Katie Levesque has always really enjoyed beef jerky, but as a college student at the Ohio State University Lima Branch she did not always have the funds to purchase her favorite snack. To address this situation, she started making her own.
“I found this article about how I could make jerky at home in the oven,” she said. “I had to support my jerky habit. It is hard to find good jerky and it’s expensive. I solved those problems by making my own.”
During college, Levesque participated in a fundraiser that got her jerky a bit more notoriety.
“Everyone else brought in cookies and cakes and I brought in beef jerky,” Levesque said.
The beef jerky was a hit at the fundraiser and soon she was taking orders. She began selling her jerky.
“I was a full time college student and I would spend all of my extra money on jerky supplies,” she said. “That would provide me income when I was studying the rest of the quarter.”
Her jerky sales really took off from there.
“I asked a couple of store owners if they would sell it for me and they said, ‘Yes.’ It went well, so I made more. Then I started renting out part of a kitchen in a pizza shop. That allowed me to make it in a commercial kitchen. Then I thought I was doing it right, but I still wasn’t. When you are 19, you take action and ask questions later. I had 50 stores in Lima selling my beef jerky and people were still calling me. I dropped out of school. That is when the Ohio Department of Agriculture showed up at the pizza shop. They shut me down,” Levesque said. “My customers still wanted my product, but I had to do it legally. Then I did two things: I found a co-packer and started a business plan. I found a local smokehouse. They had to take my recipe and make it and they would get me the end product. I didn’t have control of it, though, not really. The quality was not there. It didn’t meet my needs. It was a great learning experience, but it was the beginning of the end for that cycle. I went back to school to finish my engineering degree. That paved the way for all the years that followed. I worked in heavy manufacturing for the next several years and I learned so many things. I focused on marketing and customer service in those roles as well.”
She enjoyed her work, but she also still really enjoyed beef jerky. Her career had taken her to the Columbus area and allowed her to save up some money.
“I found out about the rental kitchens in Columbus, which opened the door again to allow me to do a market test. I did a test run at the North Market,” she said. “There are always bumps in the road, but I realized that the dream was still there. I jumped back in with all the enthusiasm. That is what I wanted to do, but there were definitely hurtles. I had to find a commercial space. I had to learn to navigate all the rules and regulations from the USDA.”
After re-discovering the potential market for her premium jerky products produced in the proper manner, she decided to jump back into full time beef jerky and snack food production. She bought the necessary equipment and rented space in a Hilliard facility on the west side of Columbus. She now employs four people.
“In December two years ago I bought all of the big equipment and we came here,” Levesque said. “I literally just bought commercial versions of the same equipment I used in college. We have not automated anything. Even our cooking equipment is just a larger version of what we had. I did it the same way now as I did it in college. The only magic, if there is any, is that I still make it the old home style way. Some people change the process and that changes the product. The magic is that we didn’t change anything. We use electric dehydrators. We use a standard manual meat slicer. We slice the meat, marinate for the different flavors, dehydrate then pack it in vacuum sealer.”
While the recipes and methods are the same, the procedures have changed dramatically.
“We get inspected every day. We have tons of paperwork and procedures to follow. Getting everything approved and remaining in compliance always keeps us on our toes. A lot of people don’t realize this when they are getting into the industry,” she said. “Being an engineer, I have a procedure for everything. When I talk to people about the Department of Agriculture and the regulations, you have to remember that they help us do what is right for food safety. I impart the seriousness of food safety on my staff. We could make a lot of people sick and we have to take that responsibility seriously. This is not a joke. We have fun, but food safety is not funny. The rules are there for a reason.”
Katie’s Premium Jerky and Snacks now offers more than 40 different products (including traditional beef jerky, dried pineapple, and wild game in numerous flavors) and co-packs for several other businesses.
“Beef is definitely the biggest seller but the other ones are growing. The dried pineapple is getting popular. We do bison, elk and venison. We are working on alligator,” Levesque said. “Sourcing our meat is tricky. We can’t use meat unless it is from a federal plant. We try to use local meats when possible. We get bison from Grassroots Bison in Covington and they get me elk from an Illinois farm. We mostly buy wholesale beef but we are working on local grass fed. We use all eye round for our jerky. There are a lot of other cuts you can use, but it is a quality thing for us.”
Consistency is important with procedures and production.
“We start production around 5:30 or 6 in the morning. We go for 12-hour days. The reality of day-to-day equipment failures is a challenge. When you have an unexpected shut down, you have to have back ups for everything. From a manufacturing standpoint we stay as steady as possible. Our product is shelf stable and has a long shelf life. We have the ability to stay pretty consistent because of our product. Our ebbs and flows are customer demand. Our lowest demand is in January and it climbs after that,” she said. “In January, people are not buying gifts, they are not outside hiking, touristy places have all died down, and everything drops off. As people get out and about more, they eat more jerky. They want high protein snacks to stay in shape. We start preparing for growing demand about a month ahead. The demand is a very steady climb from January though December — jerky is a great gift.”
With solid production procedures in place, Levesque is now working to improve the marketing efforts of her business.
“Ohio Proud helps tremendously. Their support and the time they have spent giving me ideas has been great. The number one thing they have done has been getting me into markets,” Levesque said. “Our beef jerky is sold all over the U.S. in different specialty stores and we ship off the website and through Amazon. We’re in places like Jungle Jim’s in Cincinnati — that is a fun store to be a part of. That might be my top retailer. We are having a great response from health supplement store Supzilla. Specialty jerky stores are also good sales for us. We are in Kroger stores as well in the Cincinnati area.”
Her favorite way of marketing her products, though, is face to face.
“The best way to have an impact is to sell directly to your customers. There are so many farmers markets and festivals around here so there are chances to direct market. I also go to Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana and Louisiana to home shows, spicy food shows, health shows, gluten free shows, outdoor shows, and fairs. With people working for me now I can get out and travel for longer periods of time. I think a balance of the travel and the production are both important. I am probably gone at trade shows 30% of the time. I also work on new product development, purchasing, customer service, marketing, the website, emails, and literature.”
Now by the book, Katie’s Premium Jerky and Snacks has succeeded far beyond the reaches of her former college beef jerky business. Her products have won over 60 awards in competitions around the country and internationally and she continues to move forward in expanding the business.
“My favorite quote is, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ I remind myself of that all the time,” she said. “You just handle one challenge at a time and move forward.”