It’s a beautiful Sunday morning at the Texas Farmers Market at Mueller in East Austin, and among the stands of mounded fresh fruits and vegetables on display, a stand called “ATX Homemade Jerky” vies for attention. “The thing that makes us unique is the process, because most beef jerky has a hard texture,” says business co-owner Gregg Brown. “Ours is called ‘the tender bite.’”
Brown—an entrepreneur who previously owned a catering and barbecue business in Kansas City, Missouri—created the company last year with his friend Chris Van Calster. Brown says that Van Calster always brought the best beef jerky to football games and cookouts, and they knew the product could be taken to market. The pair rented a space inside a commercial kitchen in North Austin and began producing their all-natural, preservative- and MSG-free jerky made from grassfed Angus beef. They began selling the jerky at 12 different farmers markets throughout Central Texas to an enthusiastic and growing fan base. They’ve since added an assortment of jerky flavors, such as Peppered, Sweet ’n Spicy and KC BBQ, and now offer bison, turkey and venison jerky, as well. “If we can get [a customer] to try a sample, nine out of ten times they really like it,” says Brown. “We have soccer teams who come by and buy little packages and it’s a great source of protein before the games.”
It’s true—one piece of jerky can contain approximately 7 grams of protein on average, making it one of today’s most popular and efficient protein sources for people on the go. Of course, jerky and jerky-making aren’t new fads—they’ve been around for centuries. Native American settlers are credited with teaching early European settlers how to cut and dry meat in an effort to preserve it. And according to the encyclopedia “Food and Drink in American History,” jerky didn’t become a commercial and widely distributed commodity until the early 20th century. It was a quick hit in stores, though, thanks to the simple packaging and low-fat/high-protein content, but unfortunately, preservatives and chemicals were eventually added to many of the commercial brands. Still, the desire for a convenient, healthful protein punch has persisted, and it’s led to this new outcrop of entrepreneurs. Brown believes that producing jerky that appeals to a variety of palates, aligns with many popular diets (such as low carb, low fat and Paleo) and is free of additives such as MSG and nitrites is encouraging more and more people to rediscover this old-school staple.
Taylor Collins and wife, Katie Forrest, were part of that crowd looking for a healthful, high-protein option when their vegan diet began to cause stomach problems. Inside their Barton Hills kitchen in 2013, the duo came up with the idea for the Epic bar—a unique snack bar that’s a mix of jerky and granola and contains 11 grams of protein. “The ingredients are high-quality meats—grassfed, pasture-raised, no preservatives—and unique things like currants, walnuts, chia [seeds],” says Collins.
In the beginning, Forrest, a Ph.D. student, and Collins, a physical therapist, tested their new product on friends and family. They soon found that many were increasingly turning to the bars after an intense workout. In an effort to expand their market and get their product into stores, the pair took Epic bars to Expo West—the largest natural food-product convention in California—and hit the big time. “Within the first four hours of the show, Whole Foods came by and picked it up,” says Collins.
The commercial success recently led General Mills to purchase the company, and the couple has since quit their previous career paths to work in the Epic business full-time. They currently offer bars made from beef, turkey, lamb and bison (in fact, the company is the largest purchaser of grassfed bison in the United States) as well as other products, such as uncured bacon bits, chicken “bites” and all-natural lard, duck fat, tallow and bone broths.
Of course, this new breed of jerky jockey is just the latest chapter in an already established culture of natural beef jerky production in Central Texas. Sam Whittington, owner of Whittington’s Jerky and General Store in Johnson City, for example, hasn’t changed his product since he and his father “DJ” started making it in 1963. “Dad hated his first batch of beef jerky and added salt and pepper and he loved it, and we have kept it that way from that day on,” says Sam. Over the years, the family added two additional flavors: Hot and Garlic. “We have a simple seasoning that we put on…it’s dry rub, we don’t marinate it and we use an open flame under the meat that gives it a different flavor.” The family-run business sells about 20,000 pounds of beef jerky every year through a combination of online sales and tourists stopping by the store, and Sam credits their decades-long success with always keeping one thing in mind. “If you wouldn’t feed it to your mother, don’t try to sell it to someone else.”
And another longtime jerky-hub is Robertson’s Hams in Salado. They offer six different types of meat jerky, including beef, buffalo and turkey, all of which are smoked for a full day then left to dehydrate for several days. “The recipe has never changed since they opened in the 1960s, which is what keeps it consistent with people coming back,” says store manager Jacob Spurlock. Since becoming a franchise, all the Robertson’s Hams meats are now processed in Marietta, Oklahoma, before being shipped to five store locations across Texas and Oklahoma.
It may seem as though our old friend jerky wears a few new hats these days. But while there’s certainly enough room in the market for newcomers and reinterpretation, old-guard companies like Whittington’s and Robertson’s Hams aren’t as quick to use modern buzzwords such as “grassfed,” “pasture-raised” or “gluten-free” as selling points, even though many of their products are indeed produced in this manner. Instead, they continue to rely on tradition, customer return and proven-though-modest popular flavors like “hickory smoked.” “It’s the original…kind of old-school, traditional beef jerky…kind of dry black pepper,” says Spurlock. “We keep it pretty basic; we don’t try to mix it up. We just keep to what’s good and that seems to be working.”
by Kate West // Photography by Dustin Meyer