When you think of phở, you probably envision a steaming bowl full of noodles and steak. You most likely don’t think about dehydrated strips of beef. But then again, you’re probably not Matt Tolnick.
Tolnick sees most food in terms of how they might work as flavors for his craft jerky company, Lawless Jerky. “Sometimes an idea will be banging around in my head nagging for weeks,” Tolnick says. “How do I convert it to jerky? Other times, I can go for months without being inspired.”
His quest to jerkify food has led to seven surprising and delightful flavors: everything from the aforementioned phở to Japanese curry to barbecue spare rib, the latest flavor rolled out by Lawless. With a simple strip of dehydrated beef (or pork, in the case of the spare rib), Lawless takes your tastebuds on a trip around the world. This isn’t just Jack Links or Krave. This jerky is serious business.
What started as a small-potatoes Kickstarter campaign in 2012 is now a company that is anticipating selling over 1,000,000 units this year alone. This is, according to Tolnick, a stark and welcome departure from his previous career as a lawyer. (“Hence the name,” he says. “Law made me less happy. So: Lawless.”)
When Tolnick answered the phone, he was stuck in traffic somewhere in South Jersey, where he spent his childhood and where he started Lawless Jerky in his father’s basement after quitting his job as a lawyer.
He’s not always in New Jersey, though. He splits his time between the Garden State and Phoenix, where Lawless Jerky is made in a facility equipped to handle the increasing demand for what Tolnick describes as one of the only craft jerky companies in the world. The growth, he says, has been a battle he’s gladly fought everyday. They’re now in well over half the states in the country, most heavily concentrated in New York and New Jersey, and they continue to grow.
“There’s no one formula for success,” Tolnick says. “You just have to commit to it. You have to be shameless in asking for help, advice, money, whatever you need. And make sure you love it.”
The way Tolnick sees it, he was always a jerky man. “I look at it like: I’m not a lawyer who started making jerky. Jerky was always my passion, and I just took a detour.”
The craft jerky company, which is coming up on its fourth birthday, has been something of a passion project for Tolnick since he started college in the early 2000s. Though it took until 2012–after he had graduated from UCLA Law and started working as an attorney–for him to quit his job and go at it full-time.
Why jerky, though?
“I really liked eating it, and I thought I could save a little money,” he says. “So I got a crappy little dehydrator and started making it in my dorm. People would come visit and ask for jerky. It was a whole thing.”
The first recipe he ever made? “That is unknown to mankind,” he laughs. “But it was probably some variation of barbecue or black pepper, something with a pre-made marinade.”
The worst recipe? Mole negro. “It sounded like a great idea, but it just didn’t translate. It was, ah, ill-advised. I haven’t given up on it–it’s just unable to transition at the moment.” Good or bad, it seems that he has fun experimenting with new recipes.
But, Tolnick says, it’s more than just the fact that he likes jerky. He also sees Lawless as filling a niche that is desperately needed in the current market.
“Some of these bigger stores and companies are in a race to the bottom,” he says, “and the health of the consumer is the casualty. There’s a void in the mass market, where these guys are trying to figure out how much sugar they can get into the product, and, you know, they’re using injectables to get flavor.”
Lawless, on the other hand, uses solid spices and lets their grass-fed beef marinade for up to two days. People are part of the process from start to finish: everything from making sure every piece is well-marinated to packaging, whereas with some of the bigger companies, human hands never touch the product.
Jerky, he reminds me, is really good for you. Or it can be. It’s a good source of protein, perfect for snacking–if it’s made correctly. “I know that adding all this sugar is a way to get flavor while lowering the price per ounce, but we do things differently. We want quality over quantity, and we think that’s totally doable in this market.”
It certainly seems that way. Though Tolnick is modest–he says he still has a lot to learn, though the numbers beg to differ–his jerky has consistently received five stars out of five from Best Beef Jerky, a well-regarded site that, by comparison, gave Jack Link’s Original Beef Jerky a measly two stars.
“I just want people to know that you don’t need to follow someone else’s footsteps,” Tolnick says. “There’s no one right way to do things, but do what you’re passionate about.”