🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+) 🌳 All deliveries are now carbon neutral (and ship FREE on orders $35+)


Interview with Jessica Kwong, Founder of Jack & Friends


 


Have you ever dreamed up an idea for a school project and got super excited about it, but then let it go after the project was done? Well, Jessica Kwong at Jack & Friends did just that with a plant based jerky that she came up with for a school competition, except she kept going with it, and is now launching her jackfruit jerky for sale in stores around the US. I'm Betty, the founder of Upright and you're listening to the Upright podcast, where we interview thought leaders and innovators like Jessica, who are making a positive impact in health, sustainability and inclusion. Upright’s vision is a world where health and sustainability are accessible to all. To get there, we're launching a high protein instant oat milk that's as nutritious as dairy without the cow, as well as this podcast series where we can highlight the amazing things that other founders and brands are doing to make the world healthier and more sustainable. In this conversation, I talked to Jessica, the founder and CEO of Jack and Friends, which makes plant based jerky made from jackfruit, hence the word Jack in their brand name. Jack and Friends started out as an idea during a Cornell school competition, where Jessica was studying food science. We talked about the challenges of launching a new food brand, even with a food science degree,  the leap of faith Jessica took to go all in on her idea after graduating, and the first step she took to bring her vision to life. Plus, she shared advice on the importance of being patient when building, especially during a pandemic. With that, here's our conversation. 

Betty: 

Hi, Jessica. I'm so glad that you are joining me here today on the Upright podcast. I was wondering if you could start with sharing your story. You know, I'd love to hear what inspired you to create Jack and Friends. 

Jessica: 

Thanks so much for having me, always great to catch up. I love sharing my story and being on podcasts in general. So again, thanks so much for including me in one of your episodes. To give you the kind of quick background, I come from a food science background; I went to Cornell for four years and got my bachelor's in food science. All those lovely nerdy topics as they pertain to food are my bread and butter. While I was still a student,  I wanted to supplement that technical skill set with a more holistic view of the food industry, so I became heavily involved in product development competitions, as well as conducting r&d for actual food companies, ranging from small startups all the way to multi billion dollar giants. The inspiration for Jack & Friends actually came from one of those competitions, where I developed a concept for a plant based jerky made of jackfruit as the leader of the largest product development team, and as a senior I really decided to take it a step further and build it out into a concept fit for market. 

Betty: 

That's awesome. I know that having done so many internships with all these big CPG brands, I knew you had a full time offer from one of them coming out of your undergrad. I'm curious, was it an obvious choice to pursue creating Jack and Friends and the startup right out of school, or did you have thoughts about what to do if you took a full time offer instead?

Jessica: 

It was definitely not an easy decision to turn down the full time offer and pursue Jack and Friends instead. So Mondolez, which is the last internship I did, actually extended a full time return offer when I was a senior, and I loved my internship with them. For the longest time, I thought that once I graduated, I was going to work in the r&d department of a medium to large sized company, work there for a few years and then see what happens next. So it all went according to plan originally, and then I had this concept built out for a jackfruit based jerky and really felt passionate about creating a brand surrounding that product that embodied inclusivity and felt that with my technical background, I can really make it work. I took two weeks, which was the time they gave me to make a decision on the return offer, to call all of my family, friends, managers from Mondolez, anyone in my network to ask, what their opinion was on me potentially turning down a return offer and thankfully met a lot of support and decided to basically just take the risk and follow my heart and jump straight into entrepreneurship. 

Betty: 

That's amazing, and it was definitely a big risk, but I think it's really paid off seeing how Jack and Friends has grown now. I'm curious to know, once you decided to take the leap and build out your venture, what were the first steps that you took to bring your vision for Jack and Friends to life?

Jessica: 

The first eight or nine months or so after I graduated, it was really about setting up the foundation for the company. It was all that administrative, legal work that no one likes to do, but it's necessary when you're starting a company on your own, as well as heavy r&d on the product itself to make sure that it was fit for market. It was doing a lot of benchtop development, as well as conducting several sensory tests with consumers to make sure that the jerky was at a place where I was satisfied, and releasing it to the public. And then that all culminated into kind of a soft launch with just one SKU exclusively online in March of 2019. 

Betty: 

Got it. Given that you have this formal education and food science from Cornell, and all of the internship experience that you had with small food startups, but also these big billion dollar corporations, was it easy for you to bring your product to market with that first SKU?

Jessica: 

I wouldn't say it was easy. I would say that I definitely have a lot of advantages from the development standpoint, coming from a food science background, I obviously had a wealth of experience in developing some products, literally, from a concept stage, all the way to commercialization from internships, or just learning through class curriculum, or from the product development competitions as well. I figured out how to navigate creating the actual prototype of the product itself, and it was like second nature to me. But on the flip side, everything surrounding more of the business aspects was and is still a learning curve, with actually bringing the product to market and figuring out the market strategy, and launching, etc. It's probably harder for me than someone coming from a business background, so I would say that it probably evened out  in terms of having the ease from the technical standpoint, but less of the experience for the other business aspects. 

Betty: 

Yeah, I'm super jealous, honestly, at coming from a business background I have, but definitely not the food science part. [laughter] It always feels like the grass is greener on the other side, and obviously, everybody has a lot to learn. Now that you have launched, your jerky is getting rave reviews, and I was looking online at those. How did you decide on using jackfruit and pea protein as your main ingredients? And how did you land on the right flavors and formulations, so that you would get such amazing reception from customers?

Jessica: 

So the base was, you know, while through student work and that product development competition and through our team’s initial market research, we were basically just trying to come up with a new novel product idea, always looking at industry reports and trying to keep a finger on the pulse of the current market, right. So jackfruit happened to come across in some of the research, and I really just fell in love with the ingredient. I think it's so versatile and still somewhat underutilized, especially in the US. It has great textural properties, nutritional properties, and I could go on and on, so that already piqued my interest. And then with a specific interest, a rising trend in meat alternatives, or the plant based market, I saw that there was a lot of synergy between that market and using this specific ingredient. Basically I started developing different prototypes of product formats that use jackfruit, and found that jerky was very, very suitable and obviously, needed in the market as a plant based alternative. That's kind of how that initial concept came about, and then with pea protein, I was already familiar as a food science major of how it interacts with other ingredients in meat alternative applications, while also providing great textural, nutritional benefits. It was a great allergen friendly alternative to a lot of the soy and wheat based proteins that were currently more popular in the market at that time. It just made sense to pair the two as kind of the foundation for this product. From the flavor standpoint, our first flavor Jack and Tom, which is tomato and poblano pepper, was really developed through brainstorming within my personal network. I knew I wanted something very savory, something bold, and a little bit spicy, just to be reminiscent of traditional jerky flavors and I really just start playing around with different flavor ideas, doing some initial development, and saw a lot of success with that particular combination. So there it was, it was about really refining the product and having consumers tasting and seeing what they liked and what they didn't before releasing it during our soft launch. The next two flavors, Jack and Barb, which is our sweet BBQ and Jack and Terry, which is our ginger teriyaki, were actually inspirations from our customers themselves. We have a form on our website where they can always suggest flavors that they want us to develop, and we saw a lot of interest in the barbecue and teriyaki flavors.

Betty:

That’s amazing. So going forward, what is your vision for Jack and Friends? Are you going to keep developing other flavors? Or are there other products down the line? 

Jessica: 

We’re definitely going to release at least two additional SKUs within the plant based jerky line, and continue expanding more flavor offerings for consumers that are hungry for continued variety. But I’m definitely also planning on Jack and Friends being a larger lifestyle brand that houses multiple product lines. Our next product line will most likely be in the meal occasion, definitely more center of plate outside of snacking, so think like your refrigerated or frozen meals. They'll still fall within the same mission and ethos as Jack and Friends, and will obviously have jackfruit as the star ingredient. 

Betty: 

Amazing. I would love to hear you vocalize what the mission is for Jack and Friends? 

Jessica: 

Yeah, our mission is centered around inclusivity, we’re all about crafting products that are inclusive of different lifestyles, diets, and allergy restrictions without sacrificing nutrition or quality at the same time. 

Betty:

Amazing. Well, it's super impressive to see how far you've come now with Jack and friends, with all the products and flavors that you have developed. I'm curious, what is the best piece of advice that you've received, that you would give to other founders who are early on in their journeys?

Jessica: 

I think, especially in this environment, I would just say be patient. It's really a simple thing to say, but it's a really hard thing to internalize, especially personally. There's a constant marketing of hustle culture, always being on 24/7, and trying to one up yourself every single day and you constantly need to be showing results and achieving milestones. You see all these news on either industry outlets or LinkedIn, of what seems like every other founder is achieving amazing things every single day, so I think it's really easy to get into the mindset that you're falling behind, or like you're moving too slowly, where that just might not necessarily be the case, or like you're working with a lot of other obstacles or disadvantages that other founders may not have. Try taking a step back, and see what you can feasibly work on well while obviously still working hard, but being patient at the same time. Lessening your anxiety and/or imposter syndrome, or anything else is super important. Because within entrepreneurship, I feel like there's a lot of expectations of what it's supposed to be like. If you go in with really high expectations, especially about how fast you're going to achieve things or how fast you're going to grow, it's really easy to feel down about yourself, such as when you have a pandemic that slows your manufacturing timelines, or any other obstacle that pops up.

Betty: 

I think that is such good advice, and especially timely right now during the pandemic, and just the 20 million supply chain and logistical challenges that have popped up for every single founder in this space. I really appreciate you sharing that. Definitely something that I'm going to be reflecting on. I think this has been such a great podcast episode. Can you tell our listeners where they can go and find Jack and Friends to learn more about your brand and your products? 

Jessica: 

Yeah, for sure. You can find us at jackandfriendsjerky.com. If you're interested in learning more about the brand, we have a great “About” section to dive deeper into our mission, my founders story, or just jackfruit in general. You can also find us on social media on Instagram @jackandfriendsjerky and the same handle on TikTok as well, which we're trying to build up. 

Betty: 

Amazing. Thanks so much again for joining me today, Jessica!

Jessica: 

Thank you so much for having me!

Here is the link to view the Spotify podcast episode, we hope you give it a listen!

Here is also the rest of our Upright social links:

Please also check out this episode's feature, Jack and Friends!