When people think of jerky, they typically think of tough, leathery, seasoned dried meat sold at US gas stations and truck stops. But contrary to popular belief, jerky is not a uniquely American-made and consumed product. Drying and curing meat with salt is the oldest way of preserving meat on all corners of the globe.

The Shih family, originally from Taiwan, has been making jerky for more than 60 years. What began as a family recipe sold at local markets in Taiwan has evolved to a gourmet snack distributed through retailers and wholesalers around the US. After years of perfecting cooking methods and developing new flavor profiles, Golden Island Gourmet Snacks is offering consumers a new twist on an old tradition.

Anna Kan, president of Golden Island – and a third-generation member of the Shih family – is working on rebranding the company’s line of gourmet meat jerky products, offering a “modern take on jerky,” she says. The company is in the process of launching a new line of 3-oz. portioned jerky in six beef and pork flavors.

Family tradition

The Shih family’s history of making jerky dates back to World War II. Following his service as a medic in the war, Kan’s grandfather, Chun Fa Shih, returned to a war-torn Taiwan where people were hungry and food was scarce. In an effort to help with the food shortage, he started to prepare and process meats in a way that would help them last longer.

He soon decided to turn this necessity into a business and, in 1952, Chun Fa Shih and his family began to sell the dried and cured meat at local markets.

By the 1970s, the family had food processing plants in Taiwan that sold various meat products including sausage, jerky and other Asian meat items.

In the 1980s, the second generation of the family took the business West. Eric Shih, the eldest son, started Formosa Food Co. in Hull, Iowa, in 1983. Converting a 10,000-sq.-ft. furniture store into a food-processing plant, Formosa Food Co. started producing pork sung – a dried, shredded pork product, which is a breakfast staple with many Asian customers. The company expanded over the next decade becoming the major producer of pork sung sold in Asian markets around the US.

In 1992, Ting Shih, the younger son of Chun Fa Shih, immigrated to the US to start another phase of the family business. In 1995, the business expanded by starting Formosa Meat Co. in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., focused on the production of jerky products. The company purchased a 23,000-sq.-ft. building and invested more than $1.5 million to design a new facility.

The Shih family’s business continued to evolve when Anna Kan, a member of the family’s third generation, was named president of Formosa Meat Co., now known as Universal Food Company.

Branded business

The Golden Island brand was introduced to the market in 2002 with a full line of Asian entrées for the foodservice and deli markets. Golden Island’s original claim to fame was its chicken lettuce wrap filling sold in Costco locations in California and the East Coast. Soon after, the brand expanded to include jerky products (starting with its Chili Lime Beef jerky), which soon became the brand focus.

One of the turning points with the Golden Island brand was its partnership with Costco, which began in 2004. The opportunity to have customers sample the product in-store is an invaluable selling tool, Kan says. “After you get the product in a customer’s mouth, it will speak for itself.”

Kan says she can’t reveal the family’s proprietary recipe and process of preparing the product, but shared that what they do to the meat before and during the time it is turned into jerky is what makes the product unique, tender and flavorful. “We take pride in the fact that the flavors we have are truly inside the meat,” Kan says. “And the texture is very soft, unlike typical jerky products.”

Golden Island’s flavor profiles are also a part of what makes the product different. The company first offered traditional Asian flavors, but now has expanded to so much more. Grilled Barbecue pork remains one of the most popular flavors, and what the company’s known for, according to Kan. According to the flavor description on the Golden Island website, it’s “sweet and slightly smoky. You’ll enjoy this jerky as much as the Barbecued Pork from your favorite Chinese restaurant.”

Other Asian flavors include Kung Pao, Mandarin Orange, Curry and Mandarin Orange & Pineapple. Korean Barbecue pork is another new addition to the Asian flavor lineup. However, Golden Island didn’t want to be known for only offering product in Asian flavors, so the company’s R&D experts developed some more mainstream flavors such as Chili Lime and Black Pepper. In addition, some of its more unique flavor combinations include Cabernet Rosemary and Chardonnay Thyme.

“We’re constantly playing around with new flavors,” Kan says.

In fact, during a rollout in southern California’s Central Markets a couple years ago, Golden Island developed a Cerveza Lime jerky for the store’s Beer Fest. The flavor was just made for the promotion and isn’t sold online or in stores.

Another summer promotion – the Summer Cocktail Series – helped inspire a Coconut Rum Mai Tai variety, as well as the Cabernet Rosemary and Chardonnay Thyme flavors that are still sold today.

“Coming up with new flavors is never a problem here,” Kan says.

Part of Golden Island’s effort to rebrand its products revolves around its new 3-oz. packages. The new-product rollout includes three beef and three pork varieties in the slightly smaller packages (previous varieties were sold in 4-oz. packages). The beef varieties include Chili Lime, Hickory Black Pepper and Mandarin Orange. The Korean Barbecue, Grilled Barbecue and Teriyaki flavors are made from pork cuts.

Kettle cooking

More than 100 people currently work in the company’s 23,000-sq.-ft. processing plant. The plant, in Rancho Cucamonga, is now 100-percent dedicated to gourmet jerky production.

“Our plant doesn’t look like a typical jerky facility. We use a kettle-cooking, small-batch process with equipment that was custom-made for us,” Kan explains. “Our process is considerably more labor-intensive than typical jerky plants – we have a lot of people working out on the floor.”

Golden Island makes both beef and pork jerky from hand-selected meat. “We are very particular about the cuts of meat we use – it must be custom-cut,” she says. Representatives fly out to the company’s meat suppliers around the country to make sure they get exactly what they want. Suppliers vary depending on the cuts they need for different varieties of jerky.

“Just because we are drying and curing the meat doesn’t mean we don’t need quality cuts of meat,” Kan explains. In fact, in order to guarantee tender, flavorful pieces of jerky, Golden Island needs to be sure it’s using quality beef and pork cuts. That’s part of quality the Shih family stands for, she says.

“My grandfather used to say that if we can’t do it better than the next guy, then we have no business being in this business in the first place,” Kan adds.

Now that Golden Island’s focus is on jerky production, the company has been able to achieve continuous annual sales growth. From 2008 to 2011, the company had a growth spurt of 218 percent for the three-year period. This year, the projection is for another 50 percent increase in sales growth.

Kan hopes the tradition of her family’s business will continue. The eldest member of the 4th generation of the Shih family is currently only eight years old, so passing the torch will have to wait for now. In the interim, Kan will settle with passing on her family’s love of food to the next generation in hopes her grandfather’s legacy will carry on for years to come.