Krave goes Kraze-ier

Chances are, if you’re a sentient human being living almost anywhere in the United States, you have seen a display of Krave Jerky, with the stylized running man on the package and a label advertising one of eight different exotic flavors, any of which was previously unheard of in the heretofore stagnant world of dried meat.

You’ve seen the package because Krave is now on sale in Safeway and Whole Foods and Costco and Target and Lucky’s and Raley’s (to name a few venues) and even in a souvenir shop on the side of the only highway in Key Largo, Fla.

It’s tempting to say that Krave is an overnight success story, one of the most spectacularly impressive start-ups ever born in the Sonoma Valley. But that’s only partly true.

First of all, Krave began life as an assignment for a graduate class that founder and CEO Jon Sebastiani was taking in the combined UC Berkeley-Columbia University MBA program, following an epiphany during training for the New York Marathon. He liked eating jerky as a low-fat, high-protein snack, but he didn’t like the jerky he was eating. So he researched the industry, all the while learning about market disrupters in the classroom, and soon decided there was ample opportunity for a disruptive dried-meat product, with creative flavor profiles, that could shake up a billion-dollar industry.

It didn’t happen overnight, but at the end of his MBA program, two of his Berkeley professors took Sebastiani aside and told him that, not only did he get an ‘A’ on his final exam, they wanted to make a six-figure investment in the company. It was a safe bet.

Last year, said the entrepreneur better known for his family’s multiple wine businesses, Krave grossed $5 million. This year, the company is on a pace to approach, if not reach $30 million. And, Sebastiani adds confidently, “We believe we have a clear path to a $100 million year.”

That explosive growth is one reason Forbes magazine recently named Krave one of the 25 most creative consumer retail brands in the country, along with Chobani, the natural Greek yogurt company; Curves, the world’s largest fitness franchise, and Muscle Milk, the Benicia-based nutritional products company.

In describing how its so-called “CircleUp25” was chosen, Forbes wrote the goal was to “honor 25 companies that are starting to change the way we live our lives – companies that influence what we eat, what we wear and what we use every day of our lives. They are companies that lead us to decide where and how we shop. They are the most innovative consumer and retail brands that exist. In short, they are innovative businesses that go far beyond our local farmers’ markets – they are re-inventing industries.”

That recognition loosed another wave of national interest in the company. “Literally, for three days the phone rang off the hook,” said Sebastiani. More supermarkets called. One of them said, “We need the product. Now!”

The company has grown to 40 employees, with offices in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle and plans are set for launch in Canada. Along the way it has acquired 20 percent of the Northern California jerky market.

“We see nothing but blue skies and tail winds,” Sebastiani said.

San Francisco 49ers star tight end Vernon Davis is now doing Krave endorsements, and the product is the official jerky for the San Jose Sharks.

How to explain all this?

First there’s the disruptive part, a whole product line of flavors no one had ever attempted before with jerky – chili lime gourmet beef, lemon garlic gourmet turkey, black cherry barbecue gourmet pork, basil citrus gourmet turkey – and a moist, mouth-friendly texture that’s easy to chew.

Then there’s the marketing, which borrows some moves from Sebastiani’s wine roots, including not only the Krave Klub (five bags of flavors with free shipping for $30 a month), but also recipes and beverage-jerky pairings such as the suggestion of a juicy zinfandel or a ruby port with the pineapple orange beef jerky.

There’s also an online nutrition comparison chart ranking Krave on calories, fat, protein, carbs and sugar against other snack foods. And there’s the company’s sponsorship of various athletic and cultural events, including the Wanderlust Yoga Festival.

All of which amply demonstrates, said Sebastiani, that “Krave has reached that sweet spot, Krave has proved itself. They’re coming to us now.”

That doesn’t mean the company is beginning to coast. “Stay humble, stay hungry,” he says. “We’re in our fourth year, but every day we work our asses off. Everyone here has part of the equity. Everyone has a stake in the company. There is a sense of enthusiasm that feeds on itself.”

Sebastiani said when the company had its first million-dollar month, “For lunch, we turned the conference room into a dining room, we had Rob’s Rib Shack cook a whole pig. We share and savor the experience. The company trajectory is shared with all employees, it helps excite everyone.”

The Berkeley professors who now share in Sebastiani’s success have had him back to speak at their classes, and he has contributed to a book one of them wrote.

“I’m a part of their ecosystem now,” he said.

So what’s next, how far can Krave go?

“We’re structured like a technology company,” Sebastiani said, looking forward to the next step. “You grow to the point of going public or getting bought. And then,” he concludes, with the smile of a serial entrepreneur, “you do it again. That’s where the juice is for me.”