When Eugene Kang was a child, he worked in his parents' gas station stocking shelves, performing odd jobs, and snacking on the 25-cent Slim Jims displayed at the counter. Years later, Kang launched a company that elevates jerky from the gas station indulgence he loved as a kid to a daily diet staple.

"I would eat Slim Jims nonstop, but when you read the ingredients now you wonder, 'Why was I eating this?'" says Kang, 29, the co-founder of Country Archer Jerky, which ranked No. 872 on this year's Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. (Among other Slim Jim ingredients, he was referring to mechanically separated chicken.)"We want to bring it back to a gourmet state and really help shed light on what meat snacks could be, if done right."

Kang's company, which sells products like hickory smoked turkey jerky and mango habanero beef jerky, is one of several startups tapping into an industry that has been on the rise thanks to changes in dietary trends (read: paleo, keto, and other low-carb strategies that encourage participants to eat more protein). Consumers are gobbling up on-the-go snacks like jerky that pack lots of protein and sport a list of recognizable ingredients. The jerky industry is projected to generate $1.4 billion in revenue this year, up nearly 5 percent from 2015, according the research firm IBISWorld. Kang has witnessed that growth within his startup: Country Archer is expecting to book about $35 million in revenue this year, up from $21 million in 2017. 

Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst for market research firm NPD Group, says conditions are ripe for Country Archer's products to surge in popularity. "I always talk about health these days as being somewhat tribal," he says, referring to popular diets and the communities that form around them. "But the overarching trends are about protein and low sugar, and jerky transcends those tribes."  

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Getting on the shelf

While Kang's appreciation for jerky began in a gas station, it was a roadside stand that cemented his relationship with the snack. On a road trip through the Grand Canyon, he and his aunt, Susan Kang, found a small shop that sold artisanal and preservative-free jerky in plastic sandwich bags. After depleting their supply, the two tracked down the maker, Celestino Mirarchi, who owned the Country Archer butcher shop in Southern California.

Mirarchi celebrated the traditions of his Italian culture by marinating and preparing jerky, but the 80-year-old had no plans for continuing the business in the future. Susan and Eugene got a loan and bought him out of the business in 2011. Eugene dropped out of college, took up an apprenticeship with Mirarchi, and learned everything about making jerky. He didn't take a salary during that time and lived with his parents before launching the brand in late 2013.

Kang had a line of new products by 2014, but was having trouble getting them into stores. He noticed the rise in Sriracha-flavored foods and asked the hot sauce company Huy Fong Foods to partner with Country Archer on a new flavor of jerky. Once that hit the market, retailers changed their tune. "Sriracha was my Trojan horse into the retail world," Kang says, adding that he'd make sure store managers would also stock additional flavors like teriyaki.

Now, Country Archer products are sold in Whole Foods, Starbucks, and various Costco stores throughout the U.S., along with the company's website. The San Bernardino, California-based business has 16 varieties of jerky, though original beef jerky remains its most popular item. A 3-ounce bag costs $6, competitive for the better-for-you jerky market. The company also sells meat bars and sticks. 

Country Archer boasts a 576 percent revenue growth rate in the past three years and has 150 employees on staff. But establishing a dominant position in the growing jerky industry isn't easy. Country Archer is up against big players like Jack Links and Oberto, which together control about 35 percent of the market, according to IBISWorld. 

Another difficulty is the supply chain. "The biggest hurdle is the expensive cost of goods," Kang says, noting that the grass-fed, antibiotic-free meat in his products is pricier than the corn-fed varieties of cow or turkey meat typically used by established competitors. The quality of meat is one of the main ways newer jerky businesses differentiate their products, Country Archer says.

Absorbing those extra costs may be inevitable to sell to younger consumers like Millennials and Gen-Zers. "They want to know about the product, more than what they can see on the shelf," Seifer says, citing as examples details such as how the animals were treated and fed. "Consumers in those generations are shopping with their values and they want to give their money to companies that share those values." 

As long as customers continue to direct their spending to businesses that align with their diets and ethics, the old guard of the jerky business will have to fight for shelf space. An anecdote Kang tells is a good example. During a visit to his parents' store several years after launching Country Archer, he saw that they still sold Slim Jims at the counter. When he asked why, they told him it was because his company hadn't released a competing meat stick yet.

Country Archer released one this year. "It's safe to say they don't have Slim Jims in the store now," Kang said.