by Lou Mancinelli
Right now, Marcos Espinoza is focused on baby steps. For the past three months he has taken the train to and from Penn Station in New York City each day, where he works as a construction estimator.
When he gets home to Chestnut Hill around 7 p.m., he spends time with his wife, Kelly, four-year-old boy and two-year old girl. After the kids are in bed, Espinoza shifts his gears towards running his side business.
Side Project Jerky (SPJ) is artisanal jerky made from free-pasture USDA beef raised in Lancaster County and marinated, dried and packaged at the SPJ kitchen in Manayunk. Think craft beer, substitute the jerky for the beer, and you have the vision of Espinoza and his partners, who first sourced their meat from Rice’s in Chestnut Hill.
“It’s something that was kind of missing,” said Espinoza, 34, who has lived in the area for five years. Usually, all the marketing for jerky is about “the wild west.” And remember Macho Man Randy Savage’s catchphrase, “Bite into a Slim Jim?”
SPJ grew a few years ago out of an alternative to Christmas cookies, when Espinoza visited his friend Mark Novasack. Instead of the traditional sugar and chocolate chip treats, Novasack, an SPJ partner, had prepared flavored jerky for his guests.
Espinoza and Novasack got to talking. They thought jerky seemed like one of those things people would buy at an upscale market, the way people buy artisan and organic licorice or chocolate. And if it was good, they would buy it again.
Espinoza was already a foodie. His New Mexican family had opened Navajo Hogan, a Native American eatery in South Salt Lake City, Utah, when he was in fifth grade. Espinoza spent many days wishing he could be like the other kids his age and not have to work at the restaurant.
That food upbringing he once wished he could skirt turned into his developing a love for food and food writing, which he chronicles on his blog Fidel Gastro. That foodie side of himself led him to meet Dan Olsovsky in April, 2011, at a food competition hosted by the drummer for the Philly band, The Roots (the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s late-night TV talk show). Espinoza sat on the judges’ panel alongside a COOK’s (a Philadelphia Magazine partner) editor at the event.
Olsovsky became SPJ’s art director, and the three worked on branding. What they created was their version of well-bred, hand-crafted jerky, Mongolian and Southwestern. Their logo is a black-and-white sketch of a composed looking bull donning a top hat.
As it worked out, Espinoza had a friend who ran a chic men’s store in Brooklyn that “sold anything that seemed cool.” So their first client became Hickoree’s in the hip Williamsburg neighborhood. Since it started in early 2012, SPJ has grown to the point where it has a waiting list of orders to fill.
While it’s “still kind of everybody’s side job right now,” said Espinoza, the side project is becoming more of a main project. The company officially incorporated in March of 2012 and now sells its jerky at eight locations, including three in Brooklyn, as well as online.
In Philadelphia, they have found their niche at places like The Foodery, a market on 2nd Street in Northern Liberties where you can mix-and-match six-packs of craft beer in an area where hipsters fill the streets like a cornfield in August. It’s also available at the Green Aisle Grocery in South Philly and the Trove General Store in the Paoli Shopping Center.
Espinoza and crew are currently looking to find a packager for their product. That would for the most part take the preparation end out of the job and give Espinoza more time to focus on expanding it into a larger commercial enterprise.
“The problem is I can’t just drop everything and say I’m gonna go full-time jerky,” Espinoza says. “I’ll keep my day job as long as I can. And keep pushing.”
Fortunately, he recently found a new job in this area, so he will no longer have to commute to the Big Apple each day, come home, do the family thing and then rush to Manayunk to pick up the finished jerky, where it’s made five nights a week, in order to prepare the shipments.
Espinoza first came to the east coast to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2001 and moved to Manhattan for seven years. In 2008, he returned to Philly, where he earned his MBA at Saint Joseph’s University.
And though he and his partners started SPJ with the aim of something easy to do on the side that they wouldn’t “have to jump headlong into,” the success of their jerky has grown to the point where Espinoza can see the future possibilities.
And so he “takes baby steps. But it’s hard to take baby steps when everybody expects you to take giant steps.” And he thinks “it could be a lot bigger.”