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Jumping Into the Jerky Market

Local entrepreneur calls on secret family recipe to smoke up profits (July 06, 2001)
by CHARLIE YOUNG, Dispatch/Sunday News

Bill Lenzer quit his job overseeing eight Pizza Hut restaurants six months ago -- and sold the first bag of his Big John's Beef Jerky on the Fourth of July.

Big John's -- named for Lenzer's father-in-law, "Big John" Foster -- is the main product of SME Foods in the York County Economic Development Corp.'s Cyber Center campus for start-up businesses. But until Lenzer can smoke up some profit in the beef jerky business, his wife and business partner, Renee, continues working at Pizza Hut.

But going into business on their own held challenges. Lenzer said his Pizza Hut experience didn't prepare him for the challenge of navigating the entrepreneur's maze of regulation, zoning and insurance.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done," Lenzer said.
The Lenzers met in a national Pizza Hut training seminar, and he moved to the Washington D.C. area three years ago to be near her. Ironically, Lenzer was never much of a beef jerky fan until he met Renee. He said her father developed the secret recipe for the beef jerky 27 years ago. "Now I love it," Lenzer said. "My wife gets on me, saying we'll never make a profit because I'll eat it all Jerky maker: "Big John" Foster, pastor of the Wallace Street Church of God in York, began making beef jerky while a minister in Tennessee after an acquaintance offered to give him a meat smoker if Foster would make him some jerky.

That started a hobby for Foster, and an obsession for those who tasted his jerky. As Foster moved to different churches over the years, the fans of his beef jerky would track him down to keep their supply going. One man told Foster he spent four years trying to find him and his beef jerky.

"If people will hunt you out to ask for it, there must be something there that if it's commercialized it will go," Foster said.
Foster didn't want his hobby to interfere with his pastoral work, though, so he never pursued it commercially. However, that didn't mean one of his three children couldn't do it, and Renee and Bill decided to take the risk.

Though the recipe is a secret -- only "Big John" and his son-in-law know it -- making quality beef jerky begins with good meat, Lenzer said. SME Foods uses top-round beef...There are no "mechanically separated" meat parts formed into cylinders for their beef jerky...
The meat then is...smoked [for much longer than] the industry-standard three to four hours...

Future: Lenzer would like to see the product placed in convenience stores, bait-and-tackle shops and other sporting goods outlets, and specialty foods stores...

Without a steady income for the last six months, Lenzer said it is his wife's emotional support and positive attitude that keeps him going. "There have been plenty of times I just wanted to go back to Pizza Hut," he said. But with their dream of controlling their own futures, the Lenzers have carried on

"We've sunk a good chunk if not all of our savings into this," Lenzer said. "We've put our futures into this.”

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