Beef Jerky Business Blossoms
From an electric food processor in a college apartment to distribution of a branded product at Penn State football games, two recent Juniata College graduates are seeing their idea for a niche-market beef jerky business blossom.
Brandon Long and Julia Williams, May 2007 graduates and founders of University Jerky, LLC, this fall introduced their product to a second college market after launching the two flavors of bagged beef jerky at their alma matter.
University Jerky operates from Juniata’s Sill Business Incubator and has been assisted by the Juniata College Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. With the help of JCEL, Williams and Long in September secured $20,000 of Enterprise Zone Revolving Loan Fund financing, as an agreement was reached with Barnes & noble Booksellers to sell the product at PSU home football games. University Jerky also received a contract for services through the PSU Creamery.
“Our plan was always to get it into the Penn State market,” Long said.
“This loan is to expand into the Penn State market,” Williams said. “University Jerky was presented with an amazing opportunity, and the funds we received from the EZ RLF will be vital in the continued growth of the business.”
Long, from Lebanon, and Williams, a former Fishertown, Bedford County resident, met at Juniata. He was an entrepreneurship major. She was studying accounting and took an entrepreneurship course to be better able to relate to business owners. Long and Williams now reside in Huntingdon, working their own jobs while also further developing University Jerky.
“It kind of started out as a joke,” said Long. “It was a simple, brainstorming idea.”
Long recalled that as a sophomore he was taking Juniata’s Hands On Entrepreneurship Leadership Lab in which students start with an idea and develop a business plan. Long had a hobby of making his own jerky using a Ronco food dehydrator to process beef soaked overnight in a marinade.
As part of the lab, Long had to decide if the enterprise would have its own manufacturing
facility or contract with an existing business with the product owners focusing on
Williams joined the project in her junior year and reviewed Long’s business plan.
“it became very serious then. It was for real,” she said.
The two said they had no idea how much would be involved in furthering the business idea to the point of production and distribution. Long and Williams found it would cost them at least $100,000 to start a manufacturing facility, not to mention the time they’d have to spend at such a plant or managing employees.
The entrepreneurs talked to Dr. William Henning, professor animal science/extension meat scientist, who recommended against in-house manufacturing and introduced them to the concept of co-packing in the meat industry, in which on company will produce and pack product for other firms, using trade-secreted recipes. In looking to differentiate their product from other meat snakes, Williams and long said they took a “Facebook.com” approach, branding the jerky as a university product through a “be-true-to-your school” brand loyalty. College students would be the primary customer and packaging would be in school colors, starting at Juniata and then spreading to other colleges.
Jerky is most popular in an age group of 17-24, Long noted. Williams terms the product taste as “a home-made full-bodies flavor, not overly processed.”
The owners researched meat packing companies and decided a small, family-owned firm
near St. Marys – the maker of Hot Beef Jerky – was a good fit since it could produce
the product according to University Jerky’s two recipes (for teriyaki jerky and a
garlic-jalapeño spicy jerky) and also bag and label it.
“We leave the manufacturing to a place that knows what they’re doing,” Long said.
By their senior year, Williams and Long had a packing agreement in place and were in talks with Sodexho, the campus food service, and the student bookstore, about distribution. At that time, they also secured product liability insurance.
The product debuted in November 2006 at the bookstore and 185 bags sold in four hours. University Jerky touts its product as quality beef with a unique blend of spices for the serious jerky consumer. Three ounce bags retail for $5.
The conservative business plan predicted selling one bag per month to five percent of the Juniata College population.
“We were selling 250 to 300 bags a month,” Long now hopes to also get their product into Penn State’s food service program and expand to other universities. They currently do product delivery themselves, using the task as a opportunity to meet customers.
Approval of the EZ funding for University Jerky marks the second EZ RLF loan to be distributed within the county since the Enterprise Zone’s inception in 2004, Susanne House, JCEL’s director of business outreach, reported. Colonial Florist and Gift Shop, Mount Union, received RLF funding of $45,000 in April.
Huntingdon County has received three competitive loans through the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). Those loans were given to JR Wald, Bonney Forge and most recently, Mutual Benefit Group for their new expansion project.
“The payments made from the competitive loans make up the funds that are available through the RLF,” said House.
The RLF stays within the county and the monies are not paid back to DCED.