Local food company turns south for market inspiration

Produced in Stoughton, El Norteño meat snacks are the only Mexican-focused meat snack brand marketed nationally in the U.S., reaching an enticing market segment in an industry already experiencing rapid growth.

In the specialty foods industry it’s good to be a jerk … er, jerky.

According to The State of the Specialty Foods Industry 2016 report from the Specialty Foods Association, jerky and other meat snacks saw a 68.4% dollar sales increase from 2013–2015, and a 60.1% unit sales increase during the same period.

That’s growth a lot of industries would kill for, and it’s something Monet Foods, a local recipe development company, is hoping to capitalize on with its El Norteño line of Mexican meat snacks.

Stoughton-based Monet Foods was formed by Scott Hare in 2006. Hare, an avid outdoorsman, had been making his own meat snacks, beginning with venison jerky, in his home kitchen since the late 1990s.

Hare often brought his homemade jerky and meat snacks along on business trips to give away to the people he was meeting, according to Justin Jahnke, marketing coordinator for El Norteño. After a couple years, people started anticipating the snacks and asking if he had more to share. Additionally, people around his hometown knew about his meat snacks and were asking where they could get more.

Hare quickly learned people really enjoyed what he was making and that he truly enjoyed crafting the recipes and perfecting the flavors, says Jahnke. “He knew he could make better tasting, more unique meat snacks than what he was buying in stores.”

El Norteño was born after a meal Hare had with some businesspeople visiting from Mexico whom he met through friends. “We had a conversation with a friend from Mexico who talked about all the people he knows in the U.S. who are still very connected with Mexican culture and their Mexican roots,” notes Hare. “We listened carefully and decided that a niche product, focusing on a specific market we see as underserved, was the way for us to differentiate. The name is based on Norteño (Northern) culture in Mexico and parts of the American Southwest — it’s a lively, vibrant, bright, and fun culture filled with music and tradition.”

Working with a team from Guadalajara, Mexico to ensure the flavors were authentic, it took Hare a total of about 18 months to develop the recipes and get the right feel for El Norteño. The product, believed to be the only Mexican-focused meat snack brand marketed nationally in the U.S., debuted in a handful of shops in Madison in February 2016 and has quickly spread to more than 1,000 retail locations throughout the country.

“El Norteño is a product of my passion for making meat snacks taste better and the guidance and encouragement from our friends from Guadalajara,” says Hare. “We worked hard to make genuine, flavorful Mexican recipes.”

Hitting the target market

That meal with friends was likely a fortuitous one because finding untapped markets isn’t always an easy proposition, especially in a crowded market like meat snacks.

The meat snack business and industry is very competitive and there are more small and specialty food companies now than ever before, notes Jahnke, which makes the retail food world more exciting for consumers and manufacturers. “A mixture of cultures and global flavors are playing a much bigger role than they used to. Traditional meat snacks have a strong foothold but people want and appreciate choice, quality, and originality. El Norteño is hopefully all of those.

“The niche food world can be attributed to a lot of innovation by food enthusiasts and small food startups, more emphasis on new, global flavors, and a more accepting attitude among consumers, especially millennials, Jahnke adds. “We’re just a more diverse nation now. We want new flavors and foods.”

Jahnke believes El Norteño could be big, but there’s a caveat — people have to know about the brand, taste it, and become accustomed to its unique flavor.

“That’s a big challenge,” notes Jahnke. “We know the Latino population, specifically the Mexican-American population, is growing — Hispanic buying power in the U.S. represents the 10th largest economy in the world. If we can reach just a portion of those people, we feel good about our chances to grow. Getting El Norteño in people’s mouths, along with some grassroots marketing efforts, will go a long way to keep us growing.”

According to Jahnke, in just under a year the El Norteño brand has developed a dedicated following, and some parts of the country are selling well beyond the company’s expectations. “[It] feels so good, knowing people are enjoying what we’ve created. There are many factors that go into successful food retail and we are still learning as we go. We believe we’ve got something great and we believe in the El Norteño brand. We’d better — we work on it all the time!”



Taste of Mexico

The influence of Hare’s partners in Guadalajara on El Norteño’s flavors is a big part of what the company hopes with set its Mexican-style meat snacks apart if and when imitators enter the market.

El Norteño smoked meat sticks are flavored with habanero chiles, a Mexican-spice blend, and lime. “We didn’t want the heat from the habaneros to be overwhelming, just enough to be satisfying. The heat should build slowly and really compliment the flavor,” says Hare.

The first meat snack the team created is called El Norteño Cecina — a thin, dry, sugar-free, Mexican-style beef jerky. Each bag of Cecina includes a packet of Tapatío hot sauce. “I end up eating more than I sell. I’m from Guadalajara and this is a great take on cecina,” says Zeus Corona, manager of Madison Bazaar at 1901 S. Park St.

“We worked closely with the sales and marketing team from Guadalajara — they are also deeply involved in food retail, both in Mexico and the U.S.,” notes Jahnke. “Cecina was something we weren’t necessarily familiar with when we started. Once we started tasting it and learning about it, we were hooked. We loved the idea of a meat snack that is different than traditional American jerky.”

One of the biggest compliments El Norteño received was during this past year’s Mexican Fiesta in Milwaukee, Jahnke adds. “We sponsored the fiesta and had a booth there. For three days we had people coming to our booth saying, “Are you the guys with the cecina?!” We had people buying our cecina up until midnight on the last day.”

The Tapatío in the bag is unique in the U.S. meat snack world, though not necessarily in Mexico, notes Jahnke. “That’s a touch the folks from Guadalajara encouraged us on.”

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