Growing up in Utah, Marcos Espinoza just wanted to be normal. When he was in fifth grade, his New Mexican family opened Navajo Hogan, a Native American eatery in South Salt Lake, translating to long work hours for mom and dad — and full-blown “little restaurant rat” status for their son, who washed dishes and lent hands during catering gigs while the 9-to-5 parents of schoolmates enjoyed a more conventional day-to-day. “I wanted so bad to be normal, because all my friends were quote-unquote normal,” he says. “But now, that’s the last thing I want to be.”
Business-wise, at least. Espinoza, a married father of two, is now a 9-to-5er himself — he works as a cost estimator for a local construction company. “I really like my job,” he says. “But I also wanted to do something other than that, something involved with food.” He turned this desire into an impeccably branded reality earlier this year with Side Project Jerky (SPJ), a handmade snack that appeals to the polished, meat-masticating gentleman inside us all.
The project was birthed during the 2011 Christmas season, when Espinoza was hanging out at the home of Mark Novasack, an SPJ partner with a penchant for unconventional holiday handouts. “Mark said, ‘Instead of cookies, I give out beef jerky,’” recalls Espinoza, who watched as Novasack marinated hunks of beef and threw them, nice and easy, into a food dehydrator.
Espinoza, who’s maintained his culinary connection through his blog Fidel Gastro and various freelance writing gigs, immediately got to thinking: “How cool would it be if we could get some — for lack of a better term — ‘trendy’ flavors onto beef jerky?” He was already toying around with recipes when he met art director Dan Olsovsky in April 2011, at the ?uest Loves Food competition where Espinoza joined COOK’s Audrey Claire Taichman on the judges’ panel.
With Olsovsky’s branding guidance, Espinoza was able to nail down the specific approach of SPJ, which plays into the burgeoning caste of slow-crafted products some call “artisanal” — not just handmade, but well-made. “It’s part of Americana,” says Olsovsky of the classic dried-meat snack, typically more associated with hiking or camping than the urban contemporary profile SPJ’s going for.
That’s where the “Jerky for Gentlemen” tagline comes in. It’s “such a good differentiator,” says Espinoza. “Everything [in mainstream jerky] is NASCAR or messin’ with sasquatch.” The process further separates the product. Sourcing USDA Choice top round from Chestnut Hill’s Rice’s Meats and working out of a commercial kitchen in Wyndmoor, Espinoza applies marinades to his meat every Friday, lets it sit Saturday, dehydrates it Sunday and, “barring any prior commitments or hangovers,” vacuum-seals it for sale in the early part of every week. (Each package is wrapped in real architectural blueprints in a nod to his day job.)
Three varieties comprise the current SPJ canon. “We’re looking for flavors that aren’t too off-base,” says Espinoza. “We don’t want to be zany and wacky. We want to be good, different and interesting.” They start with Original, a simply seasoned entry that evokes Philly’s most iconic sandwich thanks to the inclusion of cheese powder. The sesame-studded Mongolian works with mainstream Asian flavors like soy, fresh ginger, garlic and scallions, while their Southwestern shouts out Espinoza’s upbringing, combining real-deal roasted green chile from Hatch, New Mexico with savory cumin and cayenne heat. (Every year, Espinoza’s parents road-trip to their home state to purchase huge quantities of fresh green chile, which they roast off, freeze and eat with every meal until the next pilgrimage.)
SPJ’s first retail placement came not in Philly, but in Brooklyn, where men’s store Hickoree’s Hard Goods retails two-ounce packages for $8 a pop. Back home, you can find the stuff behind the bars of Lemon Hill (747 N. 25th St.) and Lucky’s Last Chance (4421 Main St.), as well as online. And the brand’s engagement with local bars and restaurants comes to a tasty, thrifty head tomorrow, July 17, at 6:30 p.m., when the team hosts a “Meat and Greet” upstairs at Pub & Kitchen (1946 Lombard St.), with jerky samples, Sixpoint beers and gentlemanly conversation on the bill of fare.
Photos: Courtesy of Side Project Jerky