KANSAS CITY, Mo. – True Jerky, maker of Gentleman's True Jerky, relaunched in September with a new name — Made by True — a new brand and a new product: Biltong.
Biltong originated from the South African tradition of air-drying meat, and the process results in thin slices of tender beef. Biltong is tightly woven into the food culture of South Africa — people munch on the savory snack at any time of the day. But the product is virtually unknown in the United States. Made by True wants to change that.
Jess Thomas, CEO of Made by True, co-founded the company in 2015 with college friends Kevin Hix, CFO, and James Evans who oversees sales for the company. The three men traveled to South Africa to learn about biltong from the locals — ranchers, meatpackers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers. The result of their fact-finding adventure was a new line of meat snacks available in three flavors, including Cape Town Classic (salt, pepper and coriander), A Savory Adventure (garlic, herb and spices) and Little Bit of Spice (coriander, chili powder and paprika).
In an interview with MEAT+POULTRY, Thomas discusses the appeal of biltong and shares insights on strategies Made by True implements to differentiate from big-label meat snack makers and boutique brands inhabiting a fast-growing segment of the meat snack category.
M+P: You traveled to South Africa to learn more about Biltong. Talk about that trip and how it informed the final product.
Thomas: It informed everything about the product. It was so instrumental and important for our journey with this product. Every couple of months we’d run into somebody who’d give us this spiel about why biltong is better than jerky. It has so little awareness in the States that it was always somebody who had lived in South Africa or was from there or traveled there. It just sounded so cool, so we said we’ve got to go see this.
We knew two things: One, not only did we not know how to make it at all, we didn’t understand anything about it. So, if we’re thinking we’re going to tell this story authentically, we couldn’t do that unless we were there.
We said no matter what, we need to do this the way that they do it in South Africa. We want South African expats to try this product and [say] “This is biltong”.
It was really important to us to share that story authentically because it’s not like jerky. Jerky isn’t critical to American food culture the way biltong is [in South Africa]. Biltong is everywhere, and it’s eaten always. It’s a part of family celebrations; every family has their own recipe that’s the best in the country. We want to be able to convey the importance the product plays in that country as well.
M+P: How did adding biltong to your product line affect the operations side of the business?
Thomas: I think part of the reason you haven’t seen an expansion of biltong in the space is because the production process is very tricky, and it’s very different from jerky. There is no heat; you don’t cook the product at all. So, from a food safety perspective it’s not the easiest thing in the world to produce. They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years in South Africa, and they’ve figured it out. But unless you have experience making it at scale in South Africa, or maybe England, you wouldn’t know how to open a biltong facility.
I think we’re finally getting there, and I’m sure in five years from now there will be a lot more available manufacturing capacity. But even today it’s still pretty limited.
M+P: Is there anything from a regulatory standpoint that adds to the challenge of producing biltong?
Thomas: Not yet. The issue that regulators have been more focused on is the food safety questions. Obviously, there are other meat-based products that are air dried, air cured, dry aged, and so it’s not like this is a brand-new concept.
I’m sure that second wave of regulations will come at some point. If that is where they move from a regulatory perspective, I would be ok with it. If people come in with a product that’s not actually biltong and they’re calling it biltong and it’s an inferior product, that’s harmful to the category and us by extension. I’m not of fan of adding regulations for the sake of regulations, but if that is where they decided to go, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for us.
M+P: Who do you consider to be your biggest competitor in the meat snack category and why?
Thomas: We’re in a competitive space. There’s a ‘jerky fatigue’ happening. It’s not a terribly high-barrier to entry category. It’s very high-growth, and it hits a lot of very important consumer trends, and so it’s got a lot of new entrants in the space, us included. I can certainly talk about brands that are similar to us and likely competitors. But really when I look at what’s a threat to our business, it’s more bad jerky. I think one of the reasons there are a lot of companies like ours around is that, historically, there’s been pretty bad stuff available on the market. You can go to local stores and find local, mom-and-pop brands that make a really good product at a commercial kitchen. What we’re seeing and what we’re representing is sort of a market correction for bad product.
M+P: What has been the process of breaking through negative perceptions of jerky?
Thomas: For us, it starts with the product development. When we were starting this the writing was on the wall that this was going to be a hot space; there were just enough that you could sense that this was coming, and so we knew that we weren’t going to be able to out-spend a lot of other brands. But what we felt like we could do is compete based on just a purely enjoyable product that has at its core a more ethical approach to meat sourcing than we were seeing in the market. If nothing else, we’re going to have jerky that tastes better than anything you’ll find; it will at least taste different.
Our approach to flavor development is more about very much what we liked as flavor concepts, like wouldn’t it be fun to do a bourbon recipe or Korean barbecue, things that we gravitated to as consumers when we go out to eat and try to reformulate that into a snack food.
That’s where we’ve been able to differentiate, and little stuff — we put a floss pick in all of our bags.