SOUTH SAN FRANSCISCO – After conquering Mount Kilimanjaro, KaiYen Mai embraced a new challenge — carving a niche in the crowded meat snack market. The founder and CEO of Fusion Jerky comes from a family of Asian-style jerky manufacturers, who have produced and sold the Hsin Tung Yang brand in Chinese supermarkets in the United States for decades.
“When I took over the family business about 10 years ago, I really wanted to create something new but also for the mainstream market,” Mai told Food Business News, a sister publication of MEAT+POULTRY. “I’ve always been very adventurous. I climbed Kilimanjaro, and I do a lot of hiking, so I’ve always eaten a lot of these protein snacks. I wanted to make it my own by fusing my Asian-style jerky background to create something new, better and healthier.”
She launched Fusion Jerky last August to reach an underserved demographic in the meat snack marketplace — women.
“As a female, myself, I’m always on a diet,” Mai said. “My friends and I are always looking for healthier products with lower calories. I’m busy all the time, and when I don’t have time to go out, I want to snack on something healthy. It’s a good protein snack, but at the same time, it doesn’t have all that junk people associate with jerky.”
Manufactured in a processing plant in Scottsbluff, Neb., the brand offers eight varieties of Asian-style jerky with lower sodium than traditional jerky products and no gluten, preservatives, nitrites and MSG. Flavors include basil citrus beef, chipotle lime beef, garlic jalapeno pork, island teriyaki pork, chili basil turkey, rosemary citrus turkey, lemon pepper chicken and basil citrus chicken.
In an exclusive interview with Food Business News, Mai shared insights from the business and offered a peek into innovation at her company.
Food Business News: How is Fusion Jerky different from other meat snacks on the market?
Mai: Coming from a woman’s perspective is a difference. Currently all of the packaging out there is not very attractive or really made for a female audience. My packaging is brighter in colors and a little more modern looking.
The second differentiation is our proteins. Most jerky out there is beef. Ours is healthier, and it’s also in four different meats, which are turkey, chicken, pork and beef. So we have a variety for people who want not just red meat but also white meat.
I think a lot of people want to eat healthier these days, and a lot of people don’t eat red meat, but there’s not much choice out there, so we do chicken, and we’re actually one of the first to do chicken.
And the third difference between our company and others is we actually manufacture it ourselves.
Why was chicken missing from the marketplace before?
Mai: I’ve seen one (chicken) jerky brand before, but it wasn’t a healthier one. We use chicken breast for our chicken jerky, so it’s a healthier cut.
I didn’t see why no one was doing it before. When I launched (the products) last year, I really wanted to do chicken as well as turkey because I felt like I didn’t have to follow what’s out there, and I think a lot of people want this. The new trend is to eat healthier and lower sodium, and white meat that has less fat.
Were there texture issues to overcome when working with chicken?
Mai: The texture is a little different, but we did a lot of sampling in the past year, and people were really surprised. “Oh, this is chicken?”
The texture is quite similar to turkey, and most people who tasted our product really loved it and said, “Wow, how come there’s not much chicken jerky out there?”
What’s the secret to making jerky without preservatives and nitrates and with lower sodium and maintain a good shelf life?
Mai: Our jerky is a little more moist, which means it probably won’t last as long as other brands. Our shelf life is roughly a year from production date, but some brands can last up to two years.
My most important thing is I want to put really clean ingredients so that people can actually read what’s in it, and also make it taste really delicious. It’s food. It can be healthy, but if it doesn’t taste good, that’s not good.
How is Asian jerky made differently than American-style jerky?
Mai: It’s just the cooking process. It’s proprietary, how we cook it, but it’s a different type of cooking process. That’s why the texture is very different than American-style beef jerky.
How did you come up with these unique flavors?
Mai: I’m a foodie, so I’ve always loved dining out. I have some friends in the restaurant business. I just felt like, what are the most “in” ingredients? What’s really popular when I dine out?
I worked with a spice company, with my idea of using a bunch of combinations of spices. I actually started with 30 to 40 flavors, and I worked for the last two years to condense that down to eight flavors. We spent a year or two years testing different flavors with different proteins. Which spices taste better with beef or with turkey? A lot of testing from our plant.
Were there any flavor combinations that completely bombed?
Mai: Actually a lot of flavors turned out really good, so it was hard to pick the final eight. Everyone has different tastes, so a lot of people were like, “Oh, why did you cut that flavor out of the other flavors?” It came down to, “Would the majority like this flavor?” and I wanted to have a variety when I finalized the eight flavors. So, some spicy ones, some not spicy ones. A little bit for everyone.
My favorite is the rosemary citrus, and that one I know you either love it or don’t because rosemary is a strong flavor. But I really loved that flavor, so I think I really pushed for that one to become a final flavor for the turkey.
What are your most popular varieties?
Mai: Some really popular ones are island teriyaki pork, chipotle lime beef, the lemon pepper chicken, and the chili basil or the rosemary citrus for turkey.
Are there any line extensions planned?
Mai: We’re definitely still thinking about whether we’d extend into anything else, but for now we’re keeping it just with eight because that’s actually quite a lot. We have two flavors for each protein for now.