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Three questions for Jeff Eckert, founder of Dick Stevens

Forging a new trail for healthier snack mix

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For Chicago-native Jeff Eckert, beef jerky was never a snack he couldn't live without. He didn't pass bags of it back and forth on camping trips. That's because the pungent smell of dried meat repulsed him. Not to forget, the ingredients. Longtime brands on the market had high sodium that turned him off to the jaw work. But after several attempts to overcome his fears of digesting the manly staple, Eckert decided to create his own product that would combine a lower sodium, healthier jerky with trail mix. He wanted it to smell good and made his wife do the sampling in the early phases of product development. Dick Stevens — the company is based right here in Charlotte — bags of beef and turkey selections (original and extreme options) emerged on the market two years ago. The product can currently be found at Common Market, Earth Fare, Whole Foods, Target and other spots around town or you can order online (www.dickstevens.com).

Creative Loafing: What was the process like in creating Dick Stevens products and how did it develop — especially since you were only smelling it in the beginning phases?

Jeff Eckert: That's where Chris came in because I was still kind of scarred from wanting to try beef jerky. My biggest problem with trying it was that it smelled so awful and so that was the beginning. We wanted to make a product that smelled good because that's what you eat with first. When you smell something that smells good, you want to eat it. That was something that was so critical to the jerky that we wanted to make. Then the concept of bringing in the dried nuts, fruits and seeds and the healthy trail mix really came from going to the grocery store now where there's monster mix and crazy capri mix and it's got M&M's and gummie bears and yogurt chips and all that kind of stuff. And what was healthy is no longer healthy. Almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts in their raw form are truly healthy and a good tasting product. So, I was like 'let's make a great tasting jerky and get the premium nuts, fruits and seeds and blend them all together. So, that's what we did.

As the original taste and smell testers, what did you look for?

Chris Eckert: He would bring it home and say 'here, try this and let me know what you think.' There were some that were too salty or peppery or chewy and so I would just give him my feedback based on what he had given me. He would ask me a series of questions, but it was really along the lines of the taste of it and the consistency of it.

Jeff Eckert: The last version I remember was that it was perfect, but too peppery. That was the last ingredient that we pulled out of with the spice one we were developing and that was what became the final spice factor of what the jerky is today.

The name Dick Stevens is a made up name, but it's simple and all-American. What do you think he'd be like if he was a real person?

He'd spend a lot of time outdoors. He's an adventurer, a backpacker and a camper. He's all those kind of things. He across between J. Peterman from Seinfeld and the most interesting man in the world. That's how we kind of see him.

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