NEW YORK — When Matt Tolnick launched Lawless Jerky LLC three years ago, the gourmet jerky market was just on the verge of exploding. As competition intensifies in the now $1.5 billion meat snack category, it has become more difficult for brands like Lawless to stand out, Tolnick said/
|Matt Tolnick, founder of Lawless Jerky|
“Starting out, we brought different flavors to the market, and now it seems like a lot of people are doing that,” Tolnick, CEO of Lawless Jerky, said during an interview at the Summer Fancy Food Show, held June 26-28 in New York. “And now we’re grass-fed, and a lot of people are doing that, too. I’m always looking to push the envelope, but it takes more and more now that the space is getting more and more attention.”
In 2011, Tolnick quit his job as a lawyer to establish the jerky business. Lawless Jerky offers seven globally inspired flavors, including sweet sriracha, Japanese curry and Chinese-style barbecue spare rib, made with 100 percent grass-fed beef or hormone-free, antibiotic-free pork and no added nitrates or nitrates, MSG or corn syrup.
“I’m always in the kitchen trying to improve our current offerings and come up with new ones,” Tolnick said.
Lawless expanded its distribution last year from 200 stores to more than 5,000 stores across the Northeast. Earlier this year, select Wal-Mart and Wegmans stores began selling the brand’s premium jerky.
“From 2014 to 2015, we were up 1,000 percent,” Tolnick said. “That level of growth is not sustainable. This year we’ll grow strong double-digits.”
Read on to learn how Lawless Jerky remains competitive in a crowded category.
You started making your own jerky in college. Why?
Tolnick: Going back to high school, I was in the gym a lot. At first I was eating a lot of shakes and protein bars, and then I started eating jerky because it was high protein, low carbs, low calories.
They were putting some weird ingredients into bars and shakes, and jerky was better, but still at that point in the early 2000s, they had a lot of preservatives, nitrates, MSG. So I started making my own so I could control what goes into it, and as a college student I could save a lot of money by making it myself.
Tell me about how you developed your unique flavors.
Tolnick: Every flavor has its own story. The first “out there” flavor I came up with was Japanese curry. That one was inspired by me living in LA during law school with some Japanese roommates who were studying abroad. I didn’t even know the Japanese made their own type of curry that was distinct, and I really liked it. And it naturally pairs with beef, and I was making a lot of beef jerky at the time. So that became my first flavor that I was happy with and kind of perfected.
Our teriyaki is a little bit Hawaiian inspired; that’s why we call it Aloha Teriyaki. It’s got kind of a pineapple, ginger, bright flavor to it.
The spare rib is our newest flavor. It’s our first pork flavor. It’s quickly becoming one of the most popular ones. Spare rib, if you like meat, is pretty much an iconic food. No one was bringing that into the packaged snacks space at all, but it’s beloved, so I wanted to make that translation.
How do you stay competitive in the crowded jerky category?
Tolnick: People have an assumption that the jerky market is crowded. It’s also been growing a lot to accommodate more people. It’s like saying craft beer is growing; new people keep popping up, but more people are drinking it.
We do transparently sourced meat, we have cool and different and not just traditional flavors, and even though we have those perks, we can also arrive in grocery stores at a price point that keeps us competitive with your more legacy brands. We’ll be on shelves anywhere depending on the retailer from $4.99 to $6.99.
How do you keep your prices low?
Tolnick: For one, our manufacturing set-up in Phoenix. We’re partners with the facility that makes it, so they are co-owners in our company, and we get preferential pricing from them. While a lot of the other jerky companies out there, even Krave as they came up, are using various co-packers, our co-packer is kind of a co-owner. So they give us sub-market pricing. That helps to subsidize it and allow us to behave more as though we own our facility.
And then, careful ingredient sourcing, making sure we’re getting quality items at a competitive price. Our team is small, and we put everything back into the business. No one’s taking any kind of obnoxious salaries here.
Tolnick: I’ve made a lot of different batches of chicken jerky. I think if we were to roll out another one, that would be it. As far as exotic meats, it just becomes really expensive.
What’s next for Lawless Jerky?
Tolnick: I can’t go into too much detail about the newest stuff, but there are a lot of meat bars happening (from other players), and we’re not going to be doing that.
There will be some meat tie to jerky. For example, this won’t be a direction we’ll probably go as a brand, but there’s a company here that makes nuts, and they took our jerky and are doing a trail mix. Jerky has had success, and meat protein is still really popular, and I expect it to be continually expanding outward.