The deal was going down in the boys' bathroom at Downingtown Middle School. Aside from Brendan Cawley and the little dude, the bathroom was empty.
Everything being chill, Cawley handed the little dude a neatly wrapped package. The little dude forked over some cash — in small bills – opened the package, and offered Cawley a taste.
They were both enjoying that first savory smack when the bathroom door flew open. A teacher with the "gotcha" glee of a DEA agent nabbing a big-time cartel leader stood in the doorway. He hauled the pair to the principal's office, where they were found guilty — of eating beef jerky.
"He caught us mid-chew," Cawley said of the 1998 takedown. "It was hilarious."
The idea that a 13-year-old's homemade beef jerky, made in a $30 food dehydrator, was mistaken for drugs was so glee-inducing that his buddies (who were also peddling his jerky) couldn't stop riffing on it. The friends seasoned the tale until they created the saga of the Righteous Felon Jerky Cartel.
Today, the cartel has evolved from a teen tall tale into one that secured a spot on this year's Philadelphia 100, a list of the region's fastest growing businesses, with $922,810 in revenue last year, up from $372,153 in 2015.
The company has gone from selling to local bars in 2012 to having a presence in 49 states, although Washington, D.C., to Maine accounts for 80 percent of sales. Giant Food Stores signed on in 2014, joined by Wawa in 2016. Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Williams-Sonoma, and the Speedway gas/convenience store chain all came on board last year.
"I didn't think we would be where we are," says Cawley, a 33-year-old who went from helping to prepare financial models for $35 million airplanes for Sikorsky Aircraft to selling two-ounce bags for $5.99 to $6.99 apiece.
As a company, Righteous Felon runs as lean as its jerky. Except for a big red Righteous Felon flag, its West Chester headquarters is a nondescript storefront. Inside, another eye-catching red Righteous Felon banner is tacked across a back wall while samples of the company's eight flavors of salt-laden jerky and products from partner companies line another wall.
Cawley and his eight partners, including his two brothers and Tucker Rinehart, a.k.a. the little dude, have been friends since middle school. The company has one full-time employee, an intern, and Lola, an oh-so-happy-to-meet-you greyhound/pitbull mix.
Cawley started making beef jerky at age 11 when his parents bought him the dehydrator. After the fabled bust, he and his friends continued selling hunks of dehydrated meat through high school, but stopped in college. After chasing their degrees, the beef jerky bros reunited and started cooking again.
"I think we found that consumers were shifting from fast food from national companies to locally sourced food," he says. "We got in at the right point with a high-quality product and a fun brand."
Between 2013 and 2017, meat snacks had a compound growth rate of 7 percent, according to David Walsh, vice president of membership for SNAC International. Last year, beef jerky sales grew by 7 percent.
"It's a great time to be in beef jerky," Walsh says. "Globally, the meat snacks market is expected to register a compound annual growth rate of 9 percent through 2023."
Sales are being driven by changes in lifestyle, Walsh says. A survey commissioned by grape juice maker Welch's found that 92 percent of millennials replace at least one meal a week with a snack. "They are looking for foods that will give them protein, and that is the predominant driver of why beef jerky has been doing so well the last few years."
But, Walsh notes, not just any beef jerky. Locally sourced, artisanal brands are what consumers crave. That is what Righteous focuses on.
The company uses only Black Angus beef from its partnership with Roseda Farms, an all-natural Maryland cattle farm. The beef is processed in Greentop, Mo. (snack sticks) and Gettysburg (beef jerky).
"Our strategy is to put our effort into quality and our local partnerships, like the one we have with [Downingtown-based] Victory Brewing Co.," Cawley says. "We use Victory beer in the product. The customer base is the same as ours."
Locking down local partnerships is part of RF's strategy to ward off competitors. Six years ago, there weren't many artisanal beef jerky companies. Today, Cawley says, every major city has four or five jerky outfits. And stores only have so much shelf space for jerky.
Another part of that strategy is to hit them where they ain't. So, besides selling to Wawa and Giant, Righteous Felon caters to specialty grocers like Di Bruno Bros. (where they sell Truffle-O Soldier Beef Jerky) and Williams-Sonoma, as well as hotels, craft brewers, coffee shops, and golf courses.
The company recently sharpened its competitive edge by launching Artisan Brands. Cawley found that buyers for specialty shops were overwhelmed by sales pitches from small gourmet brands. He decided to partner with the other small-batch brands.
"With the Artisan Brands, we do the vetting for the retailer and hotels," he says. "So we have other cool products, and that takes the pressure off of the buyers. We have gotten an awesome response." Those products include Hank Sauce of Sea Isle City, N.J.; Mavuno Harvest dried fruit; Ferris Nuts chocolate covered almonds; and Pretzel Pete from Hatboro.
Looking ahead, Cawley is developing veggie and fruit jerkys because he sees that as the next consumer trend. But it won't be just any jerky.
"We don't want to duplicate something that is out there," he says. "Our thing is a nontraditional flavor profile with really cool brands. We will put a Righteous Felon twist on it and make it an interesting product, not a me-too."