SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Eugene Kang can vouch for the importance of standing out in the meat snack segment, which is a category that represents $2.8 billion and is still growing. Kang is the co-founder and CEO of Country Archer Jerky Co., a gourmet jerky company that recently launched its first meat stick offering. With sales that have spiked about 140 percent in the past two years, Country Archer products are now in about 6,400 retail outlets, including Target Stores and Starbucks.

The company, which has been in business since about 1977, typifies the value of savvy marketing and product innovation in a red-hot space. Before buying the company, Kang and his business partner first tasted the company’s jerky products in 2010, buying it as a privately labeled product from a roadside vendor when visiting the Grand Canyon. When he first tasted the company’s turkey product, Kang was struck by its clean, artisanal taste. He immediately tracked down the owner, who was 80 years old and operating his small operation in southern California. He never attempted to build the Country Archer brand, focusing instead on co-packing for a handful of small retail companies. After some negotiations, Kang made the aging owner an offer to buy the company and part of the deal included an agreement to teach him to make the product because he had no meat processing or food production background. The deal was made in 2011, and for Kang, the learning curve was steep. Two years later, the 30-plus year-old Country Archer brand was relaunched, focusing its attention and products on the natural segment. The timing was nearly perfect, according to Kang.

Eugene Kang

“We kind of hit the right spot at the right time as far as the natural category goes and focused on the Sprouts and Whole Foods of the world and the natural channel,” says Kang, and the growth has mushroomed since then. Production has expanded dramatically, including going from a 2,000-sq.-ft. plant to a new plant in the Los Angeles area that spans 30,000 sq. ft. The founder’s process is still utilized, but Kang’s team has made tweaks to improve it, including investment in new technologies to streamline the process, such as smokehouses and slicing equipment, which have increased efficiencies while maintaining the company’s decades-old marinating practices.  “We took what the founder was doing a step farther,” Kang says. Today’s Country Archer also offers specialty products, made using organic ingredients from grass-fed beef, which at that time was rare and drew plenty of interest and continues to.

Under the new ownership team, the immediate goal was to grow as a branded company and that meant moving in the opposite direction from the founder’s approach of co-packing for about a dozen companies. Part of the new strategy also included tweaking the founder’s limited offerings that included five or six traditional flavors such as teriyaki and peppered varieties, which Kang says stood out in terms of quality and taste. “He just made them better by using better ingredients and a better process.”

At the same time Kang and his partner were acquiring Country Archer, there was a flurry of new companies entering the market and they had to decide about how to stand out in the crowd. “What we decided was ‘consumers like original flavors; consumers like teriyaki,’ but they just hadn’t been exposed to really good teriyaki and really good original,” Kang says. So, the duo stuck to the heritage side of the brand and focused on those classic flavors. “We took those and focused on ingredient sourcing and quality raw materials and that is still our niche now,” Kang says. “We’re not trying to be a wine-pairing company. We’re trying to be this artisanal heritage brand that makes better-for-you product but it’s the classic and traditional flavors you’ve always come to love.” The company has not added species to the beef and turkey offerings it has always produced, and Kang says that isn’t likely to change. He says the strategy is all about scalability and considering whether they can offer products and species that can keep pace with the volume of customers such as Costco and Starbucks. “Turkey and beef are scalable, but other exotic species are tough because you can’t just do regional offerings. Our motto is to provide good product to the masses,” Kang says.

Another part of its strategy that distinguishes Country Archer from other brands is its vertical integration that includes operating a processing plant versus a company that markets a co-packed product. Kang estimates that about half of the products on the market today are co-packed by many of the same companies. Too often, when the processing is outsourced, “you start to lose authenticity,” he says.

“We are a true heritage brand, we make it ourselves. We’ve been around since ’77 so we have deep roots here and we have our own processing facility.” The plant operates around the clock and employs about 100 workers at a building that was renovated for the company’s new strategy of going large and is about five miles from Country Archer’s original location. Equipping the plant with the technology needed to meet the needs of a scalable operation was a matter of researching what worked for other companies in terms of slicers, smokehouses and packaging machines. “We looked at how do we scale this from our old facility and our old way of doing things,” Kang says.

As the fastest-growing jerky brand in the natural channel, Kang says Country Archer has at least doubled sales in each of the last three years and has seen nearly 140 percent growth this past year. The exponential growth in demand and production already has Kang and his partner scrambling to explore options to add more processing space with the current facility bursting at the seams.