Jack Links employeesYou should never mess with Sasquatch. Unless, of course, he’s your spokes…creature …

In 2006, Link Snacks Inc. — manufacturers of Jack Link’s Beef Jerky — launched one of the more memorable advertising campaigns in recent times: “Messin’ With Sasquatch”.

The well-recognized commercials feature an often short-tempered Sasquatch reacting to being pranked by consumers of Jack Link’s Jerky who happen to stumble on him while camping, hunting and the like. Not a single prank ends up well for the jokesters, with Sasquatch often vengefully propelling an object — or a prankster — quite a distance at a high rate of speed.

Almost poetically, Sasquatch has proffered the same propulsion to Link Snacks and the Jack Link’s brand — yet with a monumentally positive outcome (rather than a face-plant or injury, as often happens in the commercials).

From its humble beginnings in the North Woods of Wisconsin, Link Snacks has grown quickly to become the No. 1 U.S. meat-snack company with a global empire that continues to develop today.

Its success since founder and chairman of the board, Jack Link, opened the company’s first processing plant in 1986 in Minong, Wis., has been nothing short of outstanding. However, the boost that Jack Link’s Beef Jerky has received in recent years — partially attributed to Sasquatch — combined with the company’s attention to quality, operational advancement and top-notch product innovation, is the primary reason that Link Snacks Inc. has been named the 2014 Processor of the Year by The National Provisioner.

A jerky revolution

Terry Smith, executive vice president of operations for Link Snacks, believes the growth of the company was a long time in the making. Smith owned the Alpena, S.D., jerky processor, Dakota Trails, which was purchased by Jack Link’s in 1994.

“Jack Link’s did not invent beef jerky, but it is the first company to put beef jerky into a gold-standard, level playing field, where every bag of beef jerky was going to be consistent time and time again — and it was going to have the highest moisture, the greatest shine and the freshest product inside,” he says. “That’s [how] Jack Link’s really changed the beef jerky market — it revolutionized it by bringing products to market way better than anybody before.”

Brian Pitera, COO, echoes Smith’s sentiments when he discusses why Jack Link’s Beef Jerky has done so well in the marketplace. Innovation, marketing and branding, and the spectrum of product varieties play heavily in favor of success for the company.

“We have a product that accommodates anybody’s taste, whether it’s the traditional beef jerky, the tenders, the small batch, the sticks, the steaks — that variety hits a lot of different palates and tastes,” Pitera explains. “Then you add the brand awareness, and you have a winning formula.”

Jack Link’s has been able to grow its brand awareness through its advertising campaigns, but the company’s success was not built on Sasquatch’s shoulders alone, Pitera says.

“For a relationship-based company, we are very self-disciplined, each of us is a steward to the business, and we think about the company,” he adds. “What has made Jack Link’s successful is our team members being passionate about the brand and products and trying to, with a sense of urgency, get new products and new innovation into the marketplace quicker than anybody else.”

Alpena the workhorse

When it comes to high-volume jerky production, Jack Link’s has spared little time or expense in improving its Alpena, S.D., plant — while some jerky processing occurs in the Minong, Wis., facility, the Alpena plant is the go-to for modern, high-speed jerky production. In fact, when Smith says Jack Link’s revolutionized the jerky industry, he is directly complimenting the Alpena team’s efforts over the past 20 years and beyond.

Jack Link’s first entered this small town about an hour southwest of Huron, S.D., in 1994, when it purchased the Dakota Trails jerky plant in the center of town. By 1999, jerky volume at Jack Link’s had increased, but the facility couldn’t grow any further, and the company built a green-field facility on the north end of town, at the current location.

Expansion of the brand new facility began almost immediately after production moved in, with additions made in 2000, 2005 and 2012, which brought the footprint from 40,000 square feet to the 140,000 square feet that it is today.

Rick Tebay, another former Dakota Trails manager who is now the Alpena plant manager, says the employees in Alpena have handled the turbulent nature of the business and the hard-driving goals that Alpena strives to attain as a high-volume, high-quality facility.

“Our core team really delivers the culture — we’ve got a lot of people at 10 years or more working here, and they’re still pretty young,” Tebay says. “They know the culture, and they know how to get that culture back to the new hires. Those supervisors with the history here are our biggest asset; they’re young, they’re aggressive and they’re ready for anything.”

“Anything” certainly describes some of the accomplishments the facility has made over the years. Behavior-based modifications have allowed the plant to achieve “zero landfill” status in 2013 and bring down its baseline total incident rate to 0.6 in 2012 and 2013.

Furthermore, Jack Link’s has worked be a good neighbor to Alpena residents, having invested significantly in the water-treatment plant and also constructing a 19-mile natural gas line to convert the plant from liquid propane to natural gas. Not only will residents benefit from lessened greenhouse gas emissions, Tebay says, but the gas supply line allows the town residents to also convert to natural gas for their homes and businesses.

Big company, small-batch ability

Even product-related challenges have been little issue for the Alpena facility — the most recent being the launch of Jack Link’s Small Batch, Handcrafted Beef Jerky in August 2013. Smith says when Jack Link’s was developing the product, it made all the sense in the world to bring production to the Alpena plant, which had the room to expand and the expertise to make jerky in a handcrafted, traditional method — harkening back to the days prior to high-volume production.

“Employees had to understand that Small Batch would be an item that would not be heavily automated — it would be manually processed, small batch,” Smith says.

One factor that eased the transition, Tebay says, was the 2012 expansion, which was designed with Small Batch production in its crosshairs.

“We went into the expansion knowing we had to lay out the rooms to fit the needs of Small Batch, so it had a huge impact on what we were going to do,” he explains. “There’s a lot of extra labor to give this product that tender loving care, while keeping the high quality of the product, Jack’s signature blend.”

Small Batch paints a larger picture of how flexible Jack Link’s has been with its product line, Smith says — and the company will continue to be moving forward, always with an eye on how the different operational strategies might build off each other.

“We are high-volume manufacturer,” Smith explains, “but we also offer this product with a more traditional cooking process that customers demand.”

It’s that flexibility and variety, Pitera says, that keeps Link Snacks poised for future growth. So long as the company looks to the future in the same way that it has approached its business thus far, things ought to continue to motor on.

“How we have scaled this business and how it’s nearly doubled in size over the last five years, creating a well-known, national brand, yet keeping the quality and standard of  product throughout, has been a tremendous effort,” he explains. “One thing we’re really focusing on now is getting the right product to the right place at the right time as retailers continue to put more pressure on the industry.

“To date, we have just over 1,600 SKUs of finished goods,” Pitera adds. “Many capabilities are needed to manage that volume of product differentiation. Keeping up with those capabilities and managing that volume is what we will continue to improve on in the future.”

With its eyes fixed on the next level, Jack Link’s simply awaits the next boost to carry it higher. Globally, Link Snacks and the Jack Link’s brand continue to grow, and as it further develops its global identity (which is already strong, with international facilities and a recent acquisition in Germany — see link to podcast on page 32), there will be little reason to mess with this meat-snacks monster.

Marketin’ with success

How Jack Link’s R&D, marketing and “Messin’ With Sasquatch” campaign helped boost the meat-snack manufacturer’s successful run.

Kevin Papacek, director of marketing for Jack Link’s Beef Jerky, sat down with Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief of The National Provisioner, to discuss the role the company’s marketing and innovative flavor varieties have played in driving growth.

Hanacek: What success, from your perspective, over the past year to year and a half really shined the brightest for Jack Link’s?

Papacek: What shines brightest for me from the marketing side is our obsession with product quality and cleanliness throughout the manufacturing process. As marketers, we know that the last interaction a lot of our consumers have with Jack Link’s is the product experience.

{Product quality] has always been something we’ve been obsessed about and we’re going to continue to be moving forward. Consumers see our brand in a lot of different places, and we get feedback on how much they love the product; our product is such a great fit in their lives. Every time I pick up a bag of our product I know it’s going to be the highest quality and consumers will experience that every time.

Hanacek: The sheer amount of new products and new varieties and flavors released by Jack Link’s in the last couple years has been impressive. It seems that I’ve gotten a new release every couple months sometimes. What does the constant flow of innovation on the product side communicate to the outside world, and how does it fit in to the success story?

Papacek: We know that we have proven product winners that consumers love, but we also know that as a category leader we need to continue to put out innovative new products, whether it be new flavors or entirely new forms that consumers in that category haven’t seen yet. New products can also bring new consumers into the category. Innovation has always been a cornerstone at Jack Link’s — to bring new products into the category, and to bring new consumers into the category with that innovation. You will continue to see innovation from Jack Link’s going forward, as we know it’s something that will help our brand, our business and our consumer base grow.

Jack Links Beef JerkeyHanacek: Where does flavor and variety inspiration originate at Jack Link’s, and how do you properly pitch to customers the proper varieties for their consumers?

Papacek: We’re constantly looking at flavor trends to find the new flavors, starting in the restaurant industry. We also look at globally inspired flavors to see if they apply to meat snacks, and appeal to current and new consumers. With our new Wild Side flavors, we’ve launched a Sriracha flavor and a Burrito flavor. So we’re seeing some kind of flavor trends that are out in the marketplace and we try to bring those into the meat-snack category.

Hanacek: What hand has marketing and innovation played in the company’s recent success overall, and how do you measure that in terms of the actual effect on that bottom line of growth?

Papacek: Back in 2005, we started really advertising the Jack Link’s brand — we repositioned and redesigned the brand, and we really started selling it. … Our goal is to make more people aware of the brand and in turn the category. So we believe with our advertising in television, digital, social marketing, and with the “Messin’ With Sasquatch” campaign, we’ve definitely been able to see growth in our brand awareness and in sales.

From an innovation perspective, we continue to see it help drive sales and get incremental sales within the category. We continue to innovate, and we definitely have seen [that] contribute to our overall growth over the years, especially with some of the items becoming permanent parts of our portfolio.

Hanacek: What’s next on that marketing and innovation continuum — what are some of the cool things you’ve got going on at Jack Link’s that really have you excited?

Papacek: We’re continuing to look at different flavors and alternate proteins. We have our Wild Side flavors and alternate proteins, which we kind of consider a limited-edition type flavor. We’re definitely excited about our [recently launched] turkey product, which has done extremely well, and we launched an additional Sweet Teriyaki turkey jerky that is a great new flavor. On the marketing and advertising side, we’re starting some unique partnerships in spaces we haven’t played before.

Hanacek: How does the “Messin’ With Sasquatch” campaign fit into all these plans and the successful growth thus far?

Papacek: “Messin’ With Sasquatch” really has been our personification of the “Feed Your Wild Side” brand tagline, which we know means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The “Messin’ With Sasquatch” campaign has been very well received and has helped the brand grow — people recognize the brand and they recognize Sasquatch.

It’s something that breaks through from an advertising perspective. I’ve heard numerous times from many people that they see a lot of commercials, but they say, “I always remember those ‘Messing With Sasquatch’ commercials and I always remember it’s from Jack Link’s.”

I think that’s something that the company and the brand hit on back in 2006 when the “Messin’ With Sasquatch” campaign was started. It’s something we know is a great benefit to our brand, and it will continue to help us moving forward from a brand awareness and a growth perspective.