Of all the possible businesses, a young entrepreneur could get into these days (tech, being the most obvious choice) you can’t help but wonder why Mikey Allen chose jerky. Yet the decision to go into the snack biz was far more logical than you might think. At the ripe old age of 25, Allen has been making jerky for 20 years.
“I remember we [he and his siblings] got this tiny little hydrator for Christmas when I was 5 – it probably made about 2 lbs. worth of meat at a time,” says Allen. “My dad used to go hunting, so the first jerky we made was with venison. We made it a couple of times a year and gave it to friends and family.”
Allen says his father and grandfather always had a great appreciation for doing things by hand. “My dad grew up in Champaign and went hunting with my grandfather. The recipe we used to make jerky was the same recipe my dad used with his father, and it’s the same recipe I use for Mikey’s Original today.”
Pictured left: Mikey and his Dad at one of their first open market stands.
The youngest of three children, Allen’s family moved from St. Louis to Louisville so his father, then a general dentist, could go back to school for orthodontics. “My dad was unhappy with general dentistry, so he went back to school and my mom, who was a nurse at the time, supported us.” The family eventually planted permanent roots in Wheaton, Illinois when Mikey was 6.
Allen went to work after college for Groupon in sales and on to logistical and advertising sales after that. It was during this time when his lifelong “hobby” started taking on a different perspective. “I started selling jerky to co-workers and friends and they all said, ‘you really have something here’”.
Perfecting the Product
A year ago last April, Mikey quit his job dedicating himself to turning his passion for jerky into a legitimate business. He executed extensive due diligence, went through the agonizing process of getting industry licensed, and set his goals on producing a healthy handcrafted all natural snack. “In the jerky business, there’s not much out there yet in this niche.”
Allen currently rents commercial kitchen space and contains production costs by pulling “all-nighters” working a perpetual graveyard shift. “The process is very labor intensive” he describes. “There’s slicing, trimming, marinating, hydrating and then packaging. I lay every piece out singly for hydrating. It takes about 10 hours per run, plus the 4-8 hours for prep and marinating. I can make about 250 pieces in a 24 hour turn around. If a batch doesn’t turn out right, I throw it out!”
Dedicated to producing healthy, all natural and antibiotic free products, Allen says he Googled “grass fed suppliers” and found Buedel. “James [Melnychuk] has been just awesome with me, showing me the ropes of the meat business – he treats me like I was ordering 1,000 pounds a week.”
Mikey uses eye of the round cuts for his jerky with little fat from grass fed cattle and Creekstone Farms Black Angus beef. “I admired the companies who used only eye of the round cuts when I first started out, because it’s super lean. You can use bottom round, but it’s more labor intensive to trim it.”
Having made venison and bison jerky in the past, Allen says he’d also like to experiment with some exotic meats in the future too, but will keep his focus on handcrafting beef jerky for now. “A lot of my competitors outsource to mass production facilities.”
Mikey’s Jerky currently comes in three core flavors: Mikey’s Original – a smoky bite with a strong, lasting finish, Great Barrier Beef – a zesty exotic herb and spice blend, and Grim Beefer – a hot and spicy version, “not for the faint of heart”.
Allen says most people say his Grim Beefer flavor has just the right amount of kick, and others tell him “it could be hotter.” Always experimenting with new flavors, feedback from family and friends often weigh in. “Someone wanted me to do a brown sugar and maple syrup version and at one point we tried a Paleo diet version – it had a LOT of pepper.”
The ingredients on a package of Mikey’s Original include beef, water, salt, crushed red pepper, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, Worchester, liquid smoke and hot sauce. The jerky has soy and wheat allergens, however Allen also plans on expanding into gluten free products in the future.
Until last week, Mikey’s Jerky was only available by word of mouth and at local area weekend markets. Two new access channels were launched this week: Online Order and a special Father’s Day Gift Offer good for three consecutive monthly deliveries.
After Father’s Day, customers will have the option of joining The Jerky of the Month Club, which will include new and limited flavor profiles. You can also buy a bag this weekend at the French Markets in Wheaton and Glen Ellyn.
Building a Brand
17-20 pieces of Mikey’s Jerky fill every brown bag which has a tested shelf life of three months. “People love the packaging because it gives you a clean feel,” he says. “I’m selling the week of production right now, but when I hit retail, I’ll have to have it retested.”
Already approached by a Whole Foods rep, Allen is busy laying the groundwork for production expansion refurbishing a kitchen to commercial standards to move into next fall and hiring his first employees. His immediate goal is to be cooking 24/7 while staying true to the handcrafted process. The new kitchen would allow him to produce 750 bags a day – three times his current 24 hour turn around.
Thankful for the support he’s received from friends and family, Mikey credits his dad for coaching him, his mom for teaching him “Quick Books”, (and helping him with all the “cute packaging” he’s really bad at), his siblings for helping him sell and his college buddy, graphic designer Adam Vicarel, for creating his logo. (Pictured left: Mom’s ‘cute’ Mother’s Day packaging.)
As with many startups, crowd sourcing may also be on the horizon, but Allen is quick to mention the help he’s received from his friend, Bob Sorenson at Threadfunds.com. Thread Funds is a platform for “crowd funded apparel and merchandise”, where startups can sell logo branded items to raise awareness (and funding) for their products, services and/or events. You can buy a Mikey’s Jerky tank top here.
Allen says his biggest challenge is “time management”. He only pulls two ‘all-nighters’ a week, but they wipe him out the next day. It’s about meeting supply and demand, and he says he’s trying to “work smarter”.
Mikey’s big vision is to keep the company family operated and handcrafted within the healthy/all natural retail market. “I want to provide a quality product people will appreciate that tastes good!”