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In this episode of the Spilled Salt podcast, Maureen is joined by Kyle Peters, former founder of Carter & Oak ice cream and now Senior Director of Emerging Brands at Jack Link’s Protein Snacks. 

Food and beverage founders can relate to Kyle’s journey, one driven by passion and personal experiences.

Kyle’s entrepreneurial venture was born out of a deeply personal struggle. Facing his mother’s battle with cancer, he observed the nutritional challenges she encountered during treatment, motivating him to create a healthier ice cream alternative.

Bootstrapping his way into the industry, Kyle navigated challenges and witnessed the impact of COVID-19 on his business. Rising costs of ingredients forced him to reevaluate his strategy, leading him to consider fundraising. However, with a keen awareness of market dynamics, he wisely halted the process, realizing that external funding wouldn’t solve the underlying issues.

In this candid conversation, Kyle also emphasized the importance of understanding margins in different distribution channels. While the retail sector showed promise regionally, the challenges of scaling nationwide prompted him to reassess the viability of his business model.

After the closure of Carter & Oak, Kyle found himself at a crossroads, unsure of his next steps. He sent out applications for 935 jobs, searching for the right fit and using interviews as a tool for self-discovery. This relentless pursuit eventually led him to his current role.

Kyle manages a diverse portfolio of brands at Jack Link’s Protein Snacks, each with its unique story. He’s particularly excited about the upcoming rebrand of Larissa’s Kitchen. This allergen-free meat snacks line aims to instill confidence in a growing community of allergen-conscious shoppers. 

Kyle’s gratitude for his current position is evident, as he recognizes the life-changing nature of being content and fulfilled in his work. The overarching lesson from Kyle’s journey is clear – resilience, adaptability, and a willingness to explore diverse opportunities can lead to unexpected and fulfilling outcomes. 

Founders in the food and beverage industry can draw inspiration from his story as they navigate the dynamic landscape of entrepreneurship. As Kyle continues to shape the future of emerging brands, his journey demonstrates the importance of seeking purpose and alignment within the ever-evolving world of consumer packaged goods.

You can find Kyle on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kylecpeters.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited from its original form to support readability.

Maureen Ballatori: I’m Maureen Ballatori and this is Spilled Salt. It’s a podcast on the thrills and spills from the food beverage and agriculture industries. Today’s guest is Kyle Peters. He is a brand and marketing leader, a former founder. He’s a mental health nonprofit president as well. 

What I love about today’s conversation is that Kyle talks about his experience as a founder of an ice cream brand called Carter & Oak and his strategic approach to business for that company as well as the work that he’s doing now. 

After running his own company, he spent some time at Nestlé and he is now at Jack Link’s Protein Snacks as the Senior Director of Emerging Brands. So I love the parallels that he’s drawing there in terms of his entrepreneurial experience and the work that he’s doing now at Jack Link’s with those brands. 

What I would love for you to take out of today’s conversation is the part where we’re talking about finding fit. It’s something I’m deeply passionate about, the fact that life’s too short for work you don’t love. And Kyle subscribes to that as well. So we talk about how he found a role that he deeply loves, even though that’s different from what he thought it was going to be. Enjoy the conversation.

Hey, Kyle. Thanks so much for joining me today. I’m really excited to have you on the podcast. You’ve been busy and I look forward to talking about that today and some of the changes that you’ve made over the last handful of months. 

But let’s start with your background as a founder. Can you talk about Carter and Ope?

Kyle Peters: Hello, how’s it going? I founded Carter & Oak in October of 2016. I saw my mom battling stage four colon cancer, which she had fought for seven years. She passed in August of 2016 and that was really the catalyst for me starting the business. 

I’d seen after a treatment, she would have like a sore throat, a lack of appetite, high sensitivity to smell, and she was always turning to like ice cream, ice pops, pudding, different things like that, but they’re always super high in sugar, made with artificial ingredients, just things that weren’t good. And she didn’t want to drink any protein shakes – that wasn’t appealing to her. 

She was just routinely missing out on nutrition that she really needed. And so after she had passed, I was kind of struggling to find my next steps and what I was going to do with myself because I was doing at home hospice care pretty much full time with my dad for her.

I had to find a way to fill my time. That’s what my dad was always telling me. He was like, you just need to fill your time. You had something that was filling your time before now you don’t have that. You need to find this next step. 

I had always wanted to start my own business. I went to college for marketing. And so I always had that bug to start something. This really gave me a purpose. 

And so I blended the comfort and indulgence of the ice cream she was already eating with nutrition that she missed out on. I developed a high-protein, zero-added-sugar ice cream.

My goal was to not be like Halo Top and be in grocery stores everywhere. It was to be in every hospital on every patient tray everywhere. Natural grocery was going to be part of it, right? That was going to be complimentary. That was going to be where it was proven because the thing is you can’t just call hospitals and all of a sudden you’re on a tray next week, right? You can walk into an independent grocery store and you can be on the shelf next week. 

It was definitely tough because you go against maybe what your strategy is to get started, proof of concept and everything else. But in the background constantly working to partner with Aramark, partner with Sodexo, Compass Group, Flick, all those guys. 

So yes, we worked with natural groceries in the mid Atlantic. We worked with NFL teams because I played college lacrosse. And so I ate a pretty healthy diet myself and saw that there was obviously like a nice application to athletes and had a couple opportunities that were easier than maybe expected. And it was like, yes, this makes sense and goes along with the food service strategy. 

So we worked with NFL teams and then ultimately worked some like independent assisted living facilities, retirement communities. And then we did, at the end, get accepted by Aramark to work with two Philadelphia area hospitals and actually take the place of Hershey products on every patient tray in those couple Philly hospitals. 

That was at the very end. So we never ultimately got to see that through. But we did get accepted, the opportunity was there. And ultimately, that was ironically, like what kind of put the nail in the coffin, after supply chain issues and stuff like that after COVID. So I’ll pause there because that’s a lot.

Maureen: Wow, that’s huge. Yes.

I was going to say you hinted at that. You ended up closing the company. And so just to put sort of a period at the end of that sentence before I ask you a bunch of questions about what you just went through, what was the ultimate reason why you chose to close the company?

Kyle: Yes, I think it’s super important to know like I was fully bootstrapped, didn’t raise any funding, put a decent bit on personal credit cards, and got a few thousand dollars from my dad. And by a few thousand dollars, I actually mean like a few thousand dollars, not sneakily that I have a very rich dad who was writing me massive checks. He gave me a few thousand dollars to help out on packaging one time. And then I had a little bit of money saved up, myself. And that was like what got me started.

After COVID, we had seen an increase in our cost of goods. or some ingredients saw a 100% increase. Our whey protein isolate increased 100%, maybe even a little more than 100% at the time. Inulin from chicory root, that was even just tough to allocate, let alone the effect that it had on our margins because that had also increased in costs. 

When I was looking at how our margins were going to look like moving forward and how much we were going to have to be shelling out on these ingredients to make the product that we’ve been making and selling to customers. And by customers, I mean our retail partners or the food service partners. It just wasn’t going to make sense anymore. 

In food service, when my whole goal and the market I was going after was to be free to the end consumer, right? Being on a patient tray, you’re free to the patient. So it’s included in that contract that the food service operators signed with Sodexo and Aramark.

They only have a finite range that they’re willing to pay for that real estate on the tray. Even if it’s considerably better than the Hershey products and it’s not curing cancer. It might be helping people with cancer, but it’s not the thing that’s going to cure the cancer. So that range is not going to change. And we were not going to be able to fit within those ranges anymore due to the increase of costs. So for me, I was actually fundraising at that time. I was looking to raise my first million.

I had 10 or 20% committed in like the first couple of weeks, but I put the kibosh on it just because looking down, looking down at projections and forecasts and everything, it was going to ultimately just kick the can down the road. The cost of those ingredients were going to be the cost of those ingredients. Funding wasn’t going to solve that problem. 

Maureen: Right, yes, especially with the food service strategy, right? For the reason that you just explained, right? And I would love for you to kind of talk about that a little bit because you sold into both food service and retail. Can you talk about how the margins were different for both of those approaches?

Kyle: Yes, so in retail, we did pretty well. I just didn’t see it continuing nationwide. 

We did well regionally, but we were doing like 11 and a half units per SKU per week in the mid Atlantic. There was no way that was going to extrapolate out to the entire country and maintain. I just did not have confidence in that. 

I would think, based on the market and what some of the other better-for-you ice creams are  performing right now, I would say that assumption was probably correct. 

But margin-wise, there’s always nuances to categories. Especially what I’m learning right now in the category that I work in today. Margins are a bit different in retail than they were for me in frozen desserts. And also specific channels, right? So the conventional channel is different from the natural channel, which is different from the out-of-home channels, like all retailers or C-stores.

They’re all very different. There’s all a lot of nuance. I just talked to an online natural retailer that says it takes 43%. I like to account for 40% when it comes to retail. And then when it comes to distributors, I like to account for 25. That can sound super high. I think if you’re talking about natural grocery and you’re working with KEI or UNFI, 25 could end up being a very much so a reality for you. So much better to account for that.

Maureen: Yes. And it’s better to work in more, exactly. I was just going to say the same thing. Work in extra and then be pleasantly surprised if you have a little bit left.

Kyle: Yes, I think there’s too many founders that run their numbers based off of a best-case scenario. And then when reality hits or they get a chargeback and whatever else, they’re in a really ugly situation. That’s how you can put yourself out of business basically. So that’s what I like to account for. 

Reality always ends up being a little bit different or changed. So yes, but then sorry, and for food service, I didn’t speak to food service. Food service is very different.

I’m trying to remember that because I haven’t played in food service now for a couple years. But they don’t work in rebates, not necessarily. They talk in terms of markup.

It’s like you have to reverse your thinking. And honestly, I mean, maybe you’ve already spoken with him, Matt Cotton. Have you talked to him at all? I should probably connect you with him to have a better food service conversation. He could break everything down super well for you, claw back and remember the numbers. I just don’t want to give a number and then somebody’s like oh yes and they use that and then like you know I’m ruining it for them. 

But they are different, they speak in terms of rebates and markup versus margin. So those are like the big differences there but I’ll connect you with Matt Cotton and he can come on and nerd out on all the food service margin.

Maureen: Fair enough. I would love that. That sounds great. Excellent. 

One of the things I wanted to talk about in your time at Carter & Oak, because this is kind of the area that we play in, is that you rebranded the company in 2020. Can you talk about that a little bit? What led you to that decision? Why did you want to rebrand?

Kyle: Yes,we rebranded the channel specific packaging.

Maureen: Yes, and that’s just before you move on from that. That’s a common misconception that I think people, sometimes they come to us and they say, I want this, sometimes it’s an entirely different brand for the food service approach compared to retail. And they forget that now you have to spend almost double the marketing cost, right? 

You’re creating double the materials and you’re pushing twice as hard, right? When you’re pushing two different brands, they just think, oh, well, I just have, they think of it as like two products, but it really is. The branding is a whole different thing. So I just wanted to make that point.

Kyle: Absolutely. And so for me, that’s tough to do. Especially because for me, the one setting is very clinical. And the other setting is not like you’re in a grocery, a Whole Foods or a mom’s organic market, like a regional natural chain or something like that. 

The other thing is that I had insight around my customer that was in the health care facility, because of my mom. They’re already given so many drugs and prescriptions and clinical things that the less clinical it feels, the better. 

They just want normalcy. They want to feel like they pulled something off the shelf. So that’s actually where there’s a lot of like RTDs and different products that have this clinical focus that are maybe covered by insurance or that you buy at a CVS or whatever else. They have a very clinical feeling, but they’re being bought because their doctors are telling these patients and people to go and buy them, not necessarily because people are discovering and be like, Oh, I want this. 

And when they do purchase, it doesn’t really give them a good feeling, right? Like they don’t feel normal, like “I’m buying another prescription, another thing that my doctor wants me to buy”. 

It doesn’t really give them a sense of comfort or enjoyment. So that experience is very different. For me, it was really important to be able to bring that more normal experience, that more comforting experience. I wanted to make sure that it looked like a product that you were just pulling off the shelf. 

The big thing for me was like looking at tips on that line. But when I started, I graduated college in 2015. I was a year out of college and went for marketing. I didn’t learn. I really didn’t learn anything when I was in college for marketing. If I’m just being very honest. 

My best class that was very, that was very applicable was when we partnered with the graphic design students and yes, it was really cool. Actually, we got to learn how to work and lead a creative. You have to speak and interact very differently. And to me, that was a great course. That was the best class that I had in college. 

In terms of everything else, there’s nothing compared to starting your own business. And it’s funny, because while the goal was to go into healthcare, I think I just saw the opportunity in fitness to be a little bit more prominent or easier, whatever else. I just wasn’t thinking tactically or strategically and didn’t really have any experience. 

So when I launched into fitness retail, I launched under Six Pack Creamery, which I thought was kind of funny. I shopped it around with different people and I probably didn’t shop with the right people. I probably shopped with people that were just going to support me for the sake of supporting me. And yes everybody loved it.

I’m much more discerning now when it comes to those conversations and know the right people to talk to and everything else, but years ago I didn’t. And so yes, it was Six Pack Creamery. 

I thought it was kind of funny because it was high protein and the logo was a flexing cow. And I even took it to like the nonprofit that helped my mom out and everything when she was sick and ran it by them. And they liked it. 

But the reality was like it just wasn’t a good fit, right? It just doesn’t scream healthcare, not even that it needed to. It just didn’t feel right. 

Maureen: Yes, Six Pack Creamery doesn’t scream healthcare.

Kyle: I don’t know if it was necessarily wrong. I would go and donate product to people with cancer and they loved it and they would laugh about it. It was kind of funny and it was fine. It just could have been so much better, right? And ultimately I got to a place where, because the product also wasn’t cheap, that I wanted to rebrand to something that was more premium.

I also wanted something that we could own because what I would always hear is like Six Pack Cream. We’re like, oh, is this like beer ice cream? Like, is this ice cream that has beer in it or is it beer flavored? 

It was either people understood it right away or people were like, is this beer ice cream? And I just didn’t want that confusion. When you would like Google Six Pack Creamery, we were like the first things that popped up, but there were a lot of other things that would pop up, too. 

I wanted to just own a search and have something kind of be arbitrary. So there were no preconceived notions going into my brand.

I rebranded to Carter & Oak. And that was because I grew up on Oak Hill Drive and the facility that I had was on Carter Drive. So I was like, okay, cool. This sounds like it’s pretty arbitrary. There was nobody on the domain for it. When you Googled it, nothing popped up. Lumber popped up, like two by fours and stuff, right at Home Depot. 

I worked with a freelancer. I wish I knew her name. She was great. She used to work in Whole Foods for a while. And then she started doing freelance after the fact and everything. And then I would do the fine tuning myself. I’ve worked in Adobe since high school.

Maureen: Wow. Yes, yes, very cool. So after you closed the doors for Carter & Oak, you landed some pretty cool roles and you’re doing very different work now compared to being an entrepreneur. So tell us about that a little.

Kyle: I’ll start at my first opportunity after I shut down the company. Right after I shut down I made a LinkedIn post. Truthfully, in my head, it was from a place of being self-conscious because I was like, damn I’m shutting down the business. 

Not that I had any followers on LinkedIn or anything, or like people knew who I was. I was worried about the few people that did, thinking they’re going to see me going from being the ice cream guy to just doing something else. And they’re going to just go, ooh, like I guess I guess that whole ice cream thing didn’t work out for him, right? 

Maureen: Oh, interesting perspective, yes.

Kyle: I want to write the narrative. People liked my ice cream and it sold well in grocery and we had great opportunities. But the numbers sucked. And ultimately that’s why I shut down. The numbers just sucked from an economic standpoint. 

I always make the argument that if you can make the call to shut down because of a reason like that, that’s actually to your benefit. And that should actually be seen as a strength, right? 

Maureen: Absolutely, yes. You made the really hard decision at year five instead of pulling in millions from fundraisers. 

Kyle: Yes, investors, family, friends. And so I think that that’s something. I say that not to pat myself on the back, but to give for any other founders that are listening and had to make a tough call like that too, like give yourself some grace, right? 

It’s not easy and, most of the time when you shut down, it is the right call, most of the time. Not always, sometimes people just stop too soon or whatever else, but also you’re probably doing that because you just don’t have the passion, in which case it’s still the right call. You know, shutting down is rarely the wrong call.

So yes, so I made that LinkedIn post,  and just talked about the journey and everything else. Where I was and what I thought I was looking to do next. What I actually thought I wanted to do next was not even close actually to what I learned I wanted to do. 

But from that LinkedIn post, for whatever reason, it kind of caught like a little fire. Well, relative to any LinkedIn post I had ever made, it caught fire and just got super lucky where people in the industry saw it and the response was crazy compared to what I had expected. 

I had other founders asking me to consult for them, other founders asking about me advising. I had larger companies reaching out about me interviewing, startups asking me to interview and everything else like that. I ended up having all these interviews set up like right after that post. It was crazy. 

Maureen: And the context of the post was, this is why Carter & Oak shut down, and here’s what I’m looking for. Okay.

Kyle: Pretty much, yes, I have it pinned on my LinkedIn. So it’s like when you’re scrolling, I think it’s like one of the posts that’s very easy to find on my profile, if anybody wants to check that out. 

But yes, so that was more or less what it was. This is what I was doing and you know, kind of shut down. It was a great time. This is what I learned. And this is what I’m looking to do next. So if anybody knows of anything, like let me know. 

A bunch of opportunities came my way and I actually took a short stint at a venture backed startup as the VP of Ops as like employee #5 or something. And it just wasn’t the right fit for me. It just wasn’t a fit for me after a while. 

I just made the call, I was like, hey guys, I’m going to step away. I think this is my recommendation for you guys moving forward. If you’re going to listen to anything that I say, like this would be my recommendation. You can pay a fraction of what you’re paying me and then you’ll be able to have more control. 

I wasn’t looking to be a yes man. I never am. And that’s something I think is innate in all founders. And so it’s really tough to find that right role for you in the right company that’ll allow you to really flourish and take ownership and lead. 

So, yes, that was short. It was great. I learned enough there; some good things. And then Nestlé had actually recruited me for two different roles in the comments of that initial LinkedIn post, which to me was bonkers. I actually had a conversation because I accepted this offer with another company. 

Maureen: That is wild.

Kyle: He still wanted to have a conversation. He said, let me know in the future, let’s just keep in touch. And so when I left the startup, I shot him an email letting him know that really wasn’t the best fit for me. I said I’m super open to interviewing if you’re into it. 

I interviewed for two different roles at Nestlé and accepted a job under the title of a Growth Hacker. I worked in their accelerator, which is an internal accelerator, not what most people in the startup world think of. I wasn’t helping external companies going through a program. Investing was not the setup. 

It was an internal accelerator. Nestlé used startup terms incorrectly all the time and I used to bring it up all the time. So our accelerator was an internal accelerator and it was really cool. Its goal was to very quickly validate or invalidate white space innovation opportunities. I covered creamers, coffee and all frozen foods.

Maureen: Wow, that’s fun.

Kyle: It was myself and my colleague, we were the only ones that were full-time on these projects. And then every project was supposed to be six months. We worked from a very rough scope.

It wasn’t specific. It was very vague. It was more so like a feeling and emotion for a specific consumer maybe. And it didn’t always have a brand tied to it. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn’t. But then myself and my colleague would build out that scope and then we would get a cross-functional team that would have a brand manager, somebody from maybe finance or supply chain, always like a product developer. And maybe like one or two other, other team members.

We would then lead them through the process, and we would go through the entire ideation process, packaging design, all of those things, and then launch the product on shelf with a retail partner for like six to 12 weeks. We then would judge velocities, incrementality, source of volume, all these different things, to then pitch it back to our stakeholders.

Maureen: How cool!

Kyle: When I share it now, it sounds really cool. When you’re in the nitty gritty for my role, it wasn’t as, truthfully, it just wasn’t as fun as I was hoping. I almost feel like we could have done the same with less people. 

I think that’s kind of the challenge at large companies is you have so many people and they live in such verticals. For me, I truly felt like I probably could have done three people’s work across. And again, that’s not patting myself on the back. I think most people can do that. But you get so specialized in large companies, it’s tough to move super agile and to work cross-functional because people have their functions and they live in their roles. 

In the startup world, like you have to spread, you have to have competency across the board, right? And so I feel like that was something for me, like it was tough to have to live in just a box. 

Yet, I think for some people, it’s perfect. For those people, it works really, really well. But for me, I always wanted to do other things and help out in different areas, which ultimately doesn’t help the team. Like you have to stay in your lane. 

Maureen: You were looking for fit, right? Like you were looking for something that was a great fit and that responsibility is a great fit for a person that wants to be the champion for a thing to bring across the finish line that wasn’t for you. That’s not a dig at anybody it’s just to say that wasn’t for you.

Kyle: Exactly. But taking a step back and looking at the work that we did and that the teams accomplished like super cool. You know, like that was really fun. 

To me, the pitching to the stakeholders, because the stakeholders, the proximity that I got, like to the people within the organization was incredible. Our president of coffee for Nestlé Global, our chief strategy officer for the US VPS of different brands and everything else like that, like these people people, you could argue, are the most important people in the global coffee economy.

Nestlé is the number one purchaser of coffee in the world. Crazy, right? It’s really cool to take a step back and be presented to the global Chief Technology Officer and everything. That stuff was really fun for me. I loved that.

Some of the more like day to day where you had to live in a box, that wasn’t necessarily as fulfilling. 

I ended up leaving Nestle after about 18 months. That was August of 2023. And I had an opportunity to join Jack Link’s Protein Snacks, so the beef jerky with the sasquatch. I joined them as their Senior Director of Emerging Brands. 

I lead a portfolio of emerging brands. There’s four brands in it: Country Fresh Meats, Golden Island Beef Jerky, Larissa’s Kitchen, and Wild River. So all meat snack companies

Jack Link’s is a very large company, all these brands are growing, multi-millions each, some much larger than others, but it’s really fun. I have a team of four right now. Brand managers, senior brand managers, and our goal, we just need to grow the brands.

I’m super fortunate because my boss just lets me go. It’s incredible. It’s as perfect of a job as I could imagine. Which I never thought I would necessarily say that I like being an employee, but I truly do love it.

Maureen: Well, that’s the other thing too about why I emphasize fit because it’s such an important thing for people to understand what they do and don’t enjoy doing. And you don’t have to know in advance, you can wait until you’re in it, is it working? How do you feel about the work that you’re doing? 

I think that that’s something that I talk about a lot with the brands that we work with, the folks on my team and anybody that will listen. I’m talking fit, right? That you have to kind of be open to understanding, is this what I want to be doing or not? 

And so I imagine that the work that you’re doing now is the parallel that you were going to draw to entrepreneurship. You mentioned earlier on, right? 

Kyle: Yes, absolutely. I need to be, and truthfully, it’s a credit to the culture at Jack Link’s. We’re privately owned. Troy Link, who is Jack Link’s son, owns 100% of the company. It still has the spirit of entrepreneurship because he runs the company as the CEO. 

The heart and soul of that family is ingrained in the core values here and the core values of the company are actually displayed. It’s the first time I actually saw core values on the wall, but also I experience it in my day-to-day interaction with people here. 

It’s incredible because of that sense. They really celebrate the “go and get shit done” and “trust your gut” and you know, “you’re here for a reason” type thing. 

And then my boss. She spent 25 or 25, 30 years at Hormel, rising through the ranks, doing everything. She’s an absolute killer. 

She joined the organization a few months before me. She was the one that hired me and trusted me in this role. She just has a lot of, I would say, a lot of respect for my background as a founder, which not every leader has at a company like this. She has a lot of respect for my background and just a lot of trust and faith. 

I’d like to think that comes through the way that I’ve worked with her initially, but we built rapport right away. And for her as a leader, it’s very much like freedom in a framework and something that’s said throughout the organization. 

Maureen: Yes, I agree.

Kyle: We just communicate a ton and it’s not micromanaging. It’s truly communication, just like passion through the conversations that we have. She just empowers me to go and get things done. 

Her whole thing is she brought me here for a reason. I’ve worked in this world before and built a brand before and yes. And she promotes growth, like just grow and get creative with it and do what you gotta do. If you’re somebody that can just go and figure it out, this is an organization that supports that. 

Maureen: Yes, that’s fantastic.

Kyle: For me, I’m just picking up the phone and calling. We don’t necessarily have a big sales department that’s done a ton in the natural channel. 

I was down at the corporate headquarters for a natural grocer last week. So, I’m getting to flex into doing some sales things, too. I get to spread across a few different functions and work with our cross-functional teams, in finance and everything else, but I’m able to truly like general manage these brands because I know the right questions to ask when it comes to finance, when it comes to ops, and all these different things, which ultimately, I feel, helps the brands.

Maureen: Talk a little bit about those four emerging brands that you mentioned, what’s the scenario? Like are they wholly owned by Jack Links? Are they acquisitions? Were they initially startups that were created to fill little sort of holes in the industry?

Kyle: I want to touch on something before we get too far. Something you were saying before… I think it’s really important for any other founders that are listening to this. 

You were talking about finding the right fit for me. I had no idea what I wanted in that original post I made. I talked about wanting to get into supply chain and operations. 

The goal for me is to be a CEO and right now I’m thinking it could end up changing. I want to be the CEO of a billion dollar brand by the time that I’m forty and just turned 31 on Saturday. But that’s the goal. 

I didn’t realize what my path to get there necessarily was. For me, I thought it was operations. That’s the path that I thought I needed to take. I ultimately learned that wasn’t where I really wanted to be. 

The CMO route is ultimately a CEO route now, as well, with the way digital marketing and everything else has progressed over the years. CMOs are getting CEO opportunities far more than they had in the past.

And it’s way more fun. I just enjoy this more. If I ultimately only end up becoming a CMO, that’s awesome. I just want to enjoy what I’m doing and that’s something I learned about myself too.

It’s certainly me just not knowing myself enough as well, but that role allowed me to learn more about myself and figure out what it was. The one thing I want to say is that anybody that’s interviewing or looking for that right role, apply to a wide range of roles and opportunities and titles because the title isn’t always indicative of the function internally at that company. And it’s not always necessarily indicative of the compensation. 

There are sometimes director roles that are making what an analyst is making at some other company. There are sometimes analysts, there are senior managers at Google that are making half a million dollars, right? So you need to interview and it sucks because interviewing is exhausting and the process is not fun, but interview as much as you can and sometimes interview and apply to jobs that you don’t even really want, but you want to understand. 

That’s what I did as well. It helped me learn a ton. Ultimately, I learned what I wanted and I was using those interviews to learn more, which… Guess what? Companies are doing that too. I was the interesting interview, right? I made it through the final round and a lot of job opportunities, but I was always going against the more conventional opportunity, the more conventional hire. 

I was the fun hire, if you want to call it that, or the weird hire, potentially. And then they always had somebody that I was going against who was more conventional.

In the economic environment that we were in while I was interviewing, it always ended up going to the more conventional person because they had more trust and faith. 

Founders are typically seen as flight risks. You might start another business, you might get antsy, which is totally fair, but you need to know that as somebody that’s interviewing with companies. 

I used companies the same way that they were using me, where I would go and try to learn through the interviews, ultimately for my benefit of, okay, how can I zero in on the more specific roles that I want? And for context, I applied.

Maureen: Yes, good point.

Kyle: I hadn’t said this anywhere and I hadn’t posted anywhere because I was unsure how people might view it. I applied to 935 jobs on LinkedIn alone and did a ton of interviews. And again, it wasn’t because I necessarily wanted all of them, but I needed to learn. I need to learn more about me. 

That process helped. And now I can say, I’m going into a role that is as much of a dream job as I can imagine at this point in my life.

Maureen: Yes, and kudos to you, too, for doing that and for thinking of it in that way. 

Even when I hire people for my own agency, I am frequently asking them that I want you to interview me as much as I’m interviewing you. This is not a one-sided thing. The best case scenario is for me to have somebody sitting on the other side of that table that this is their dream job. It’s their dream trajectory and all of that stuff. 

It’s a very uncommon thing, but I hope that people listening hear that. Yes, it’s not fun but it’s important.

Kyle: It sucks. It’s not fun, that process. That process is not fun. And sometimes I got really attached to a job that I was going through the process on and I wanted it, and then I didn’t get it. I didn’t want to go through more interviews. You have to do it, right? You want to be broke or do you want a job? Or do you want to find something fun?

Maureen: Do you want to land in a job that you’re going to hate every day? That’s the alternative. That you just take the first job offer that’s out there and then you hate it. 

Talking about the emerging brands you’re working with, what’s the scenario?

Kyle:  So Golden Island was an acquisition. We bought them, we acquired them from Tyson, I want to say four-ish years ago. They were originally started by a family and I don’t want to mess up their background. It’s a family of Asian heritage and their grandfather was in World War II or something like that. 

It was a family recipe. They had made the product and grown the brand. The story’s really cool. You can find it broken down pretty well on Wikipedia, honestly. I think it was in 2009, roughly, that Tyson acquired them. Tyson ran it for a little while, and then we acquired them about four-ish years ago. So that’s Golden Island. And so that brand is primarily in clubs. So we’re Costco Nationwide. We are BJ Sam’s Club.

We’re in Canada as well. We’re in a couple other countries. And we also are in Albertsons. We’re in some Target locations. And then we are in about 65% of Walmarts, I think. 

Club is our main channel. These other retail partners are more new for the brand. So that’s great. I was actually a customer of Golden Island like years ago, before this was even a thought of being here. 

Another one is Country Fresh Meats. So those are refrigerated meat snacks. So they’re like meat sticks or meat and cheese, what we call combos. Sometimes we do meat bites and there’s cheese curds in those packs as well. That’s mostly in C-stores.

We’re looking at some different distribution strategies coming up, as well. So that’ll be driving some really good growth for us. 

That one’s like very minimally branded. Like you’ll look at it and be like, what is this? Because it seems super bare bones. It does very well. There’s a place for that type of brand in the world. You have got to find the right place for it. We certainly have and C-store has been really great for us. 

The other one is Wild River. It’s a little bit newer, that’s a brand that we spun up internally a couple years ago that is like old fashioned style jerky. So it’s thinner, it’s tougher. 

That’s my personal favorite jerky from everything that we have here. Again, it’s in most C-stores, it’s mostly C-store distribution that we have with them. 

We have a few different types of jerky. We have a green chili, we have a mild and then just our old fashioned. Then we also do two different types of biltong. We call them steak slices. So it doesn’t say biltong on the packaging, but it’s super, super tender. 

We got the biltong capability from an acquisition that we made. We acquired a company that had biltong manufacturing capabilities. So now, we own all manufacturing in-house. 

And then the last one is Larissa’s Kitchen.That has been around for a handful of years in a few different ways. Larissa is Troy Link’s wife.

We’re launching a rebrand, totally new, starting at Expo West this year. It’ll be totally repositioned and rebranded. We’re going to be in new retailers by the end of this year. The official launch for when we’ll be able to sell everything is going to be more in May or June. So more information will come on that, but it’s going to be top nine allergen free, it’ll be certified top nine allergen-free. 

Larissa has a son who has some severe food allergies, topical allergies, different things like that. And one weekend her son had an adverse reaction to something and she had to sit with him in a bleach bath for hours. It’s something that’s super visceral, super, super personal and emotional. 

And we realized like, there’s no meat snack in the category that really can instill confidence in these allergen-free shoppers. And one in four Americans are shopping with an allergen lens. They’re shopping looking to avoid one of the top nine allergens. And I believe 38% of those shoppers have the threat of anaphylaxis. 

The allergen community is growing four times the general population. It’s been growing at 4% year over year since 1997, I think it is. So it’s a massive opportunity. And consumers are avoiding entire categories in the grocery store because of that lack of confidence. 

What we’re doing is building the confidence within the category that these shoppers can go and know for sure – because of all of the rigorous testing, because of the certifications that we have – that they can purchase with confidence. And our tagline is Snack Fearlessly. That’s going to be really exciting later this year.

Maureen: Cool, I look forward to watching that. Very cool. 

I imagine it’s gotta be so fun to be able to kind of take that entrepreneurship lens to all four of those, especially under Jack Link’s umbrella, to be able to kind of have the power of that behind you too.

Kyle: Yes. I’m so fortunate. I would say I’m lucky sometimes to be here. I thanked the recruiter that dug my crappy resume. 

Founders don’t know how to make resumes. My resume sucks. 

One of the first things I did when I got here was find her in person to thank her. I told her that I’m here because of you. This doesn’t happen if you just decide to gloss over my resume. I have these opportunities because of her. 

I’m just super, super thankful because being here is truly life-changing. Just being happy in what I do every day. I hope everybody can find this experience.

Maureen: You put in the work to understand what you were looking for and the kind of company and all of that. It paid off. I’m glad you landed there. Kyle, thank you for your time. This was a fascinating conversation. For everybody who’s listening today. Definitely go file, go follow Kyle on LinkedIn. If you’re not already, he posts there frequently and a lot of great advice and kind of anecdotes and information about the industry, CPG, food and beverage across the board. So thanks again for taking the time for the chat today, Kyle. I really appreciate it.