In 2014, Inc. Magazine ranked KRAVE Jerky 4th on its Top Food & Beverage Companies list as part of its annual Inc. 5000 list. With approximately 60 employees and nearly $35M in revenues, this middle market company has transformed the jerky industry. With flavors like Basil Citrus, Black Cherry Barbecue, and Lemon Garlic, it’s no wonder KRAVE has experienced double digit revenue growth over the past three years. To learn more about this unique company, the National Center for the Middle Market spoke with KRAVE’s Founder & CEO Jon Sebastiani.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how KRAVE Jerky started.
I actually started my career in the wine industry which is fantastic but very crowded and capital intensive. My family owned a vineyard and that’s where I developed my appreciation for and love of food and great flavors. Growing up in the Sonoma Valley, you become very comfortable with food and wine, just like those growing up in say, Palo Alto, might be comfortable with technology. It’s engrained in the culture.
When I was in my thirties, my family decided to sell the vineyard which forced me to think about what I wanted to do next. As an entrepreneur, I knew I wanted to start something from scratch and this was the perfect opportunity to do just that. I had a blank canvas in front of me and the possibilities were endless.
Around the time my family sold the wine business, I was training for the New York City Marathon. The proper training was essential but my diet became just as important. Jerky became my go-to snack of choice for its functional use. It was high in protein and low in calories, creating an excellent source for sustained energy. What I came to realize is that jerky was completely misunderstood. The average consumer viewed it as a junk food when, in fact, it can become a healthy snack if you use the right ingredients. That’s really where I came up with the idea to transform jerky and ultimately how KRAVE Jerky began.
At the time, the jerky market consisted of three major brands that held a combined 80% market share. It was very much a market in need of disruption and new ideas. I saw a unique opportunity to breathe new life into a product that had become stale by creating a jerky that had unique flavors without preservatives.
What makes KRAVE different from the competitors?
Aside from the fact that our jerky is all-natural, I think our innovative flavors and cosmopolitan packaging definitely make us unique. Unlike our competitors, I’d say our flavors have deep culinary roots.
What are the biggest challenges KRAVE has had to overcome?
I think our biggest challenge was overcoming the negative stigma associated with jerky. We kept hearing consumers say, “I don’t eat jerky because it’s a junk food.” What was amazing is that when they actually tried the product, they were blown away by the calorie count and the taste. We were able to compare our product to other snacks and easily deliver more protein with less sugar.
Manufacturing the jerky was probably our second biggest challenge. It takes time and there isn’t a ton of excess capacity, so building out a manufacturing network to scale the business was a challenge.
What factors have been instrumental to your success?
The three that stand out are: access to capital, our people, and the packaging of our product.
Access to capital is crucial for any business but it has been especially important for KRAVE because we are still pre-profit. We wrote our business plan much like Uber. We knew we needed to seize market share while we were highly relevant and we would experience economies of scale later. So access to the funds necessary to fuel our growth has been key.
Having the right team has also been very important. The brand can’t succeed without them and I have been very blessed to be able to hire the individuals that we have on board. We are an exciting, young, brand whose mission is to deliver a satisfying and healthier snack. The individuals who work at KRAVE really live the brand.
Last but not least, our packaging has played a critical role in our success. If you look at the wine business, for example, most consumers pick bottles by looking at the labels. So we knew it was important to invest in our packaging. We needed a design that would draw customers in and I think our current packaging does that.
How do you attract and reward the right employees at KRAVE?
We are very aggressive in our option package for employees. We are also very open about the fact that the goal is to sell the company and everyone who works for us will benefit when that day comes. Those two things create a close knit team because we all win together.
What do you look for in potential candidates?
At KRAVE we encourage everyone to be themselves but the common thread is our “fire.” We look for candidates who want to be part of something extraordinary and have that drive and excitement. We have very clear objectives and need 100% of everyone’s collective focus.
Experience is important but isn’t crucial. It’s even more important to make sure that they are the right fit.
What’s next for KRAVE?
We will stick with meat but plan to innovate. As our eating habits have changed over the years, it’s become more common for individuals to grab a bar for lunch. Consumers are also more aware of empty calories. We plan to launch a bar with meat in it that will deliver more protein than the alternatives and with fewer additives.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs like yourself?
My advice is to get out from behind your desk. Talk to your target market to make sure they actually want your product. In my case, I had to ask consumers if they really wanted to eat a premium jerky. What I learned not only saved time but also money. I would just encourage them to get out there and talk to potential buyers!
To learn more about KRAVE Jerky or to try it for yourself, visit www.kravejerky.com