The Jerky Boys (and Girls)
At a bar nestled among industrial warehouses in Bushwick, Brooklyn, attractively clad hipsters knocked back cans of PBR beer and inhaled tacos while rocking out to the Freelance Whales, a popular indie band. But the night's festivities weren't celebrating a record release or an edgy underground art show. No, this was the launch party for SlantShack, a new, artisanal jerky company.
Yes, jerky is having a comeback, and while the revelers' plaid shirts might have recalled those of yesteryear, today's jerky makers aren't rugged outdoorsmen associated with chewy strips of dried meat.
Slantshack was founded by Josh Kace, a 25-year-old Columbia University grad who recruited eight college friends to help start the company and added three other pals along the way. A beef jerky fan since childhood, Kace got jerky fever after eating his mother's homemade version at Christmas dinner a few years back. He researched jerky recipes online and eventually prepared his own jerky by propping open his oven with a fork, setting the temperature to low, and laying the strips of beef right over the oven grates—all in his Jersey City apartment (lovingly referred to as the SlantShack). Experimenting with rubs and spices, he finally came up with a version he liked. The hobby eventually turned into a full-fledged business after friends and family agreed he had a winner.
Are we flocking to jerky because of nostalgia for the American pastoral? Jerked meat has long been a part of American foodways, consumed by Native Americans and colonists alike.
Why is jerky having a moment? Is it tracking the ascendancy of bacon—or, to a lesser extent, offal—as a meat-centric, zeitgeisty embodiment of masculinity? Or are we flocking to jerky because of nostalgia for the American pastoral? Indeed, given its extended shelf life and high protein content, jerked meat has long been a part of American foodways, consumed by Native Americans and colonists alike, though that meat tended to be deer, elk, or buffalo. For SlantShack's creators, though, the reason was its alimentary properties. "Because jerky is amazing and underappreciated," explained Leah Sandals, the company's director of communications. "It's like a succulent steak you can carry around in your pocket! It offers an untapped world of flavor potential. There are so many people who would never consider jerky as a snack who we think might be converted if they try our product."
Slim Jim this is not. But, refreshingly, the company isn't embracing the holier-than-thou attitude that so often accompanies the artisanal food movement—the one that urges customers to know not only the name of the farmer who raised the cow but the name of the cow herself, and the exact pasture of grass that comprised her diet. Rather, SlantShack Jerky's model is taking what is perceived as a rustic product and making it appeal to an urban consumer. As they see it, it's "jerky all grown up and moved to the big city."
SlantShack first set up shop last September at New York City's Greenpoint Food Market, a hodgepodge of young Brooklynite cooks and food enthusiasts who wanted to share their wares with the community but lacked funds for wholesale operations. SlantShack sold out of jerky within hours, which prompted a New York magazine write-up touting the company as one of the trailblazers in homemade and artisanal jerky, which then sparked madness. Meeting USDA standards, which required that the meat be processed in a certified meat processing facility—proved to be daunting, forcing SlantShack to abandon apartment cooking for the Highland Cattle Company in Orleans, Vermont. To deal with this setback and to get their ducks in a row, the company had to hold off on taking new orders until this summer.
"The biggest challenge in starting the business has been health and food safety regulations," explained Kace, who also noted that increasing the scale of production from a homegrown operation to a national business has been a struggle. "The meat processing industry is, for good reasons, highly regulated. This has the unfortunate side effect of making it very difficult for a small business with limited capital to gain traction."
And although the artisanal jerky movement is still young, differentiating a product in an increasingly flooded marketplace is always tricky. So SlantShack created their Build-a-Jerky concept to empower the customer to participate in a collaborative process. On SlantShack's website, customers begin by selecting a marinade, a spice rub (with kitschy names like Jerk McGurk's Wild RubDown, Smoky Sanche's Dusty Trail), a glaze, and additional toppings like brown sugar or chili powder, so each jerky bears the signature fingerprint of the purchaser.
Perhaps this concept may enable SlantShack to find its market niche. Clearly, trends in food have shown us over the past several years that consumers want to participate in their food economy, whether by joining a CSA, planting backyard herb gardens, or learning how to can and pickle at home. Although not everyone can dry and season strips of beef, the SlantShack entrepreneurs are hoping everyone can at least put his or her own slant on jerky.