next flavor?
A: Bacon jerky, within two months. The bacon market is so hot, and bacon is such a great flavor when it’s dehydrated.
Q: Your jerky certainly falls within Sacramento’s farm-to-fork sensibilities.
A: I’m just a local guy trying to make it and (I) want to be involved in the community. If you’re from (the city) where you started your company, you’ve got a lot more investment in it than if you’re not, and I have a lot of investment in this area.
Owner of Midtown Jerky Co. For more information, visit midtownjerky.com