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Perfect pairing

by Larry Aylward
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What do fine wine and beef jerky have in common? Not much. In fact, they kind of go together like Mozart and Metallica. But don’t tell that to Jon Sebastiani, owner and CEO of Krave Jerky, a Sonoma, Calif.-based company that sells gourmet meat snacks. Sebastiani has found a big similarity between wine and jerky.

Sebastiani was born and raised in California wine country. His great-grandfather, Samuele Sebastiani, began Sebastiani Vineyards in the late 1800s. Jon began working in the vineyards when he was a boy. He continued working in the family business for 15 years after earning a master’s degree in business from Columbia Univ.

Working in the wine industry, Sebastiani learned the importance of distinction and flavor. He has carried over that aptitude to his jerky business.

“The driving theme behind our jerky company is the appreciation for a wide range of flavors,” Sebastiani says.

The family business produces more than 30 different wines each year. Krave Jerky offers seven mouth-watering flavors, including beef varieties of chili lime, curry beef, garlic chili pepper, honey chipotle and pineapple orange. Krave also offers basil citrus turkey and smoky grilled teriyaki pork jerky.

Most supermarkets and convenience stores carry the same jerky brands with the same few flavors — natural, teriyaki and pepper. Sebastiani says Krave’s flavors are what help set the company apart.

Sebastiani has always loved jerky, having grown up eating products made by a local butcher. And even though he admits he knew little about the business before delving into it, Sebastiani thought long and hard about overcoming certain connotations associated with the category in his quest to market gourmet products. For example, he knows jerky has garnered a reputation among some consumers as “sort of a truck-stop snack item that’s loaded with sodium and chemicals,” he says.

But Sebastiani also believes that jerky – when “it’s made the right way” – can be the snack food of choice for athletes and other health-conscious eaters. A serving of Krave jerky provides between seven and 12 grams of protein, two grams of carbohydrate and less than five grams of saturated fat and is trans-fat free. It’s also an excellent source of zinc and iron.

Krave’s products debuted last year in supermarkets on the West Coast in California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. It’s carried in more than 2,000 stores.

A businessman at heart

Sebastiani calls himself a “serial entrepreneur. “I’m a business man,” he says. “I like to build companies.”

In 2009, Sebastiani began developing specialty jerky recipes with the help of people he knew in the wine and food business. “We took an artisanal approach to the product,” he says.

A key was to develop new and exploratory flavors. “We have flavors that are simply not available in the general market place, and we make our jerky in small batches,” he says.

The jerky is not only flavorful, it’s more moist and tender than others because of the artisanal manufacturing process, Sebastiani says.

“In the general market place, people complain of jerky being difficult to chew,” he says. “We have our own manufacturing process, which is our version of a secret recipe.”

Sebastiani also thought it was important to offer different protein selections for jerky. As the company evolves, Krave may offer chicken or other beef cuts as well.

“Typically, people view turkey as a healthier source of meat,” he says. “Some people are more comfortable eating pork and turkey than they are eating beef,” he says. “The important thing is we offer a variety of products for consumers to choose from.”

Jerky made with a variety of meats and flavors could equate to more consumption, Sebastiani says.

“One cut of meat and one flavor gets old after awhile,” he says.

Sebastiani buys his beef and pork from a California processor and his turkey from an Idaho processor.

Krave targets health-conscious consumers with its products, but that’s not all.

“We’re not ignoring the existing jerky consumer,” he says. “Of course, we are going to differentiate from the available jerkies out there. However, our primary objective is to create a renewed awareness for jerky’s quality attributes and that it can be food for a healthy lifestyle.”

Krave’s products are found in supermarkets’ jerky sections.

“Depending upon the chain, we’re definitely going after placements in the deli section where that grab-and-go impulse buy occurs,” Sebastiani says. “And we’re competing to find space in cash register lines.”

Krave charges $1 more per bag than his competitors. But Sebastiani says the increase is warranted because his products are higher quality and the manufacturing process comes at a price.

“We think that’s competitive,” he says of the price point. “We’re very comfortable being $1 more a bag.”

Going nationwide

Sebastiani won’t reveal annual sales, but he expects the number of stores that carry his jerky to double to 4,000 sometime in 2012.

Sebastiani wants Krave to be a player in the category nationwide.

“We went into this with the intention of building a business, rather than building a hobby,” he says. “We did a fair amount of research into the category. We’re very pleased with the market reception. But we’re just starting.”

While Sebastiani knows the company’s flavor profiles set it apart, he also realizes competitors can come to market with their own new flavors quickly.

The “Krave” name comes from the idea of craving the good things in life, Sebastiani says.

Like fine wine – and jerky.

Larry Aylward is a contributing editor based in Cleveland.
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