Meat Snacks Spice Up the Bottom Line
By Elizabeth Brewster
The low-carb craze is over, but the popularity of meat snacks continues.

The meaty Atkins diet may be losing steam, but its once-weighty influence is still helping to beef up the dried meat snacks category. The $305 million category is down slightly for the 52 weeks ending March 19, 2006, reports Information Resources Inc., but jerky — the top-selling meat snack — has more than doubled its market size since 1997. And with just 39 percent of households buying meat snacks, according to the Fall 2004 Simmons National Consumer Survey, the category is ripe for seasoning.
“Retailers who initially brought meat snacks into their stores for the first time during the [low-carb] craze are still having tremendous success with the category,” says Bret Ocholik, vice president of marketing for Jack Link’s Beef Jerky at Links Snacks Inc., Minong, Wis.
“A lot of new meat snacks were launched from the Atkins movement,” adds Justin Havlick, president of Thanasi Foods, Boulder, Colo., which entered the category last year with a line of Jim Beam beef jerky and sunflower seeds. “And that differentiation of brand and flavor are really driving the category today.” As the traditional meat snack base has broadened from young adult males to include women, children and health-conscious consumers, hot and spicy is the new order of the day. ConAgra planned to unveil its Slim Jim Hot sticks in mid-June, while Thanasi Foods served up more Jim Beam beef jerky products in peppered and barbecue flavors earlier this year. And Clayton, Ohio-based Ol’ Smokehaus added two sophisticated new hot flavors to its beef jerky line late last year: Fire Dust’d and Chipolte.
Some like it hot
“The trend in the meat snacks industry is toward spicier, just plain hot flavors,” says Larry Roth, national sales manager for Ol’ Smokehaus. “The younger folks — those in their 30s and 40s — are looking for something not just hot, but with good flavor to it. The expectations of consumers are better than they were even just a few years ago.”
S. Corey Stone, a business planning and marketing specialist with the Food & Agricultural Products Center at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, agrees. “Among the [spicy flavors] that have surfaced are Cajun, black pepper, and jalapeno,” he says. “Now, with the growth of the Hispanic market and Tex-Mex cuisine, we are seeing [jerky] flavors like chili and Tex-Mex, and the new trend is chipotle [smoked pepper].”
Also catering to consumers’ more sophisticated tastes is Oberto Sausage Co.’s new sesame ginger beef jerky. “There’s a segment of the category that’s really looking for variety, and is interested in more exciting and new flavors,” says Mick Tyler, vice president of marketing for the Kent, Wash.-based company.
Try a little tenderness
Mainstream consumers are also looking for a more chewable dried meat snack than the leathery strips that hunters are used to chomping on, say industry observers.
Top 5 Dried Meat Snack Brands
BrandDollar Sales (in millions)
1. Oh Boy! Oberto$65.6
2. Slim Jim51.7
3. Jack Link’s48.5
4. Private label23.7
5. Bridgford20.9
Source: Information Resources Inc. Total U.S. supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandise outlets (excluding Wal-Mart) for 52 weeks ending March 19, 2006
“The traditional jerky has been hard. Consumers now want something that’s soft to bite and tender to chew,” says Mark Stieglitz, senior vice president business development for Taylor, Mich.-based Mirab, which claims to produce more than 90 percent of store-brand meat snack products.
Ol’ Smokehaus rolled out its tender Kippered Beefsteak Rounds late last year, offering retailers a wrapped, bite-size product in a jar for easy changemaker sales, while ConAgra planned to introduce a new, moister Slim Jim beef jerky with a thicker cut in mid-June.
Drying meats such as chicken, turkey and ham also can yield a softer jerky, although non-beef alternatives make up less than 1 percent of all meat snack sales right now, estimates Stieglitz. One of the newest, Jack Link’s beef, chicken and pork Marinated Tender Cuts, is slow-cooked for tenderness, says Ocholik.
Another new non-beef entrant is Jeff Foxworthy Maple Brown Sugar Ham Jerky, launched earlier this year as part of the “redneck” comedian’s line of dried meat snacks.
“Ham jerky gives you a unique texture that’s more tender than beef jerky,” says Wes Jackson, president of Monogram Food Solutions, Memphis, Tenn., which markets the Jeff Foxworthy line. “Because of our proprietary process, we’re able to get a lot more spice or flavor profile out of pork than beef jerky.”
And for a new twist on jerky texture, Oberto created Oh Boy! Oberto Beef Jerky Crisps, a crunchy, oven-roasted snack that’s crispy like a potato chip.
Thinking inside the (big) box
The broader appeal of meat snacks also means that they’ve been able to break out of their traditional c-store placement to hit the big time. “Now we’re [seeing dried meat snacks] in big box, home improvement, and hardware stores,” in addition to supermarkets, drug stores and other mass merchandisers, says Roth at Ol’ Smokehaus.
Oberto tries to offer retailers a themed promotion once a quarter, says Tyler, to help capitalize on the category’s impulse-driven purchasing patterns. “The more you can get off the shelf and on a freestanding display merchandising in a high traffic area, you can really see the retailers’ sales spike,” he says.
Also on the retail side, in February Thanasi Foods launched unique new combo shippers that hold both meat jerky and the company’s Jim Beam sunflower seed products, says Havlick, in addition to offering clip strips and countertop caddies.
“The challenge for retailers is to continue to support additional meat snack merchandising while not allowing their stores to be overrun with a large and confusing number of brands,” says Links’ Ocholik.