Brian Levin was on a ski vacation with buddy Matt Keiser in 2006 when one morning, after a particularly raucous night, they discovered that a can of Red Bull had spilled into his backpack, soaking the beef jerky that lay inside.
"We were hungover and we're like 'Dammit, it spilled, but we're hungry,'" says Levin, 38. "So we ate it and it wasn't horrific—and that kind of sparked an idea." The idea? A performance-enhancing meat snack, juiced up with guarana. Four years, several countries and a drawn-out approval process with the USDA later, the pair launched Perky Jerky, which did just under $1 million in sales in 2010 and is on track to generate between $5 million and $7 million in 2011, according to Levine.
Now that the business is off the ground—the jerky is sold at Home Depot and Target, as well as Bally's Gym and Sports Authority—how can the upstart company compete with Slim Jim and other brands that have been convenience-store staples for years? Levine, whose past ventures include helping to launch Grey Goose vodka and starting the text-messaging voting system used on a little show called American Idol, hopes some unconventional marketing will get his brand to the next level.
Free sampling—and a healthy sense of humor—are key. "It's called bovine/oral insertion—the art of getting meat in mouths," says Levin, who traveled the world sampling Asian jerkies and biltong from South Africa before perfecting the recipe for Perky Jerky. "People think it's the most disgusting thing they've ever heard until they taste it."
Levin isn't above donning a suit festooned with Perky Jerky packs and accosting people in Times Square to taste his product, nor is he averse to having his 8-year old son walk around Nascar events, wearing a helmet similarly adorned with the snack.
"I pay him two bucks an hour and people grab jerky right off his head," jokes Levin, who calls himself "Chairman of the Herd," and makes TV appearances clad in a t-shirt emblazoned with the brand's slogan "Everybody Wants My Meat."
Other tactics? Celebrity endorsements from golfer David Duval and an upcoming partnership with Finnish Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen. "[Raikkonen]'s like the Kobe Bryant of Europe—he's big everywhere on earth except the U.S.," says Levine. "We're hoping he's going to vault us into global brand status."
In the meantime, he wants Perky Jerky to fill new niches and take on some old ones: "It's high protein, low carb, and 100 calories a pack," says Levin. "So it's really good for endurance athletes as well as people who need to be alert behind the wheel, like cab drivers and truck drivers." And right now, there is no other enhanced jerky on the market. "But if we do our job well enough," says Levin, "there will be, and soon."