Jason Burke looked in the mirror one day in 2009 and decided he needed to lose some of the 205 pounds he had amassed on his 5-foot-10 frame. That decision changed his life.
Now 31, he has a new career as part owner in a beef jerky company he launched from his kitchen to help him shed about 40 pounds. He says he's a whole lot fitter and happier than he's ever been.
Formerly from Tampa, Fla., Burke came to Charleston in April 2008 with wife Kristin on a first-time visit. They never left.
He quit his financial services job in Florida and took a sales position at the software firm Blackbaud. His wife started a photography business out of their Daniel Island home.
"I decided to change my diet completely," Burke said.
He eliminated grains, sugars and starchy foods and went for high-protein, low-carbohydrate options. A little exercise helped, too. In switching diets, he said, he ate healthier snack foods on the go such as trail mix and beef jerky to avoid vending machines and fast-food restaurants.
That's when Burke said he realized that almost all the beef jerky he found on the market came from grain-fed cattle, the same fattening stuff he was trying to rid from his diet.
So, Burke decided to make his own jerky at home.
He bought a $35 dehydrator and a vacuum sealer for less than $100 and started looking for grass-fed cattle. He contacted a Kingstree farmer and bought a few pounds of meat.
Still working at Blackbaud, in his off-hours and on weekends he experimented with at least 50 marinade recipes in the next few months before sticking with one he liked.
"For three months, the only things in my refrigerator were red meat and gallon jugs of marinade," Burke said.
The one dehydrator evolved into six. "When all of them were on at the same time, it sounded like a plane going off," he said.
He slept on the couch many nights, getting up every hour to rotate the trays of beef.
He started taking the finished product to work, offering it to friends and then selling it in 2-ounce, vacuum-sealed bags for $4 a pop. He didn't sell a lot, maybe 50-100 bags a week. But it was enough to pay for the beef and bags.
"We realized we might be on to something," Burke said.
He put up a website and started contacting state and federal regulatory agencies about food production.
Burke and his wife thought a health food store on Daniel Island would go over well and were going to call it the Happy Apple. That's the brand they first used for the beef jerky.
"When I put up the website and started doing research, it occurred to me that jerky was going to be a much more viable business than a health food store," Burke said.
While checking into federal regulatory requirements, he learned he could process food only during normal business hours because that's when food inspectors are on duty. That wouldn't work for him because he could do it only after hours.
He knew he couldn't afford to quit his job, and he couldn't do it on his own.
Meanwhile, one night his wife went out with friends and came back home to say they all told her she smelled like a smokehouse.
"I thought smelling like barbecue was pretty fantastic," Burke said with a laugh. She told him, "You have to get this stuff out of our house."
Trial and error
The search began for a new location. They rented a 1,500-square-foot space on Clements Ferry Road. His wife processed the meat on Thursday and Friday. After hours, Burke packaged and filled orders.
Burke thought if he just scaled up the ingredients in his special marinade for the larger amounts of beef he was processing, it would work. It didn't. "The jerky was terrible," he said.
He started calling around and found a company in Utah that knew how to perfect the marinade in proportion to the amount of beef. The firm made the jerky there and shipped it to Charleston for packaging. Burke decided to call the new beef jerky The New Primal, a nod to early gatherers and hunters who ate food without chemicals and preservatives.
The process of perfecting the jerky took about a year but by 2010-11, they were receiving orders from Hawaii to Afghanistan.
In the meantime, they decided to switch where the jerky was made from Utah to California. Grass-fed cattle from Oregon and Washington state provided the beef.
"We had developed a little bit of a following, but the biggest challenge was taking it to retail," Burke said. "How do you package nuts, fruit and jerky without it going bad?"
They wanted packaging to look different from other beef jerky products.
"We thought ours was elegant and clean and wanted that to come across," Burke said.
They finally received advice that oxygen absorber packets inside the bags would help the mixture of dried fruit, nuts and jerky stay fresh for up to a year. With that, packaging was designed using craft paper in early 2012, and by the end of summer, Burke had quit his job at Blackbaud and hit the streets of Charleston.
"I went down King Street with bags in my hand asking them to sell my beef jerky," Burke recalled. "I had a little bit of blind faith and was passionate about the product."
By the end of 2012, he had about three dozen retailers carrying his product in 2.5-ounce bags with a suggested retail price of $6.99.
Now, a new spicy product is being launched along with staples such as pineapple, cranberry and mango fillers and added raw almonds and cashews in new brightly colored, plastic packaging. The New Primal is sold in 500 stores, including 35 in Greater Charleston, and across 42 states.
The fledgling company's biggest customer is Publix supermarket. The Florida-based chain carries the product in 288 stores across the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee. Burke was offered the 755-store Florida market, but knew he wouldn't be able to meet the demand at the time.
He will enter 150 stores in the Fresh Market chain in June and is about to be on the shelf in 250 Vitamin Shoppe stores across the country.
He is now looking to expand the 600-square-foot operation on Charleston's upper peninsula in the Cru Catering building off Meeting Street to a new facility with a loading dock, eventually add more employees to the four there now and start with about half of the Publix stores in Florida.
Burke expects the business to gross $1.5 million this year, grow to about $5 million next year and keep growing as the gluten-free, Paleo food niche market expands from $29 million in 2012 to $300 million by 2018, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
One of Burke's packagers, Tucker Strom, said, "It's refreshing to work for a young company with young leaders in a great city."
Co-worker Ashley Lorance added, "We have our hands in every part of the business."
Strom and Lorance make about 500 packages a day.
Burke has no regrets about leaving his sales job and launching the business.
"This is the most fun I have ever had in my life," he said. "It's a daily roller coaster, but the bigger picture is that we can use beef jerky to help save the planet and watch what we put in our bodies."
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.
Jason Burke, co-owner and founder of The New Primal, a preservative-free, all-natural beef jerky, helms the company business on Charleston’s upper peninsula. The firm expects sales to reach $1.5 million this year.×
Tucker Strom packages beef jerky at The New Primal, a preservative-free, all-natural-product business set up on Charleston’s upper peninsula.×
Ashley Lorance and Tucker Strom package beef jerky at The New Primal, a company Jason Burke launched in 2009 from the kitchen in his Daniel Island home. The grass-fed product helped Burke lose weight for a healthier lifestyle. The business is located on Charleston’s upper peninsular.×
Jason Burke, at 205 pounds, is pictured with his wife, Kristin, in this 2009 photo (left). At right, Burke shed 40 pounds in about 10 months by moving to a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, a move that led him to found The New Primal beef jerky company in Charleston. The jerky is made from grass-fed cattle instead of grain-fed cattle and has no preservatives or artificial ingredients.×