Beef is the dominant meat when it comes to traditional dried snack foods like jerky. But it's still playing catch-up to chicken in the perishable finger-food category. Now the industry is expanding the first category while attempting to make headway against chicken nuggets and other high-moisture, finger-food products.

Under the T.G.I. Friday's® brand, Poore Brothers, Inc. has come out with a beef item utilizing lean cuts in a strongly seasoned, bite-size, dried meat snack. The items join the typical beef jerky category with a higher moisture product in two flavors, Original Steak and Mesquite Smoked Steak. Both are ready to eat and come in resealable packaging.

The shelf-stable product is targeted at traditional jerky markets: convenience and grocery stores such as Super Target. There are also plans to expand distribution to club stores and vending retailers in appropriate sizes and configurations.

The T.G.I. Friday's line of meat snacks is being manufactured for Poore Brothers by Jack Link's Snack Foods, Minong, WI. The leading U.S. producer of meat snacks, Jack Link's also markets a line of similar products under its own brand.

Beef jerky is the leading product in the meat-snack category, accounting for about 90% of the $3 billion in retail sales of meat snacks each year. According to Jeff Gaunt, Poore Brothers director of marketing, the firm was “looking for something with a more ‘premium’ feeling” than beef jerky. “The T.G.I. Friday's meat snack items are a step above,” he says.

Though the manufacturing process is proprietary to Jack Link's, Gaunt says tenderness was key to development of the new product. Jack Link's addressed the challenge by using high-quality, lean meat and a process that leaves the product with a higher moisture-to-protein ratio.

The T.G.I. Friday's meat snack is kippered — cured and dried. “It's a pretty serious science in trying to get all of the factors to work together,” Gaunt says.

Bridging the gap

Meat scientist Tony Mata, who's done research on beef products for snacks and finger foods, says the T.G.I. Friday's product still falls into the jerky category. He says these kinds of products attempt to capture customers who shy from traditional beef jerky due to its dryness, toughness and strong flavor.

Mata, the acting National Cattlemen's Beef Association executive director for new products and culinary initiatives, says tenderness also continues to be a significant challenge for beef when it comes to high-moisture, perishable finger food items, where chicken is king.

“We're at a tenderness disadvantage” to chicken, he says. “It's a major technical obstacle we want to overcome.”

Chicken nuggets, for example, are tender after a few minutes of cooking in a fryer. Even using more tender cuts, beef gets tough with this type of preparation, he says.

“The two species behave very differently upon cooking,” Mata says. “Understanding these kinds of differences will lead to the right solution.”

The T.G.I. Friday's items are targeted to customers in the beef jerky market, Mata says, not those considering chicken nuggets, chicken wings and other significant beef competitors.

“There are some very major food companies exploring new ideas in the jerky category,” Mata says. “But when it comes to high-moisture finger foods where beef does not deliver in tenderness the way chicken does, an entirely different technical approach is needed.”

Walt Barnhart is president of Carnivore Communications LLC, Denver, CO, and a former communications director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.