Blair Swiler and Dennis Riedel met as caddies on a Florida golf course, after a heart attack made Swiler rethink his high-stress corporate chef's job (and unhealthy eating habits). Here, Swiler describes how he and Riedel launched their protein-rich jerky as a ninth-hole snack--and turned it into a mass-distributed, celebrity-loved brand.
--As told to Leigh Buchanan
Change your habits
Growing up in Wisconsin, I ate a lot of jerky, and I started cooking it after college for my friends. Then I became a corporate chef: I worked long hours. I smoked. I weighed more than 300 pounds. One day on the golf course, I keeled over from a heart attack. I was 38. My wife insisted I quit restaurants. We moved to Florida, and I became a caddy at Calusa Pines Golf Club, in Naples. That's where I met Dennis, who was a caddy and a player. I was trying to eat healthier and started perfecting my jerky recipe: It was a softer jerky, and I developed a soy sauce without that yeasty, salty flavor. I'd eat it at work when I was schlepping bags of clubs and needed a protein boost. Members and other caddies asked to try it. Dennis loved it and hassled me until I gave him the recipe.
Dennis spent the summer of 2009 caddying at New Jersey's Bayonne Golf Club. Courses typically have a snack bar after the ninth hole, and Dennis persuaded the director of golf there that they could make good money selling jerky. They let him use an auxiliary kitchen for free to make the jerky, and they sold it in ziplock bags for $9. In September, Dennis called and told me we had a business. I moved to New Jersey, and we started churning out 200 to 300 bags a day. A Calusa Pines member staked us $10,000, and we bought a commercial dehydrator. I used chicken, turkey, pork, and bacon, and created flavors like honey barbecue and jalapeño cheddar. We used our contacts in golf to pitch other courses. High-end private clubs were skeptical, but eventually we sold to 45 of the 100 best clubs in America.
Swing for the stars
We're a regular presence at PGA events and have endorsement deals with professional players Kyle Reifers and Ryan Brehm. We've also attracted celebrity fans and investors from outside golf, including David Ortiz, formerly of the Boston Red Sox; Von Miller, of the Denver Broncos; and the actress Olivia Munn. Now we've expanded distribution to Costco, Safeway, Kroger, 7-Eleven. Our most important investor--and mentor--is Rohan Oza, the marketer behind Vitamin Water and Popchips, who came across our jerky at a country club snack shack. He taught us to think big. We had started out as Real Steak Jerky, but after working with him, we became Chef's Cut. That's our ambition: to expand beyond the meat category.