Consumers continue to seek out low-carb, better-for-you snacks. That interest is one reason why jerky and meat snack products are just about as popular as ever, and new companies are entering the category each year. 

Vermont Smoke & Cure is not one of the newer upstart entries in the field. The producer’s experience in the category dates back more than six decades. However, while the company has a long history, it continues to innovate with new products and flavors. To learn more about the company and meat snack trends, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery spoke with Catherine Weiner, Vermont Smoke & Cure senior brand manager.

Jenni Spinner: The jerky and meat snack category has evolved in recent years. Could you please tell us a bit about how consumer interest in such meaty treats has grown in recent years, what kinds of factors have been driving the surge in interest, and how producers have innovated in the face of this increased desire?

Catherine Weiner: There are a couple of different trends that are converging and presenting great opportunities for meat and protein snacks. First, since the pandemic, many consumers are more attentive to their overall health and wellness. Protein-centric snacks, including meat snacks, fit well into this growing need state. Additionally, with the return of away-from-home snacking and an increase in remote work, consumers are increasingly relying on grab-and-go, easy-to-eat, pre-portioned snack foods for sustenance and satiation throughout the day. Items including meat snacks, meal and snack kits, trail mix, and other portable better-for-you snacks are attractive solutions for consumers wanting healthy snacks that provide more nourishment. 

There is a growing demand for protein-rich snacks that cater to the active, on-the-go lifestyle of modern consumers, as well as an increase in snacking between meals. This trend has led to the rise of snack sticks, with a particular focus on multipacks since the introduction of Vermont Smoke & Cure’s first mini-stick in 2016. 

Manufacturers are also targeting younger consumers with kid-friendly flavors and the introduction of breakfast sticks. Additionally, the industry is leveraging the power of licensing popular flavors from well-known brands such as Doritos, Sonic, and Fritos, as well as integrating with popular franchises like Call of Duty and Yellowstone. Furthermore, the premium snack category is seeing a greater emphasis on social responsibility, aligning with the values of conscious consumers who seek products that not only satisfy their taste buds but also contribute positively to society and the environment.

JS: Vermont Smoke & Cure seems to stand out from the herd (pun slightly intended) in a number of ways. Could you please share how Chef Bailey started up his efforts (beginning with Real Sticks), and how the company has grown since the early days?

CW: Why, thank you—we like to think so and work hard to maintain our company values to make a superior product.

Vermont Smoke & Cure was started by the Roland family in 1962 in South Barre, VT, in a farmhouse. Chris Bailey is a farmer, chef, and former U.S. team cyclist who refounded the company as Vermont Smoke & Cure in 2006 and, through experimentation with recipes and processing techniques, re-launched the product in 2010 as it is today as one of the first entrants to the Premium Meat Stick Category: “real sticks,” nitrate-free, without antibiotics.

These Real Sticks were Bailey’s innovative take on traditional meat sticks, focusing on high-quality, locally sourced ingredients and a commitment to natural smoking techniques. Bailey's vision involved creating a healthier alternative to the heavily processed meat snacks commonly found on the market. By prioritizing authenticity and quality, he aimed to establish Vermont Smoke and Cure as a trusted brand known for its dedication to craftsmanship and flavor.

In 2012, Vermont Smoke and Cure moved to its Hinesburg, VT, smokehouse that we are still in today, and, in 2016, we launched the first pouch of mini .5-oz. sticks in the category.  

As of this year, our line will have nine flavors in three proteins, available in three formats and a first-to-category Variety Pack. Plus, we also sell two 6-oz. charcuterie items, and we are launching an innovative LTO described below! We are trending to produce just under 2M pounds this year.

Although to meet consumer demand for clean-label proteins we have had to expand beyond purchasing ingredients locally, most of what Chris set out to do exists as we continue to do things “The Vermont Smoke & Cure Way,” meaning we select only premium cuts of beef, pork, or turkey, and use only natural hickory or maple hardwood chips. We balance time, temperature, and humidity to craft perfectly cooked, tender products with a touch of smoky flavor in each bite. Our small team of dedicated employees handcrafts delicious meat sticks in small batches in our on-site smokehouse.

JS: Following that, what makes Vermont Smoke & Cure different from many of the jerky/meat snack companies out there? Feel free to talk about the meat you start off with, the recipes, the sustainability aspect, and anything else you’d like to share.

CW: We are unique in that we are one of the few meat snacks made on-site, using real hardwood smoke versus co-manufacturing our product. We like to say that our products “taste right because they’re made right,” using premium ingredients crafted by a team that follows our “Vermont Way” values of Respect, Community, Accountability, and Quality.

Half-hearted doesn’t cut it in Vermont, or at Vermont Smoke & Cure. We are for people who live hard, laugh hard, and love hard. We never cut corners. We couldn’t if we wanted to. It’s just not in our nature. 

All of our products are slow-cooked in our VT Smokehouse for over 18 hours using the finest cuts of meat that are hand-trimmed and ground with no artificial colors, preservatives, or flavors, from animals that are vegetarian-fed, and antibiotic and hormone-free. We are also one of the few brands free from the nine major allergens + MSG. We develop all of our recipes with an eye towards creating classic flavors that taste more like charcuterie in snack format than what meat snacks can be stereotyped to be.

In terms of sustainability, Vermont Smoke & Cure is committed to the same standards as the Whole Foods Quality Standards (Antibiotic and Hormone Free, Animal welfare audit, where possible we source GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) and sustainably raised meats).  

We are very engaged in giving back to our local community. In Hinesburg, we do everything from participating in local parades showing our team spirit, and handing out cases of free product, to regular donations to food shelves, backpacks and school donations to Youth and Family Services, to participation with our local Chamber on advocacy issues, such as creating jobs and affordable housing. Statewide in 2023, we donated over 2,500 sticks to nine Vermont organizations with a focus towards flood relief efforts as well as to the American Legion. Again, doing things according to our Values: the Vermont Smoke & Cure Way.

Vermont Smoke & Cure incorporates our social mission into our business operations by considering the impact of our operations on our employees, customers, community, and the environment. For example, more than 50% of our electricity is solar generated within 60 miles of our facility. We also use high-efficiency smokers to reduce energy needs by more than 10%. This is the maximum the State of Vermont allows and their standards are some of the highest in the country.

We have a holistic waste management solution that ensures all materials are recycled into renewable energy at a farm-powered anaerobic digester near our facility. For rare cases when that is not feasible, we’ll find the most value-driven waste solution available. 

The extracted food waste is recycled at a farm-powered anaerobic digester, where it is combined with farm waste and converted into renewable energy.  Some waste streams are able to skip pre-processing and enter the anaerobic digester directly.

Vermont_lead.jpgJS: You were bought by Johnsonville four years ago. What if anything about Vermont Smoke & Cure has changed since you were purchased by such a large, well-known meat company?

CW: The acquisition has been great and has provided us with the support and resources to continue doing what we do best: making the best-tasting meat snacks using premium ingredients. We’ve been able to continue building our own expertise in meat with their help, as they have more than 75 years of experience making great-tasting sausage, and our members find the culture and values a great match.

Johnsonville has also helped foster our culture of quality and continuous improvement by helping standardize processes, investing in technology, training and development, and supplier management. More importantly, they have made their full team accessible to us for cross-functional collaboration.

JS: You’ve been around a bit but continue to innovate—could you please share some of your newest products, and what makes them special?

CW: Yes! We are launching 5 new products this year: First, a Premium Beef stick we created with the idea in mind of bringing a ribeye dinner into snack format

Building on the success of our #1 Uncured Turkey Pepperoni Stick, we will have the largest turkey portfolio in the category with the launch of our Oven Roasted and Hot and Spicy sticks. Poultry/turkey is a protein consumers are demanding more of, according to recent data from The Harris Poll: 75% of Poultry Snack Shoppers agree that “when purchasing snacks like meat sticks, I find the lack of available poultry-based options adds time and effort to grocery shopping.” Meat snacks are an easy protein to understand for people looking to fuel up while looking for healthy alternatives.

Our Oven Roasted stick is a classic homestyle recipe while Hot and Spicy is “dad’s” chili in snack format.

Our Variety Pack is a 12 count of 3 of our best sellers (Original, BBQ, Bacon) in our .5-oz. mini format specially curated to satisfy every meat lover. 

The above four products are being staggered to market in select retailers starting in July and are all available on Amazon and our website.

Last, but not least, we are excited to announce an exciting LTO in partnership with Whistle Pig (available in select retailers and in e-commerce in September): a Maple Old Fashioned Smoked Meat Stick. It’s the culmination of two premium Vermont brands partnering to create a uniquely inspired cocktail stick. Everything about this product is unique: from the Whistle Pig barrel staves we are breaking down ourselves, to the recipe including Whistle Pigs Rye and Maple Syrup. This product is a great example of us being “all in.” We couldn’t find a woodchip vendor, lumber yard, or even local firewood expert to break down the WhistlePig barrel staves into the size chip our smoker needs. So, our production room lead is going to run it over with her tractor and take a chainsaw to it so we can get that perfect smoke on these!

JS: Then, what might you have planned for the future?

CW: We are accelerating sales, marketing, and R&D efforts (partnerships/licensing) to expand in the category as a challenger brand (and eventually within snacking) and to grow our awareness outside the Northeast. We think people today seek what Vermont has to offer. Meat is a naturally easy-to-understand protein and people are seeking healthy protein options. We are for the total family. We put taste above everything and create flavors everyone wants to grab from the pantry for any snacking occasion, perfect for on-the-go.

JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CW: We can’t underscore enough that our products “Taste Right Because They are Made Right” due to our community and member- and employee-centric values.

JS: What’s your favorite product the company offers?

CW: My current favorite stick is Chipotle and our new stick is Premium Beef!

Related: Vermont Smoke & Cure debuts Smoked Meat & Poultry Sticks at Expo West