Welcome to the first installment of “Producer Conversations” on the CAIC blog! In the coming months, this series will highlight all of the participants in the upcoming Producers Growth Program cohort. First up: Eric Bowlus, the founder of Chew On This Jerky. A family-owned and disabled veteran-owned company, Chew On This is based in Maryland; currently, their products can be found in more than 130 stores in the mid-Atlantic region.
“A Hobby” Becomes Something More
Though his “love of the kitchen’s been forever,” Eric spent more than 45 years working in food manufacturing in his native California. But after being laid off, he found himself with some extra time on his hands, and began experimenting in the kitchen. “I just started making jerky,” he explains. “I don’t know where I got the idea, but I just started playing around with it. The wife would take it to work, and friends and family would buy it.” As word spread, Eric found that there was a growing demand for his products, and he sought to meet it: “I had one dehydrator, and I got a second dehydrator, and I got a third dehydrator.” A few years later, he called a family meeting to discuss the possibility of turning his pastime into an actual company. “Everybody agreed: Let’s see where this could take us,” he recalls. “And that’s how the company was started.”
At first, it continued to be a side project for Eric and his family, who were still working full-time jobs during the week. On the weekends, they’d take the jerky to car shows and other local events, where it earned rave reviews. “We were making money, and we were growing,” Eric says. As they expanded, he enlisted the services of a co-packer, who still “produces all of our product off of my [recipes].”
Moving East to “Jerky Country”
Soon, Eric found himself able to retire: “I hit that magic age,” he recalls. “It was time to stop working for people, and enjoy the beauty, and do a lot of the things I wanted to.” He and his wife made a cross-country move to Maryland, where their stepdaughter had been living for more than a decade, and took their growing company with them. “My intent was to keep me busy and occupied, and out of trouble,” Eric explains. Gradually, he began introducing his product to new audiences: “[We] started doing a couple little craft events, and getting the feel for it. And that’s when I realized: I was living in jerky country.”
From there, things began to snowball rapidly, with the help of contacts Eric made everywhere from farmers markets to church. “A couple stores” carrying the product soon multiplied into more retail locations, mostly in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia: “Last November, we had 20 [or] 25 retail locations,” he notes. “And as I’m sitting here today, we’re [in] 136.” Some stores have preemptively contacted Eric and requested to stock his product; three have even opted to stop carrying a large, nationally recognized brand in favor of Chew On This, while others have rearranged their jerky displays to highlight the product more prominently, above other brands. “That means a lot to us,” he says, discussing how happy he is to see store owners enjoying Chew On This. “We’re making our point, and you know, as people learn our product, they’re loving it.”
Seeking Sustainable Growth
Asked about the steady growth in popularity of Chew On This, Eric describes it as “sort of…a whirlwind.” Wanting to sustain and build on what he’d achieved, he found out about the Producers Growth Program through his work with the Allegany County Chamber of Commerce; learning more, he realized it could be a perfect opportunity to learn from the experts and fill in some of the gaps in his own skill set. “I’m skilled in a lot of areas, but the areas of business I’m not, I’ll be the first to admit it,” he explains. So he applied.
During his interview with the CAIC program advisors, as Eric discussed his current goal of getting his product into 200 retail stores, one remarked that Chew On This was “very capable of being a half-million dollar a year company.” Eric was floored, but excited: “Well, nice. I have some work cut out for me,” he recalls thinking. As the program start date approaches, he’s especially looking forward to learning from the instructors and mentors about aspects of running a business about which he knows less. “I can run a manufacturing plan and operations,” he explains. “I’m an ace at that. But when you get into the finance area and HR, [and] all these other areas they’re going to cover and work with, and teach, that’s what’s gonna be invaluable to me, [to] help me get to the next goal.”
As for those specific future goals, Eric is aiming to “hit the 200 stores and just keep building from there.” Part of that will involve finding a distribution center, and building up the kind of inventory that that would require. Recalling a comment that one of the program advisors made about how “some companies grow too fast,” Eric also notes that he’s seeking to avoid such scaling pitfalls, particularly after a year of solid growth. “That’s the other reason why so much of [the program will] be so imperative to me,” he explains. “Because that is sort of…a situation I’m in…[if] someone told me a year ago you’d be in almost 150 stores, then I would have laughed. I mean it was like, ‘yeah, right,’ but I mean, here we are sitting there.” He’s eager to work with his advisor to set concrete goals, and looks forward to being “able to take everything as I learn it, apply it right away…and see where it takes us to the next level. It’s offering so much, I need to absorb it all.”