If you think of beef jerky as a last-resort protein to be bought at a gas station, Jon Sebastiani wants to change your mind.
Sebastiani, 42, represents the fourth generation of a Sonoma Valley wine family, and he vividly remembers when “60 Minutes" ran a segment in 1991 called “The French Paradox." In it, Morley Safer reported that consumption of wine, cheese and chocolate actually reduced the chance of heart disease, then a radical assertion.
“At the time, wine was considered just alcohol — it was bad for you," Sebastiani said. After the report, wine sales skyrocketed and the entire industry benefited, including his family’s business.
From that report, Sebastiani learned that it’s possible to change attitudes about a product, however resistant people may be at first. Now, two decades later, he is applying that lesson to his new business, Krave Jerky, a Sonoma, Calif.-based company that produces a line of beef, turkey and pork jerkies.
Sebastiani’s great-grand- father founded Sebastiani Vineyards in 1904, and his parents created the Viansa Winery in 1989. So how did he make the transition from wine to dried meats? His eureka moment came when he was training for the New York City Marathon in 2009. He had moved to the city after his family’s wineries were sold, in order to pursue a dual MBA at Columbia and Berkeley, a program in which students took courses at both campuses and received degrees from both schools.
To prepare for the race, Sebastiani began snacking on beef jerky — cuts of meat with fats and juices removed — that he ordered from a butcher in Sonoma. It was naturally high in protein, and unlike some commercial jerkies, it was not loaded with artificial ingredients.
Convinced that he could replicate on a bigger scale what the Sonoma butcher was doing, Sebastiani made Krave a case study in a class he was taking, taught by Steve Blank, a retired entrepreneur. When Sebastiani received a $500,000 order from Safeway midway through the course, he knew he was on to something.
He says his product is made from top cuts of domestic meats, with low sodium and featuring flavors like chili lime and sweet chipotle. He also emphasizes that his product, unlike many commercial jerkies, does not contain nitrites. A 1-ounce serving has 70 to 100 calories.
Sebastiani is positioning his jerky as a healthy snack that is every bit as highbrow as vintage cabernet. He has even created pairing suggestions. That chili lime beef jerky, for instance, is best accompanied by a Corona beer or a glass of Brunello di Montalcino.
Blank says Krave is among a few gourmet jerky companies, including Perky Jerky, which are “changing the perception of an entire category." He added: “It’s not just about branding, or changing the color of packaging. It’s actually changing how people think about jerky."
Old-school jerky makers are also upgrading products. In 2011, ConAgra Foods offered Slim Jim Steakhouse Tender Streak Strips, a more moist variation of jerky, to meet “increased consumer demand for innovative flavors and styles," said Jennifer Becker, senior brand manager for Slim Jim.
Changing consumer perceptions about a product category is “incredibly difficult to do," said Blank, who is on Krave’s advisory board. “A million things could go wrong."
According to Harry Balzer, vice president at the NPD Group, a market research firm, Americans do have “a great willingness to try something new, particularly if it’s a product they’re already familiar with." In the end, though, most new products fail unless they prove they can make people’s lives easier or save them money, he says.
But Sebastiani says the $4 billion meat snack industry is “ripe to be disrupted." He is encouraged by several other perceptual shifts in the wine industry, beyond the one prompted by the “60 Minutes" report. Screw-top wine bottles, boxed wine and American wines in general are now more respectable.
Several years ago, when some wineries began introducing screw-tops as a way to avoid “corked" wine — wine that goes bad after oxygen leaks in through the cork — the process was controversial and “against the grain of the industry," Sebastiani said. “But over time, there were a few influencers that converted to the screw-top, and once a real, credible influencer did that, it made it OK."
In late 2010, Krave became a real business with capital raised through investors and friends and family of Sebastiani. To market his product, he handed out samples at the finish lines of marathons and 10k races, and showed up at wine and food events where “we’re side by side with some of the most prestigious restaurants in wine country, and here we are a jerky company doing pairings."
Today, Krave is available in 15,000 stores across the country, including A&P and Walgreens locations and smaller, more specialized chains like Balducci’s. (It is also stocked in minibars at Four Seasons hotels.) More than 2 million bags, at $5.99 to $7.99, were sold in 2012, Sebastiani says.
He acknowledges that his new career has earned him some razzing from former wine colleagues.
“I think I got a few raised eyebrows when I quietly announced I was going to do this," he said. “There was a little bit of a shock factor. There’s something so glamorous about being in the wine business, and there is perhaps something unglamorous about being in the jerky business. But that’s why I’m having so much fun with it."