At last week’s U.S. PGA Tour event along the Georgia coast, players were treated to a Southern lunch of fried chicken, black-eyed peas and collard greens at Sea Island Resort.
Once on the course, players were able to snack on Kingmade beef jerky from Jeff King, a professional caddie who is trying to make a high-end snack food business out of $175,000 in seed money, his personal recipe and its popularity among top pro golfers including Tiger Woods.
“I’m making sure everybody gets some,” Davis Love III, the tournament host and 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, said in an interview. “The stuff is getting more and more popular out here.”
King, who has caddied on the PGA and women’s LPGA tours since 1998, created a loyal customer base for his gourmet beef jerky among golf’s best players. His Kingmade Jerky, which sells for as much as $54 a pound, was introduced in the U.S. four months ago and has been gaining popularity as the $2 billion a year packaged-meat-snacks market is experiencing a 10 percent boost in annual sales. It’s a simple coincidence, he said.
“Total pot luck,” said King, 40, who became a caddie after working as a teaching pro in Florida. “What are the chances?”
Kingmade Jerky hit store shelves July 26 with a tag line boasting of its “superior sustenance for active sophisticates.” While it’s mostly distributed in golf shops and out of the trunk of King’s car, his jerky is also sold in about 400 U.S. locations, including Austin, Texas-based health food Central Market stores.
Within 12 months, Kingmade Chief Executive Officer Adam Papazian, who met King while playing competitive golf together in Dallas in 2002, said he expects the product to be in about 4,000 stores, including major retail grocery stores. Papazian, 39, said he has spent the past 18 years in the food business, helping national retailers build brands, was co-founder and CEO of an international fruit importing business, and is the son of a California fruit and vegetable broker.
“We’re really setting the company up to be a real commercial product that has coast-to-coast distribution,” Papazian said in a telephone interview.
Similar to many upstart food companies, King’s business began in his kitchen, where he used a dehydrator purchased at a Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World Inc. store in Texas to create his custom-seasoned jerky out of beef flank steak strips. Most jerky is made from “utility” grade meat.
After being unable to find a processing plant capable of mass producing the jerky to his standards, King loaded up his supplies for a nine-hour drive from McKinney, Texas, to C&C Processing Inc. in Diller, Nebraska.
With the plant’s employees taking notes as he detailed his jerky-making process, King slept on the plant president’s couch for three days. When they finally sent over a finished batch, the future of his business hung in the balance.
“I was scared to open the bag,” King said. “This was it. It was either going to work or not. When I opened the bag, it smelled like my kitchen. I was, like, yes!”
If he can get his product into enough stores to make it profitable, King said, his long-term plan would be to sell the company.
“We’re not even close to what we’ve set out to be,” King said during a recent lunch in Atlanta. His phone buzzed with text messages from PGA Tour players, including one he said was from 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell.
“He needs some bags because he’s going to Dubai and then Australia,” King said.
The caddie has some competition, as the popularity of jerky is getting the attention of major food companies.
“Protein snacks are important, and savory snacks are a growth area,” Tim Ramey, an analyst with D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon, said in an interview. “People want something that’s salty but not fatty and has some protein to it.”
In September, Chicago-based Hillshire Brands Co. purchased the gourmet jerky maker Golden Island for an undisclosed amount.
“Historically, jerky has been really all about teenage boys,” Hillshire Brands Chief Executive Officer Sean Connolly said in an interview. Golden Island “is representative of an emerging market in jerky, which is the adult consumer.”
Health and wellness trends in foods are driving that demand, Connolly said.
Like Kingmade, Rancho Cucamonga, California-based Golden Island uses more premium cuts of meat and less sodium than other brands that sell for less. Unlike Kingmade, Golden Island is sold at Costco Wholesale Corp. stores, giving it a distribution advantage even before Hillshire Brands, with its $3.9 billion in revenue, flexes its muscle at retail to win new shelf space. Connolly said he hasn’t heard of Kingmade.
“There are a million of these little boutique jerkies out there,” he said. “A lot of them have good marketing. The product doesn’t always live up to the packaging.”
While King’s jerky has less distribution than his bigger competitors, it’s popular with the PGA Tour’s top-ranked golfer. Woods has been snacking on it since Lance Bennett, who caddies for six-time PGA Tour winner Matt Kuchar, handed the world’s No. 1-ranked player some in August at the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. Woods kept coming back to Kuchar’s bag for more, Bennett said.
“He wouldn’t stop eating it,” said Kuchar, who was among the many players to urge King to start a business. “Finally, I had to tell him, ‘Hey, save some for me.’”
After Woods and Kuchar were photographed sharing a bag during the Presidents Cup matches at Dublin, Ohio, in September, the company sent the photo out on its social media sites.
“It kind of blew up after that,” said Scott Brown, a PGA Tour rookie who met King while he was caddying on the second-tier Web.com Tour. Mark Steinberg, Woods’s agent, declined to comment on his client’s taste for jerky.
Kingmade is seeking the upper end of the snack food market: It sells for $3.56 an ounce on the company’s website; Golden Island costs $2.33 an ounce on its website. Jacks Link’s, the market leader made by closely held Link Snacks Inc., sells for $1.61 an ounce on Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s website.
U.S. retail sales of beef jerky reached about $1.2 billion in the past year in measured store channels, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market researcher. More than half of those sales were by Jack Link’s.
Kingmade isn’t the only jerky with golf connections. Brian Levin, the brother of David Duval’s caddie, Ron “Bambi” Levin, created Denver-based Perky Jerky in 2007. Duval has endorsed the product, which includes energy-boosting guarana plant among its ingredients.
Levin’s jerky is carried in more than 17,000 stores in the U.S., including Target Corp. and Home Depot Inc.
King said he has spent about $20,000 of his own money over the past two years making and shipping jerky to players and friends. He said he hasn’t turned a profit or paid himself a dime, and has a group of seven family members and friends backing him as investors.
While King said he’s enjoying his alter ego as “the jerky guy,” he isn’t ready to quit his day job.
This week, King will be carrying a golf bag for PGA Tour rookie Scott Stallings in Mexico. He’ll also have plenty of bags of jerky for sale.
“I’m a caddie,” he said. “One hundred percent. I want to win on the PGA Tour. Beef jerky is super-cool, but I didn’t mean to do it. Could it be an end-all to caddying? Yes. But right now, that’s not even reality to me.”