Chicago’s Think Jerky is Leading an Artisanal Jerky Movement

Think Jerky

Beef jerky is making a very big comeback.

Not that it ever really went away, but it’s no longer consigned to the snacks-of-shame aisle at the truck stop and 7-Eleven. Once the mainstay of hunters, rig operators and hikers, beef jerky is now the low-fat, high-protein darling of paleo dieters and CrossFit fanatics. This ain’t your daddy’s Slim Jim.

Highland Park native Ricky Hirsch was looking for a new project. After 10 years spent in the high-pressure mortgage brokerage and trading fields — in New York, Miami, and, for the past five years, Chicago — he needed new motivation. Ever the entrepreneur, Hirsch wanted to find a niche food business to develop. He considered pastries (fattening) and pressed juices (truly messy), but settled on jerky, recognizing the trend toward lean proteins.

How popular has the gourmet jerky market become? A search on Amazon turns up more than 1,500 results, from beef and turkey varieties to elk, salmon and even alligator. The Beef Jerky Outlet in Dallas, recently featured on “NBC Nightly News,” carries hundreds of flavors and varietals, from pre-packaged to buy-by-the-pound, in flavors like Cherry-Maple Smoked Beef, Korean BBQ and Jalapeño Hunter Sausage. NBC’s “TODAY” referred to it (no joke) as “sexy.” Jerky has hit the big time.

Seeking a different angle, something to set his product apart, Hirsch considered the options. “What we eat, and how we eat it, is changing,” says Hirsch. “Everything really special in food is chef-driven.” But with no proven track record in food production, and no connection to the culinary world but his stomach and a love for good food, he had his work cut out for him.

Luckily, this was no barrier for Hirsch. To describe him as “intense” barely captures the laser-focused drive and vision he has for his new business, Think Jerky. Everyone else was already making flavored jerkys, but Hirsch’s big idea, previously unexplored by other gourmet jerky competitors, was to add prominent chefs to the recipe.

“Most trends start in New York and L.A., but I wanted something to start here (in Chicago),” says Hirsch. Undeterred by his lack of experience in the field, Hirsch started by boldly cold e-mailing all of America’s Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning chefs. “I was upfront with them from the start,” he shares. “When they had questions, I told them, ‘I don’t know yet, but I’ll figure it out.’ And I did.”

A number of chefs responded, and a back-and-forth ensued. But it was three-star Michelin NYC chef Laurent Gras and James Beard Award-winning chef and cookbook author Gale Gand that best understood his vision and took the plunge. “I live my life by feel, and I had an overwhelming, great feeling about them,” says Hirsch. He worked with the chefs to develop recipes to his specifications.

“I tried to actualize Ricky’s vision of more healthful jerky with chefs creating the flavors so they’d be more unique,” says Gand. “Ricky was always very excited to paint the picture that he could see very clearly about a new kind of jerky that’s lower in salt and sugar, with more tasteful packaging — no bull’s horns or flames — and I loved the idea from the start.”

Hirsch found his third chef-partner, farm-to-table expert Matt Troost, when he dined at Three Aces and fell in love with the flavor profiles of Troost’s food, notably the Short Rib Pizzetta. Hirsch may add another chef or two to the mix, but he worries that a special connection with his creative partners could be lost if too many chefs join in.

As it stands, there are three chefs and four distinct flavors: Gand’s Sriracha-Honey Turkey and Ginger-Orange Beef; Gras’ Thanksgiving Turkey and Troost’s Sweet Chipotle Beef, all selling in 100-calorie, 1.5-ounce bags for $4.99. All four chef-crafted varieties are gluten-free, with no added antibiotics or hormones. It’s a fabulous source of lean protein, and highly portable. Think Jerky’s motto, “Think Before You Eat,” rings true.

Think Jerky Flavors

After a final push through Kickstarter in November 2015, Hirsch launched Think Jerky in December with a great product and eye-catching marketing, graphics and packaging, all self-designed. A rapturous mention in the daily Urban Daddy newsletter caused the site to crash on the second day, and it was full speed ahead. Marcus Lemonis (of CNBC’s “The Profit” fame) bought a bag at the local Mariano’s — Think Jerky is now carried in all of their stores — and loved it, contacting Hirsch to talk future possibilities. Hirsch found a local distributor (Fortune Brands) and signed up 100 smaller, independent stores to carry his chef-crafted jerky. He’s sold it at Chicago’s monthly Dose Market since November, and has tirelessly shilled his product via social media and email (no exaggeration: he emailed 6,000 CrossFit gyms around the country).

How he found his way to the artisanal food business is “a mystery” to his parents, according to his father, Gary Hirsch, as apparently he would only eat fish sticks as a child. But they are impressed nonetheless. “He conceived of the idea, packaging, found suppliers and sold product completely on his own, while continuing his trading operations,” says the proud dad. “I believe the celebrity chef idea was genius.” He couldn’t resist adding: “His mother and I view our role as being supportive and keeping the pressure on him to find a nice girl to settle down with.”

To succeed in the cutthroat specialty food business, you need two things: a new and unique spin on a product, and determination. With Ricky Hirsch standing behind Think Jerky, it’s got all the earmarks of a winner.

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