Since 2012, Marcos Espinoza and Mark Novasack have peddled refined batches of dried beef around the Philly food scene—and beyond— under their small-batch business, Side Project Jerky. They’ve taken beef jerky to couture levels with chef collaborations and high-caliber ingredients. But, after one year of recipe testing and enhancements, the prolific duo is back—and their product is better than ever before.
In honor of Side Project Jerky’s return to the snack market, we tapped Marcos Espinoza for a trip down beef-marinating lane. He passed along the scoop on the now-year-round pho variety, why you need to snag your share now and so much more.
Main Course: As if I need to say it, hallelujah that your pho variety of jerky is back in circulation. What went into perfecting and collaborating with chef Sean Magee for the newest reincarnation of this fan-favorite jerky?
Marcos Espinoza: It’s been a long road (and hence, the long story). The collaboration part was simple. Sean and I were Twitter bros, and I met him in real life at a Municipal Waste concert. When he found out we were looking for chefs to do limited run flavors, he pitched the pho idea. It was a perfect fit—especially when we tasted it—and he nailed the flavor profile. Between Sean’s reputation as a chef, the early good press and the fact what we were offering a pho flavored jerky, it literally sold out in a day. We wanted to bring it on full-time immediately, but we didn’t know what that was going to look like with our already full production schedule.
At the time, we were making our jerky in a restaurant kitchen during its off-hours, we didn’t have a whole lot of equipment and all of us had full-time jobs or school or families—or at least two out of the three. Needless to say, this wasn’t a sustainable business model, so we finally found a co-packer to meet our demand. It’s been great, but it’s not without its challenges.
Rolling out new flavors has been one of the more difficult things to accomplish when someone else is making your jerky. And with the collab, it’s not just Side Project’s reputation on the line, it’s Sean’s, so we wanted to make sure he was tasting every test batch along with us. After almost a year (and more than a few test batches and road trips), we’re super stoked to finally have it available.
Flashback to 2012 when the beauty that is Side Project Jerky made its official market debut. Besides the ambitions of making it the “it” jerky for gentlemen, where did the master plan to skirt into the artisanal small-batch dried-beef game come from? Give me the low down on your jerky-making history.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve wanted to make my own jerky since the first time I saw Ron Popeil’s food dehydrator infomercial. I never figured on making a career out of it, but a magic machine that would have jerky at your disposal? Sign me up.
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Then life happened and I mostly forgot about it until I finally got my own food dehydrator many years later. I made a few batches here and there, mostly for myself. Then life happened again and I moved onto cooking, kids, writing, whatever. The winter before we launched Side Project, I was at Mark Novasack’s (my business partner), and he was making jerky to hand out for Christmas instead of cookies. About the same time, my daughter decided she couldn’t sleep unless me or my wife was in the room. It gave me plenty of time to think, and my thoughts wandered to dried beef and how to make it better than what was out there, both from a flavor and texture standpoint and a marketing standpoint. It had to be more than just gourmet, it had to be jerky for gentlemen.
Your band of jerky-making brothers includes Mark Novasack. How did you two connect and birth such a marinated beef concept?
Mark and I met in New York City back in 2003. He moved down here a few years before I did and we wound up living in the same neighborhood (Chestnut Hill) almost randomly. Mark’s really the spark. If it wasn’t for him making jerky at Christmas, I think the whole jerky idea would have remained in the ether. It’s crazy how things happen, but I’m glad that they did (most days).
Part of the appeal of your high-caliber jerky is where it’s sourced. Where are you snagging the top rounds of USDA Choice beef? Do you make it your mission to keep your ingredients local?
We make sure that our co-packer uses beef from Lancaster County whenever possible, and we use whatever ingredients we can source locally.
Side Project Jerky has deliciously succeeded in tapping into the hip, cured meat market with flavors like cheesesteak and pho. What’s next? Can you offer us a tease of any additional chef collaborations on the horizon?
My main priority right now is getting our jerky in as many mouths as possible. Now that we’ve solved our supply issues and have brought the new flavors onto the full-time roster, we want to make sure that everyone knows they’re back.
Wild card: If someone reading this interview hasn’t tried your jerky (how dare they!), what five words would you throw at them to whet their appetite and leave them racing to snag their share?
Try a little tenderness. Now.
Grab your stash of Side Project Jerky in these area-wide stores (Paoli’s Trove General Store included) or online at www.sideprojectjerky.com.