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Seniors’ beef jerky business booms with Whole Foods contract

When Sweet Meat Jerky co-owners George Livingston and Ian Raffalovich first met in an international business class, working with each other, much less starting a beef jerky business together, seemed like a bad idea.

“You see, both Ian and I were trying to impress this girl that sat by us and when I saw him, I knew I had to compete with Ian,” Livingston said while smirking at Raffalovich.

“We both went up there to try and talk to that girl and ended up speaking to each other instead,” Livingston said. “We both got along pretty well and we have been great friends since then.”

The friendship turned into a partnership a year later when Livingston approached Raffalovich with a few business ideas. Some, like a business similar to 4Loko drinks, didn’t go over well at all.

“A few weeks later though, he called me again with the idea of manufacturing a homemade beef jerky recipe,” Raffalovich said. “At first I wasn’t too sure about it, but after I tasted the recipe I loved it and was on board.”

Since then, the co-owners of Sweet Meat Jerky has seen success even they couldn’t expect as their product grew popular locally and eventually led to a contract with Whole Foods Markets.

In the Fall of 2011, the duo started making jerky themselves in a commercial kitchen near downtown Nashville. They gave samples to friends as word spread in the community. The initial response went so well that they decided to sell their product at the Nashville Farmers’ Market last February, where the jerky got even more popular and allowed the business expand at the same time.

“Most of the expenses of production came straight out of our pockets,” Livingston said. “The money we made at the farmers’ market went straight back into the company and it helped keep the business afloat.”

A month later, the duo decided to increase production again and work with an outside manufacturer and packer. They also took the chance to make their product an organic one, Raffalovich said.

“When we first started making the jerky we basically got all of our ingredients from Costco,” he said. “After awhile we looked at the market and realized there wasn’t a 100 percent organic, sustainably produced and cheap beef jerky available. Through the manufacturer, we were able to fill that void. Sweet Meat Jerky is able to provide a completely free-range beef jerky that is free of MSG, nitrates and other artificial chemicals. The jerky is also packaged in a biodegradable bag so when the jerky is finished, the bag is gone as well.”

Belmont and its students are no strangers to this student-run business. Entrepreneurship students have been an influence to the group and have given the company ideas in graphic design, sales and marketing.

“The students were great with giving us innovative ideas and bouncing constructive criticism back and forth on things that could work or concepts that wouldn’t fit,” Raffalovich said.

The school of business has also been willing to help the two with legal advice and a more experienced perspective on starting a business, Raffalovich said.

After receiving more than $8000 through Kickstarter donations, the pair have struck a deal with Whole Foods to sell the beef jerky in stores across the United States. The duo said they are in the paperwork part of the deal, one they say will be a huge opportunity to advance the company.

Both Raffalovich and Livingston will graduate in December. Both plan on staying in Nashville for at least a year and want to expand their jerky business even further.

“I definitely want to go national, even international,” Raffalovich said. “It will be interesting to see what the future holds.”

Livingston agreed.

“Sweet Meat Jerky has been a great learning experience and has taught us how to be versatile businessmen,” he said. “Big things are yet to come and we are prepared.”

– Nick Yacovazzi

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