2/19/2013 01:43:00 PM

Inside the Artisanal Food Movement: Beef Jerky, Behind The Scenes

Today, we're taking a gander at some Brooklyn-based food artisans that should be on your radar. To see what it takes to get into this business, we decided to do an in-depth look at some folks who are biting into the beef jerkey market. Check it out:

If you’ve ever had a Slim Jim, then you know there’s room for improvement in the world of jerky. As did Chris Woehrle and Robert Stout, who left their enviable jobs (music producer and a fashion photographer, respectively) to start new lives focused on dehydrated beef. After a disappointing pit stop in summer 2010 at a Pennsylvania farm that sold its own jerky, Woehrle and Stout were convinced they could do it better. Kings County Jerky was born.

“We thought the jerky would be amazing since it came from that farm, but it had MSG and corn syrup and other gross stuff in it,” says Woehrle. The duo are former neighbors and had discussed looking for a way out of their jobs and into the world of food. A bite of bad jerky was all it took.

After their first attempt at making jerky turned out well - and with an at-home Alton Brown-inspired dehydrator fashioned from an air conditioner no less - they knew they had found their product. Stout and Woehrle immediately had a few beers to celebrate, made a rash professional-grade dehydrator purchase, and got to work perfecting their recipes and flavors.

Things really took off from there for the company. After winning “Audience Favorite” in the Next Big Small Brand competition, they leased a professional kitchen space with money raised from family and friends. Real Simple featured them in its 2010 holiday gift guide, they got into Brooklyn Flea, and the orders and press came pouring in. Fast-forward two years later, and the guys are getting ready to launch in stores nationwide by the end of the month.

 Stout and Woehrle; Photo: Donald Patrick Cunnigngham
It all sounds like a smooth track to success, right? Artisanal food companies, especially in crunchy, local-obsessed Brooklyn, are having a serious moment, but the founders have to work crazy hours to keep their companies afloat.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Woehrle. “We were just recently able to hire people to do the markets [Brooklyn Flea, etc.], but it used to be cooking in the kitchen all day, running the business at night, and markets on the weekend. You have to go out there and hustle. Doing markets really helped because you learn what information people want to know, and you get great feedback.”

Even after being able to quit his job and work on the company full-time, Woehrle acknowledges the project is still very young. “We’re established enough that we know who we are as a company and we have so many opportunities, yet we’re still at the stage that we spend our money as soon as we get it on things like rent, heat, product, etc. It’s still a week-to-week process,” he says.

Budding entrepreneurs will be glad to hear that despite the workload, Woehrle says he’s never been happier. “If I think about sitting in a cubicle designing another CD logo, I’d be so depressed,” he says. “But going in, I didn’t realize how much of this was about business. Now I have to be a real adult businessman. I got into this because I love food, but now ironically I never step foot in the kitchen. I’m really running a business. You have to love marketing and selling to do this, which was a big lesson to me. Fortunately I love marketing this company. Like parents don’t mind changing diapers because they love their kid, I don’t love spreadsheets and business plans, but I don’t mind doing it because I love my business.”

Woehrle was able to apply his music marketing background to food - he built the company’s website, designed its logo, and does all of its branding and marketing. “It was a similar branding exercise for me, except instead of a rapper it was jerky,” he says.

As King’s County grows, the bite of that lackluster product is never far from their minds. Woehrle and Stout promise that the focus on quality is what continues to drive their success. “Our whole brand is quality, because without it we’re just another jerky company,” Woehrle says. “We have to have the best of everything. We want the best jerky with the best meat with the best packaging with the best website.”


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