My name is Adam Van Cleave, and I founded Van Cleave Dry Goods. We’ve been chasing our piece of the American dream since 2014, and it sure has been a trip. Has it been easy? Hell no. Has it been worth it? Damn right it has. To give you the full effect, let’s take it back all the way to the beginning.
Way before VC Dry Goods ever crossed my mind, I was eating beef jerky. I grew up on the stuff, and it’s always been my favorite snack. The problem was that as I grew up I began to pay attention to the ingredients in what I eat, and most jerky didn’t exactly have the best ingredients. As I tried to find some better quality jerky, I realized that those had another problem - their flavor was horrible. You basically had to make a choice: go for the good ingredients and give up flavor, or go for the better flavor and get bad ingredients. To make matters worse, whichever one you picked, it was a safe bet that it was going to be loaded with sugar. After one too many frustrated times, my wife surprised me with my first dehydrator and a jerky starter kit. She had no idea where it was going to lead.
At that point, I had zero knowledge on how to make great beef jerky. What I did have was a willingness to learn and a desire to elevate my snack food experience.
So I did a bunch of research, but more than anything I did what I thought would taste good. That kit was a good place to start, but there was definitely room for improvement. That’s when I channeled my inner chef, and I began to create my own recipes. For each new recipe I created, I would start with an idea and refine it from there with endless amounts of trial and error. The majority of jerky has three generic flavors: original, peppered, and teriyaki. I didn’t want to go that route because it had been done before. On my pursuit of great new flavors, the only constant was going to be the use of real ingredients - no liquid smoke, no artificial preservatives, and fresh ingredients instead of dried ones.
What I ended up creating was jerky so flavorful, it was beyond anything I had ever tried - and it had great ingredients! No more trade-offs or tough decisions.
At that point, I still wasn’t thinking about selling anything. Making jerky was just a hobby, so when I would go to my job I would bring some as a snack. Well, it wasn’t long before all my coworkers were bothering me for some every day. It was that initial demand that made me first think about bringing this jerky to the world. After even more research, I found out what it would take to start a business selling jerky. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it seemed doable even though we didn’t have a lot of money. At first, we wanted to open a store front, so I wrote a great business plan and shopped it around at various banks. No takers - I was shot down every time. The storefront wasn’t going to happen. Next, we looked into doing a jerky food truck, but that would've been only slightly less expensive than opening the storefront. For a while, we thought we were out of options, but then it hit me. After doing all of that research, I realized that using a commercial kitchen was the key to selling, but we didn’t have to own it.
We ended up renting space by the hour in a local kitchen, and we made everything there. Then, to sell our jerky we became part of a few great farmers markets around Dallas.
We had low overhead, we didn’t have to sign any long-term leases, and we were able to produce what we needed, so we did that for about a year. However, we realize that there were drawbacks - the main one being that we couldn’t do any wholesale sales. We love our farmers market roots, and we will always do markets, but I knew that wholesale was the future of our company. That’s when I started looking into a thing called copacking, which is when a company with all the required resources and licensing takes our recipe and makes our jerky to our specifications. The benefit is that we don’t have to get the licensing, and we are still able to start wholesaling our jerky. It was definitely the way we needed to go.
We researched copackers all over the country before we finally found one that we trusted with our goods. After a whole new round of trial and error, test batch after test batch, we finally launched our wholesale division with a few customers already waiting. Since then, we’ve been growing like crazy, picking up several large accounts and getting distribution throughout Texas and parts of Louisiana.
We plan to keep growing as long as our customers keep demanding it. Judging by the response so far, we aren’t going to be stopping any time soon!