Leaf through The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste and you'll find them between maraschino cherries and mime. Meat snacks. "They're a part of American pop culture that gets no respect whatsoever," says Michael Stern, who wrote the book with his wife. They're devoured, as Stern puts it, by "people for whom going to McDonald's is a special event. Or let's say Red Lobster."
There are hundreds of meat snacks on the market, but only one has cultural-icon status: Slim Jim. Conjuring up images of rednecks and truckers and consumed mostly by teen-agers, the beef stick is the butt of countless jokes. David Letterman lists eating Slim Jims as one of the top 10 things about being an American. The brand's chief spokesman is on World Championship Wrestling, for crying out loud.
But step into virtually any convenience store in the country and you'll find them next to the cash register. For their Raleigh-based maker, GoodMark Foods Inc., that register keeps ringing - to the tune of about $90 million a year, half the company's sales.
Slim Jim is the T rex of carnivore snacks, devouring half the U.S. meat-stick market. And now that GoodMark sells it in Japan and Europe, who knows - it could become a worldwide phenomenon.
With meat snacks on the rise, Slim Jim sales will only get better. Which, when you rip off the bright red and yellow wrapper and take a long, hard look at this pungent, orangey-brown, slightly mottled bastard cousin of steak, raises one question: Why?
It's strange, almost surreal, to hear GoodMark CEO Ron Doggett reel off the reasons Slim Jim is so popular. "The spiciness of it. The unusual tangy taste of it. The fact that it's not the most elegant looking." He winces slightly. "It's a greasy, juicy little product." CFO Paul Brunswick adds: "It's from a better age, the good old days, when things weren't so complicated."
There are other explanations. Redneck chic is hot, for one. But a lot of the credit goes to GoodMark, which revitalized a dormant snack category in 1989 with aggressive advertising. While snack sales in general have stagnated, meat snacks posted their third year in a row of double-digit growth in 1995. GoodMark spends close to $7 million a year on advertising and $13 million on marketing, double what it did five years ago. That's nothing compared with huge snack companies such as Frito-Lay but much more than its meat-snack competitors, most of which don't even advertise.
GoodMark has other products. In fiscal 1996, Jesse Jones hot dogs and sausage generated $20 million in sales. It made the same from its Andy Capp's line of french-fry-shaped chips. But three-quarters of its revenues come from meat snacks. And not just Slim Jim. It has Pemmican kippered beef steak and five flavors of beef jerky. It sells pickled pigs feet and seven kinds of sausage under the Penrose name.
Slim Jim is the driving force, though, by far its most profitable and most recognizable product. It comes in all sizes, from a...