For Chris Woehrle and Robert Stout, the Slim Jim’s time has come. Late last summer, while casting about for ideas for a food product, they realized that while other morsels of Americana, such as the pickle and the candy bar, had already received their time in the artisanal, sustainably sourced spotlight, beef jerky was still relegated largely to the lowly confines of gas stations and convenience store shelves.
Around the time they had their epiphany, the Rooster Design Group announced its Next Big Small Brand competition, promising free design and marketing services for the winner. So Woehrle and Stout set about building a better jerky, using local, grass-fed beef and fine-tuning its flavor. Their efforts were rewarded earlier this month at the contest’s final judging: Although it didn’t win the competition, Bklyn Batch Craft Jerky — which is now known as the Kings County Jerky Co. — won the audience favorite award, as well as a meaty helping of word-of-mouth publicity.
Since the contest, Woehrle and Stout have devoted a large portion of their existence to jerky: The night before last, Woehrle says, they were up until 3 a.m. making a huge batch before Stout had to leave town on assignment for his day job as a photographer. The attention — and audience favorite — prize they won at the contest made them even more determined to get their product out into the marketplace. They’re planning to officially launch it in April.
Before that happens, Woehrle and Stout have their work cut out for them. To begin with, building their nascent company has meant building the quantity of jerky they make in the smoker kept on the terrace of Stout’s Bed-Stuy apartment (the two men are neighbors in the same building). Since the contest, they’ve doubled how much jerky they churn out, a process that wasn’t simply a matter of basic multiplication. “There’s no other way to do it than just playing around,” says Woehrle of scaling up the recipe, “and hoping you haven’t ruined $80 of meat.”
While they’ve been toying with their jerky recipe, Woehrle and Stout have also been navigating the bureaucratic wilds of food laws and regulations. Until they find a USDA-licensed facility where they can make their jerky, they’re not allowed to sell it wholesale to stores and restaurants (though they can sell it online if they’re in compliance with New York State Department of Agriculture and Market regulations). Thanks to the Rooster contest, “We let the cat out of the bag a little early,” Woehrle admits. Although he and Stout are grateful for the attention they received, they weren’t quite ready to meet the demand it created. “People were like, ‘Where can we buy it?’ so we’ve been literally jumping through hoops to make sure we can do it,” Woehrle says. They’ve been working with someone from the Cornell Food Entrepreneur Resource Center to make sense of all of the red tape, and “getting really nerdy with science and pH and humidity levels.”
Finding a commercial kitchen that can accommodate a smoker (“It’s an invasive piece of hardware: you can’t plop it down like cake mixer,” Woehrle notes) is a task that Stout and Woehrle didn’t envision when they started making jerky in Stout’s kitchen last August. After winning the audience prize at Brooklyn Beer Experiment earlier that month, the two decided they wanted to cook together. Lacking the funds and wherewithal to start a restaurant, they began brainstorming a food product.
“We went through a few obvious things, like pickles, mustard, and harissa,” says Woehrle. “But there’s no way to really compete with people who are already doing it, and frankly, we weren’t that interested in doing what’s already been done.” They hit upon the idea of jerky and realized that no one was doing it in “a craft kind of way,” Woehrle says. “We though there was a lot of room to do something a little better in terms of ingredients and flavor profile. We thought, why not take the craft that goes into cooking meat and apply it to this?” So they began experimenting, making their first batch using a window fan and sandwiching the marinated meat between two air conditioner filters fastened together with duct tape.
Flavor-wise, they wanted to keep things accessible — “We didn’t want some out-there bizarre flavor that sounds interesting on paper but doesn’t really taste good” — so eventually settled on bulgogi, classic, and orange-ginger varieties made with spices from Kalustyan’s. The meat, meanwhile, came from Fleisher’s, the Kingston, N.Y., butcher shop synonymous with the grass-fed, local beef that Stout and Woehrle required for their jerky. As they’ve increased production, they’ve also been buying beef — specifically, eye round — from the Meat Hook and Whole Foods, and are in talks with Basis Farm to Chef, which has its own network of meat distributors.
Because both Woehrle and Stout have full-time jobs — Woehrle is a graphic designer who works in the music industry — production is mainly limited to the weekends. The whole process, from making the marinades and freezing the meat to weighing and bagging, takes about 18 hours, and is labor-intensive. An extractor fan has sped up the process from the 24 hours it initially occupied, seven of which were used for smoking, an early mistake that, Woehrle says, “made the jerky taste like a fireplace.”
In addition to tweaking their production method, Woehrle and Stout have also changed their jerky’s name since the contest. “The Brooklyn thing is pretty much saturated at this point, and we didn’t want to put ourselves in a place where the name wouldn’t appeal to people” in other parts of the country, Woehrle says. Plus, the Kings County designation offered other advantages irresistible to a graphic designer. “It gave me the opportunity put a little crown on a bull.”
If all goes according to plan, Woehrle and Stout are hoping that they’ll be able to position their craft jerky as the perfect accompaniment to craft beer by selling it to places like Brouwerij Lane and Radegast Hall. In the meantime, Stout has already found an unlikely fan base in the fashion industry, where jerky is apparently beloved by camera and film crews. “It’s light and gets you through the day,” Woehrle says. “And the lean, low-fat, and low-carb thing really did spike an interest for people, whether they’re in the fashion industry or just hungry.” Either way, he adds, “the addictive quality of beef jerky is something we’re pretty excited about.”