–by Jonathan Eisenthal

_RHP7684As do most couples, Mike Davis and Mali Kouanchao have a unique love story. While the Tennessee Native and the Laotian- American were falling in love with each other, Davis also fell in love with something else—his in-laws’ Lao cooking. And while all of the family recipes were unique and tasty, it was Aunt Thaipet’s beef jerky that was the winner of his tastebuds.

“When my Aunt Thaipet makes it, she has a very specific technique and quality control,” explains Kouanchao. “She makes the beef jerky really thin. She uses lots of special seasonings and places careful attention to each piece of jerky.”

“I’ve never tasted anything like it. I was hooked on it instantly,” Davis says. “It’s sweet. It’s crisp. Everything I’d known about beef jerky growing up—the stuff you get at the convenience store or the truck stop—this was totally different. Even our friends became obsessed with it.”

Davis and Kouanchao knew there could be wide interest in this down-home Lao treat that could appeal to the gourmet foodie as well as the backpacker looking for a portable snack.

The Birth of Cool Jerk
The couple started kicking around the idea of commercializing the family recipe. In 2010, they were brunching at Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis and saw a flyer that announced a beef jerky competition.

“We took that as a sign,” says Davis. “We didn’t win, but we had a lot of support. That was the first push to creating Cool Jerk.”

The pair, who still keep their day jobs as a graphic designer (Davis) and a web designer (Kouanchao), started looking into ways to scale-up production to bring the jerky to market. In the process of cold-calling meat processors, Mali learned about AURI and the services it provides to Minnesota-based food entrepreneurs.

Cool Jerk had a unique problem, explains AURI Meat Scientist Carissa Nath, because it utilized a process that wasn’t typical of most beef jerkies. This made it more difficult to find the right processor.  Nath used her network of resources, including the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors and information from an AURI meat processing survey, to connect the couple with Big Steer Meats in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In addition to helping find the right co-packer, AURI scientists Ranae Jorgenson and Charan Wadhawan conducted the nutritional analysis and testing work required for labeling. Nath also continues with work to know the shelf life of the product.

Hitting the market _RHP1537

Davis and Kouanchao launched their product on the website cooljerk.net, where they made their first sales. They are actively seeking stores willing to carry their products and are currently in six locations in the Twin Cities. Cool Jerk will be in 11 different locations by the end of the summer.

The entrepreneurs are also getting the word out about Cook Jerk through various events including the Food and Wine Experience at Target Field, the North Coast Nosh at the American Swedish Institute, and the Food and Gift Show at the Grainbelt Bottling House. “It’s a great way to get our products in front of not only consumers but store owners, too,” explains Davis.

Flavor and process

Davis and Kouanchao have developed four distinct flavors:

  • Lemongrass
  • Native Lao Hot
  • Original
  • Sweet & Spicy

Working with their processor, Big Steer Meats, the couple simplify their process. “Even with the way they make it, it’s still quite laborious,” says Kouanchao. “We are working on solutions that will make it easier and therefore increase revenue as well.”

AURI’s Nath is also helping the couple develop and test a second line of jerky that will include non-GMO ingredients and no MSG. These changes would help get the product into food co-ops, which set stringent rules about their products.

“It was a lot of fun,” says Nath about working on Cool Jerk. “I enjoy helping to develop a product. I get to use my science background to help determine the right ingredients and cooking process to make the best possible final product.”

Next steps

To further develop their product and business, Davis and Kouanchao have applied for a grant from Minnesota Department of Agriculture for business development. They are also entering the Minnesota Cup, the largest statewide new venture competition in the United States. This is the first year that the competition has a division specifically for food, agriculture and beverage. The Cool Jerk team offered samples at the division’s fall kickoff and is now entering the competition, which takes place throughout the summer of 2014.

“The Minnesota Cup puts startups together with food professionals, people in the industry that will help guide or mentor the businesses, and help us with our business plan,” explains Kouanchao.  “That business plan will then be reviewed by a panel of industry experts.”

“When people try Cool Jerk, they believe in it and they back us 100 percent,” concludes Davis. “We just need to get it into more people’s mouths and minds.”

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w Group 2014AURI and Cool Jerk

Idea to reality:  Commercialize a family recipe for Laotian-style beef jerky to offer a new product that appeals to a wide audience seeking portable, convenient foods

AURI’s role: Innovation networking to connect the entrepreneurs with a meat processor who could help them, as well as nutritional analysis and labeling

 Outcomes: Cool Jerk will be in 11 different locations in the Twin Cities by the end of summer 2014. Check cooljerk.net to order online, too.