After a few tasteless jokes, Keiser and Levin decided to pack the jerkies anyway for edibles on the slopes. "I took a bite and thought the taste was good -- actually better than the regular jerky taste. It was also more tender than jerky usually is. So some bells went off, and we thought: 'We have the world's first performance-enhancing meat snack,'" recalls Levin.
That accidental meeting of meat and drugs spurred Levin and Keiser to launch Perky Jerky, most likely the world's first purveyor of jerky that jacks you up -- and adds a new and entirely necessary twist to the American obsession with caffeinated drinks and food. "I love meat, and I love a good buzz. It was an easy decision to launch this puppy," says Levin, who handles marketing for the fledgling product.
Niche Products with Big Markets
Levin's background certainly gave him the tools to suss it out. Although he had been in tech for the past decade, he previously worked for Sidney Frank, the liquor magnate who sold Americans on foul-tasting green-colored Jagermeister before founding vodka giant Grey Goose. As an octogenarian, Frank sold Grey Goose to Bacardi for a cool $2 billion in 2005. "I had witnessed first-hand that a great niche brand could scale and go huge if you played it right," says Levin, a Wharton business school grad. His partner Keiser had taken e-mail marketing startup Datran from infancy to a Nasdaq listing.
As consumers of both jerky and energy drinks, Keiser and Levin both found the product mix completely logical. "A lot of people eat jerky as a snack when they're active. They also drink energy drinks. For us, the big aha moment was seeing the number of people a day on Twitter who have to broadcast that they are eating jerky and drinking an energy drink," says Levin.
Then there was the beef jerky market -- very tasty but lacking a dominant player. "It seems silly at first, but the deeper you dig, the more perfect it seems," says Levin. "No one has taken jerky upscale, even though it's a $3 billion retail industry. There is no real standout brand or brand loyalty. The largest player, SlimJim -- a Conagra Foods (CAG) subsidiary -- only has $200 million in sales. It's the ultimate impulse buy. We thought there was great opportunity to compete on packaging and brand appeal, not to mention that it's a functional energy food."
On a Mission of Hope
While the whole project might sound like an adventure straight out of a lad mag, Levin and Keiser wanted to put their product to a much higher purpose. Levin has seven-year old triplets. One has Down syndrome, and another, Jake, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). This is a progressive form of the disease that afflicts boys and slowly robs them of the ability to use their muscles. Research now in progress is promising, however, and Levin is hopeful that treatments can be developed before the disease kills his son.
"In AIDS/HIV, doctors were able to develop life-extending treatments within a short span of time. We are hopeful they can do the same here, and we want to help fund that effort. I am doing this primarily to save my son," says Levin. To that end, Levin and Keiser plan on donating a "significant" percentage of their profits to underwrite research efforts for both DMD and Down syndrome. Levin is also running the New York City Marathon on Nov. 1 to raise money for muscular dystrophy and has set up a foundation specifically to fund DMD research.
Levin and Keiser got busy busting out a business plan and finding the right people to make their quirky jerky. They quickly realized that they needed a scalable production method. "You can't pour Red Bull on jerky, and you can't feed the cows caffeine," says Levin. To flesh out their fledgling snack, they hired a meat-product specialist to help them design a formula that could be relatively easily produced in a factory and would pass U.S. Food & Drug Administration standards.
All this took roughly three years and cost Levin and Keiser hundreds of thousands of dollars. The product they settled on was made with all-natural meat (no synthetic hormones) only from higher-quality cuts. The caffeine comes from the Brazilian guarana berry, allowing Perky Jerky to say with a straight face that it's an all-natural caffeinated processed meat product.
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Distribution, Distribution, Distribution
When launch time came, the two meat mavens feared the economy would kill their buzz. But they sucked it up, signed a production deal with a contract manufacturer, and started selling Perky Jerky via their online store. Levin and Keiser also began seeking distribution outlets. "Distribution is tough for a new brand, no matter what you are, especially in the more traditional channels of convenience store and groceries. Everyone likes what we are doing and loves the product, but we knew it would take time."
Where Levin and Keiser might have a big advantage is the potential breadth of their distribution. "We can sell anywhere, from convenience stores and groceries to sporting goods stores to mini-bars at high-end hotels and nutrition supplement stores," says Levin. One of their first retail customers, in fact, was a MaxMuscle fitness supplement location in Denver. Store owner Billy Van Heusen got a free sample from a college student on Levin's guerilla marketing team and threw it on the pile of samples he gets every day.
"I get at least five people coming into the store each day trying to sell me something. But then I checked out the website and read that they were donating to Down syndrome. I have a daughter with Down syndrome. So I decided I definitely needed to check Perky Jerky out," says Van Heusen.
Skeptical at first, he ate a stick and was hooked. "It tasted great, and it gave me a nice kick," says Van Heusen, who put Perky Jerky on display at the cash register and began recommending it to customers. "Cops seem to love it, and women do, too," he says. Van Heusen liked Perky Jerky so much he recommended that MuscleMax stock it throughout the 150-plus-store chain, a development that should happen later this year or early next.
Perky Jerky has also gotten some killer coverage. Jay Leno made it the butt of one of his jokes in September. And jerky review blog Best Beef Jerky gave Perky Jerky its highest rating. Levin isn't shy about playing up the meat angle in Twitter postings like "U can't beat our meat!"
Sales have so far been primarily online and relatively strong. "We've sold thousands and thousands of packages, and we're confident that as our distribution ramps up, we'll be a top brand in the jerky space," says Levin. "You just can't eat our meat and not love it."
Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.