Cover Story: Protein Snack Powerhouse

Jack Link's Protein Snacks leads the way in the rapidly growing meat snacks category.

Mnet 144632 Cover Photo Jack Links Lead

A wide variety of Jack Link's Protein Snacks can be found at most grocery stores, convenience stores and mass merchandisers across the United States — and beyond. The company's signature television commercials featuring the much-beloved Sasquatch have been wildly successful since making their debut in 2006. And the company's status as the U.S. market leader — and a fast-growing global force — in the booming $2 billion meat snacks category cannot be denied.

Those achievements represent quite a journey for Jack Link’s, a company whose family roots — and meat recipes — were firmly planted in northern Wisconsin in the 1880s by Chris Link, long before it evolved into a commercial operation established by his great-grandson, Jack Link, in the mid-1980s. Three decades after Jack Link’s started making meat snacks and selling those products to small stores in northern Wisconsin, the company — whose headquarters reside at One Snack Food Lane in Minong, Wis. — now produces more than 100 products, and counts 3,500 employees across multiple facilities in the U.S. and overseas.

“It really doesn't surprise me. To me, it was all about the quality and staying consistent,” Jack Link’s Executive Vice President of Operations Terry Smith said of the company's growth. “Of course, our branding and Sasquatch are fun, but it just comes back to health, quality and a great snack.”

As the popularity of the meat snacks category has soared over the last decade-plus with consumers gravitating toward high-protein, low-carb, on-the-go products such as jerky, Jack Link’s has ridden that wave of growth. “In (the last) ten years we've almost doubled from what we made in pounds versus what we make today with jerky, sticks and steaks,” said Smith, who estimated that the company has added approximately 1,200 employees during that time frame. “Every year (in the last decade) we've increased double digits in sales.”

Jack Link’s plans to continue building on that momentum for the remainder of 2015 and beyond with the introduction of new products, a multifaceted brand refresh and by celebrating beef jerky and meat snacks in the form of June's fourth annual National Jerky Day.

“Our future looks great,” Smith said. “We just need to continue to deliver more ways to snack on great quality protein snacks and give (consumers) options. We have to deliver high protein, that's what we're about — high quality protein snacks.”

The word quality is a regular — and often repeated — part of the lexicon at Jack Link’s. And quality is non-negotiable as it relates to the company's products, Smith said.

“Jack Link’s was the pioneer of quality, of making that consistent,” said Smith. “It’s is how we grew from where we were in those humble beginnings to where we are at today.

“That's how Jack Link took the company from the 1980s to where we are today. He never wavered (on quality) and none of us did either. To us, it's all about ensuring we protect the brand, protect our consumer and deliver high quality products every time.”

Beef, Turkey, Chicken, Jerky, Sticks, Steaks

Jack Link’s product line presently includes more than 100 items that can be found at retail outlets in more than 40 countries.

Jack Link's product lines includes beef jerky, turkey jerky, chicken jerky, pork jerky, tender bites (beef, turkey and chicken), tender cuts, beef steaks, turkey and chicken strips, Small Batch Handcrafted Beef Jerky, meat sticks, meat & cheese combos, jerky chew, deli cuts sausage, sausage and chubs, dinner sausage, and crinkle-cut pepperoni. Jack Link's also has three other brands, SQUATCH Snack Sticks, World Kitchens Beef Jerky, and MATADOR Beef Jerky.

In terms of flavors, there is plenty of variety to choose from, especially when it comes to beef jerky. Current varieties include Original, Teriyaki, Peppered, Sweet & Hot, Steakhouse, KC Masterpiece BBQ, Jalapeño, Sriracha, Hickory Smoked and Cholula. Limited edition Wild Side Flavors include Chili Lime and Kung Pao. According to Jack Link's Director of Marketing Kevin Papacek, Teriyaki is the most-popular selling beef jerky flavor. “We have a constant pipeline of flavor innovation,” Papacek said. “We look at flavor trends overall in the market and we've continued to bring new flavors to the market, too. There are consumers out there that are looking for flavor variety and we continue to bring that to them.”

Among Jack Link's newer products is Small Batch Handcrafted Jerky which launched in 2013, and its chicken jerky, which debuted in early 2015. Small Batch Hickory Bacon Jerky was also introduced 2015. Perhaps the biggest addition in recent years has been the introduction of alternative proteins — in the form of turkey, chicken and pork jerky — to the company's product portfolio. “It rounds out the portfolio of Jack Link's. We're just not a beef company, we're a high protein company,” Smith said.

The addition of those alternative proteins speaks to Jack Link's evolution and commitment to offering consumers new ways to snack.

“I think that grabs a new consumer that has never thought of snacking on beef jerky, but maybe they are big turkey eaters and they're going to be like, ‘Oh, turkey jerky, that's another snack I can have,’ " Smith said. “When we can deliver a turkey jerky or a chicken jerky and some of those items at the same great taste and still deliver fun, that's a pretty cool experience for them.”

When it comes to introducing new products and new flavors, Jack Link’s has an in-house research and development team consisting of a dozen employees. Smith, however, counts the company's entire workforce as its R&D team.

“There are a lot of great ideas that come from people on those (production) lines and on those production floors,” said Smith. “And of course we have a dedicated team where that's all they do, that's their singular job. We're listening to the consumer, we're listening to our customer and following hot trends once a new flavor (such as) sriracha comes out. It naturally made sense to use (sriracha) in jerky, and it was good.”

Papacek said the company is always on the hunt for new flavors to add to the mix.

“Our marketing and product marketing teams work hand in hand with our R&D (team),” Papacek said. “It all starts with trends in the marketplace. We start by looking at restaurant trends and their emerging foods and flavors. We also look at broader food categories and what's new there.

“We've started to do more consumer research. We go out to consumers, with different flavor ideas and ask them what flavors are most appealing to them and then they rank those flavors. So we do get consumer input, too. A lot of it often involves working with our R&D team and our suppliers to come up with the next, new flavor. Sometimes it takes some experimentation to come up with a new flavor. We then test those flavors internally, and what we feel are the best will go be tested with consumers to see which ranks highest. That's how we choose which flavors to launch.”

ANOTHER TYPE OF COMMERCIAL SUCCESS

In addition to quality, there is another prominent keyword at Jack Link’s: fun.

And when it comes to fun, the company has focused on that avenue when it comes to its marketing approach — particularly through the iconic Messin' with Sasquatch advertising campaign that debuted nine years ago.

“(Messin' with Sasquatch) is something that consumers continue to love and it's something they continue to think is funny, memorable and unique,” Papacek said. “It's something that's really helped the brand stand out in the marketplace. The idea around the Messin’ with Sasquatch campaign is about feeding your wild side. It brings out the feed your wild side spirit that everybody has and is translated into Messin’ with Sasquatch. We're looking at producing new Messin’ with Sasquatch commercials soon.

“It's one of those ideas that's different, unique, memorable, and own able, and I think that's why they have been so popular. It's funny, they remember the commercial and they remember the brand. That has really helped our business and really, really helped our brand grow since 2006.”

Jack Link’s launched a companion campaign titled Hangry Moments in 2014 that has also been well-received. “(Hangry Moments) is also in the same vein of feed your wild side, but it also brings across the product benefits and different occasions where you can eat Jack Link's (meat snacks),” Papacek said.

Jack Link’s also brings its fun approach to life in a public setting each year when it celebrates National Jerky Day. The fourth annual event is set to take place on June 12, and if the past is any indication, something fun and unique is in the works.

“There are a lot of other great snacks that have their own holidays and we felt like beef jerky needed a holiday, too,” Papacek said of National Jerky Day's beginnings. “It's an opportunity for Jack Link’s to celebrate the category, celebrate the brand and talk about how beef jerky is a great snack. It also brings through the fun, feed your wild side spirit of the brand.”

Previous National Jerky Days have certainly embraced fun — and creativity.

“The first (National Jerky Day) we had meat portraits, so we actually hired somebody to make a portrait of Sasquatch out of beef jerky,” said Papacek. “That was done in an election year, so we also had a promotion around choose your favorite meat head and we had ‘Barack Obameat’ and ‘Meat Romney’ and we did some portraits of them, also.

“The second year we had Operation Sky Meat. We dropped beef jerky out of a helicopter with parachutes at a baseball tournament. Last year, in New York City, we did Meat Rushmore. We had a replica of Mount Rushmore made out of non-saleable jerky in Columbus Circle in New York City. It was a great way for us to highlight the holiday and highlight our brand and how we feed our wild side.”

While Papacek was tight-lipped on the specifics of this year's event, he did divulge that the celebration will feature Jack Link's new branding. “It will definitely have an aspect of our new brand,” he said.

NEW LOOK, NEW LAYOUT, NEW FORMULA

A multifaceted brand refresh was announced in April and includes a new logo, newly designed packaging and a new product formulation resulting in a simplified label.

“It’s been something that we’ve been working on for a long time,” Papacek said of the brand refresh. “It had been quite a while since we changed our packaging. We really wanted to update the brand and update the look of the package.”

A bolder logo brings a more modern look, and also includes a shift in focus from meat snacks to protein snacks. “When we looked at making the change to our overall logo, we tried to broaden our view,” Papacek said. “We are still, obviously, a leader in meat snacks, but we also want to look at broader protein snacking. How do we not only be a leader in meat snacks, but how do we look at broader protein snacking?”

The new package design was implemented to become more appealing to the consumer. The goal is to help consumers more quickly identify different proteins, flavors and the product's key nutritional information. “We've made both flavor, form and protein stand out a little bit more (on the packaging),” Papacek said. “So when (consumers are) looking on the shelf it's easier to find the flavors and the products that they want and need.”

The new product formulation involves no added MSG, no artificial preservatives and no added sodium nitrates. “We're trying to make the product even better than it was before,” Papacek said.

Jack Link’s food scientists spent three years developing a process to remove added MSG and preservatives without sacrificing taste, texture or quality. “Consumers want cleaner labels and healthier snacks without sacrificing taste,” Mike Gerber, Jack Link's Vice President of Research and Development said in a news release announcing the brand refresh. “That is precisely what we are able to deliver with our new product formulation.”

A GROWING COMPANY FOOTPRINT

While Jack Link’s corporate headquarters, along with a production facility, are located in Minong, the company has a significant footprint across the Midwest.

The company has additional production facilities in New Glarus, Wis., Mankato, Minn., Bellevue, Neb., and Alpena, S.D. International production facilities reside in Brazil and New Zealand. In 2014, Jack Link’s purchased Unilever's meat snacks business, including a manufacturing facility in Germany.

There is some specialization at the facilities in terms of products being produced. The Alpena facility is the primary producer of beef jerky, while Minong specializes in steaks. New Glarus produces sausage, chubs and sticks. Mankato and Bellevue specialize in sticks. The New Zealand facility can produce the full product line, as can the facilities in Brazil which ship product in bulk to Europe.

The Mankato and Bellevue facilities were both acquired by the company within the past five years to help accommodate increased product demand due to the growth of the meat snacks category.

“It was demand, and the plants were up for sale and they seemed to fit us — small markets, long-term team members and high quality traditions, a lot of the same standards and values that Jack Link's has,” Smith said of the acquisitions of the Mankato and Bellevue facilities. “We like both of those areas as far as expansion. Great workforce, great teams and smaller plants, but smaller plants can turn into large plants really easily.”

The company's primary warehouse and distribution center resides in Underwood, Iowa. The Underwood facility, which was acquired in 2011, significantly increased the company's warehouse and distribution capacities, along with providing additional shipping, receiving and product merchandising support. A second, smaller, distribution facility is located in Laurens, Iowa.

“We just outgrew Laurens, so we had to go to Underwood. We were just out of space,” Smith said. “We try to do more full truckloads out of Underwood and more hand (crafted)/specialty products in Laurens. Also in Laurens, we have a large freezer and we do tempering of frozen meat. There are certain times of the year that we'll buy frozen, where domestic meat, there's a shortage of fresh meat at certain times, whether it's spring (or) fall, that we always make sure we have enough product to take care of our customer's needs.”

Smith said further growth plans are currently in the works for Jack Link’s, but the company is probably a couple of years away from expansion. “There's definitely more expansion (coming) for Jack Link’s, absolutely.”

When it comes to expansion, there is no better example than the Alpena facility. The largest of the Jack Link’s production facilities — at approximately 140,000 square feet — occupies a significant parcel of land in a city with a population of less than 300 in rural Jerauld County.

Jack Link’s first arrived in Alpena in 1994 when it purchased a small beef jerky manufacturer that employed both Smith and current Alpena plant manager Rick Tebay. Five years later, the company built a new state-of-the-art plant on a 70-acre site along 221st Street that was formerly an alfalfa field. The facility has expanded several times since — an 80,000-square foot addition at the end of 2000, a 40,000-square-foot addition that added warehousing and packaging capacity in 2005-06, and most recently a 20,000-square-foot expansion in 2012-13 that resulted in space for six additional smokehouses and more processing and cooler space and brought the facility to its existing 140,000-square-foot dimensions.

“As sales would continue to grow, of course we had to expand capacity,” Smith said. “Alpena was a great site for that. We have plenty of land, great work ethic from the people and the desire to build and to grow from the Alpena team has been fabulous. The team has grown and capacity has grown along with sales. There’s a lot of fun when that happens.”

The Alpena facility, which operates around the clock seven days a week, employs approximately 900 people and produces approximately 600 SKUs. Alpena produces four types of protein products — beef, chicken, turkey and pork — and produces more than 50 flavors of Jerky, Tender Bites, Tender Cuts, Small Batch Jerky and MINIS Bites. Alpena features six processing lines, 20 smokehouses and 11 packaging lines. The company points out that all the bags packed at the Alpena facility last year would span more than 25,000 miles.

The Alpena facility also features a shelf-life room, a large space where packaged product from every lot is stored. The product is tested and tasted at three-month intervals throughout the course of its 18-month shelf life.

FOCUS ON SUSTAINABILITY

A recently completed $12 million wastewater treatment plant at the Alpena facility is the one of the company's newest sustainability efforts. The project allows the facility to emit clean wastewater and produce methane gas for use as a renewable energy source.

“Just our volume here, in a town (the population of Alpena), you would have to do something to the infrastructure for the wastewater just having 900 people live here,” said Smith. “Well, 900 people are here, basically, all week long. So you have to do something from that standpoint, let alone the processing and the volume of the product that we put through here.

“We never thought we would have grown as much as we have. So we were always catching up to our wastewater problems. Finally, we put in a system that can handle not only this growth, but also about another 40 percent The wastewater treatment plant will be self-sustainable, as far as electricity, and we'll actually put power back on the grid and we'll get credit for that.”

The Alpena plant is a zero-waste-to-landfill facility that ships its recyclable materials to various recycling facilities. Smith also said the company is also looking at the possibility of using wind energy in some fashion at the Alpena facility.

That type of commitment to sustainability stretches across the company.

“I look back at Jack Link’s being a high-quality brand and a healthy brand, so we want to do the right thing by the environment, we want to be sustainable,” Smith said. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it's just what you should do for business. The first thing we went after was looking at all of our landfill expenses to figure out how we could eliminate them. We take corrugate, recyclables and excess film to Mankato (for our) waste-to-energy program. (Also) reduction of water, putting water chillers in whenever we can, different filtration systems, new lighting, high-efficiency HVAC and switching from propane to natural gas. These are all the right things to do for the environment and they were led by good business decisions. We clearly want to do the right things for the environment, we want to be sustainable and we want to be able to do it without a huge detriment to the consumer. So when you can do it in an efficient manner and do the right thing, it's definitely what you should be doing.”

To that point, Jack Link’s was recognized by the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council as a 2014 Green Master as part of the WSBC's Green Masters Program. To earn Green Master recognition, Jack Link's Wisconsin facilities were judged on a comprehensive range of sustainability actions, and scored in the program's top 20 percent. The sustainability efforts at the Minong operation included the construction of a 13-mile gas pipeline in 2013 that resulted in a significant reduction in the facility's carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions while bringing cleaner energy to the area. The New Glarus facility achieved zero-waste-to-landfill status in both 2013 and 2014. Both facilities were in line to receive high-efficiency HVAC upgrades this year, as well. As a company, Jack Link’s has also worked closely with its customers to reduce bag sizes in order to reduce landfill waste.

THE JERKY-MAKING PROCESS

The beef jerky production process stretches from one end of the Alpena facility to the other as raw materials are transformed into packaged product before being transported to the Iowa distribution centers. All told, the process that transforms raw meat into beef jerky takes between five to seven days, according to Tebay.

Several truckloads — each containing 40,000 pounds of meat — are delivered to the facility each weekday, with a smaller number of truckloads arriving on weekends. While the Alpena facility produces approximately 75 percent of the company's beef, chicken, turkey and pork jerky.

For jerky, the beef cuts consist of the leanest meat, which is ideal for the highest quality jerky. Jack Link's sources its beef almost exclusively in the U.S. in the form of leaner, grass-fed cows. “We're buying from anywhere from North Dakota to California, Texas, Florida,” Smith said.

Raw materials are dropped off at an unloading area at one end of the facility. Upon arrival, the meat is weighed, visually inspected, probed for temperature, scanned into the plant's system and tagged appropriately.

From there, the meat is taken to a large cooler, where it is stored before being transported to a marination room where the meat is marinated with specific seasonings based on the flavor or variety of jerky being produced. After the meat is marinated, it goes through a tumbling process before being transferred to a marination cooler that can hold up to 750,000 pounds of meat. The meat remains in the marination cooler between 24 and 72 hours, based on the specific product specification, before moving on to the next step of the process.

When the meat leaves the marination cooler, it advances to the processing room where pieces of meat are transported via an overhead conveyor line and fed into a slicer. From there, the sliced meat travels on another conveyor to an area where employees hand-hang slices onto rolling trucks. When those trucks are full, they are taken into a staging area for the smokehouse, where the meat is cooked.

Once in the smokehouses, the jerky cooks for between 3-10 hours depending on the specific product. Though Tebay says the average smokehouse time is between four to four-and-a-half hours. The smokehouses at the Alpena facility have the ability to use both liquid smoke and natural smoke. After leaving the smokehouse, the jerky is taken to another holding area, where it cools to room temperature before moving on to be packaged.

Package sizes range anywhere from less than an ounce all the way up to one pound. Alpena's 11 packaging lines, when running at full capacity, have the ability to package 860 bags of product a minute. The fastest lines have the capability to package 100 bags a minute.

On its way to being packaged, the jerky is twice subjected to metal detection to ensure safety, and bursts of nitrogen are injected into the package at two points during the process. This is done to help keep oxygen levels extremely low inside the package to ensure the jerky's shelf-life, which is 18 months. Each packaging line also uses a checkweigher to account for consistency. Packages that are too heavy, or too light, are automatically rejected and the product is reworked.

Quality checks take place every 5-10 minutes on the packaging line, and one specific test analyzes oxygen content, with the ideal range checking in at less than one percent. “We pride ourselves on quality,” Tebay said. “We have a lot of quality checks, double and triple checking to make sure everything is right.”

From there, the packaged jerky moves on to the final steps of the process, where it is boxed and readied for transport via semi to the Iowa distribution centers. Between 10 and 15 trucks a day leave the Alpena facility full of finished product headed for the Iowa distribution centers — and ultimately the consumer.

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