"Most people are introduced to the snack by the time they're 11 or 12," said Jeff LeFever, director of marketing for Jack Link's dried-meat snacks. "And if you haven't been introduced to it by that age, you won't be."
Most girls -- including me -- weren't. But somehow my son, age 12 and, indeed, a Boy Scout, is totally familiar with the stuff. "It's awesome!" he said -- about a product that had never (as far as I knew) crossed our threshold.
"Stereotypically, people think it's a guy's snack," admitted LeFever -- an understatement on par with "Stereotypically, people think of childbirth as more of a girl thing."
Guy snack? Guy icon! Beef jerky defines the American male. It's rough, rugged, stinky, proud -- just like Jack Link's matted mascot, Sasquatch.
Jerky is the kind of thing guys share with their dogs (or possibly vice versa). It's sold in totally guy emporiums, too -- convenience stores, do-it-yourself depots, etc. Now aware of the whole salted-meat-snacks category, I looked for some at a suburban New York ShopRite last week and found just one sorry spine of it near the nuts.
Then I stopped at a Shell station and -- whoa! It was like a beef-jerky convention in there! Pork and chicken and beef in slabs and sticks and whips. Clearly guys know where to find jerky, and jerky is waiting for guys.
But lately Jack Link's, the category leader, has been working on a radical new marketing niche, one that has helped net it several consecutive years of 18% sales growth.
It's called women.
As Virginia Slims was to female smokers, so Jack Link's would be to female snackers -- the product that makes salty meat slabs seem as ladylike as a lunch of low-fat cottage cheese. Woo-hoo.
To this end, the company's flavor expert, Brian Carter, has been developing ever softer, sweeter products. Tenders and nuggets are forms "more acceptable for women and children," he said at a luncheon held recently in New York to introduce my gender to the wonders of dried meat.
Surrounding us were bowls of Carter's innovations: french-fry-size sticks of prime-rib-flavored "tenders," easy to chew as Bazooka. There were soft morsels of sesame-teriyaki chicken "nuggets" that tasted less like the American frontier and more like last night's Chinese takeout. Then there were the trendy flavors: sweet and spicy Thai jerky and Buffalo chicken nuggets and -- WHERE HAD THIS STUFF BEEN ALL MY LIFE?
I left the luncheon a changed -- and pungent -- woman.
To give other gals this same epiphany, the company hired Kris Clark, a nutritionist at Penn State University, who conducted a study of 100 female athletes.
Clark proceeded to give them each a 100-calorie package of Doritos -- very popular -- followed by Jack Link's latest marketing ploy: a 100-calorie package of beef jerky.
"When I gave them the meat snack, they would say, 'Is this OK for me to eat?'" Clark recalled. Once they tried it, though, the earth moved (or maybe it was their teeth). Two thirds of the gals swore that from now on, they're meat-gnawin' mamas.
Don't tell men, but beef jerky turns out to be an almost freakishly female food: low-fat, high-protein, more filling than chips.
Of course, it still looks like dog food and smells like smoked socks. But we've gotten used to men. We'll get used to jerky, too.