I Make Watermelon Jerky
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your tongue is a tender hunter.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Jamie Melzer, New York City
I don’t just make watermelon jerky. I also have to sell both watermelon jerky and the idea of watermelon jerky, so I consider myself a startup food entrepreneur, and every one of my days is pretty busy. Today, I went from reviewing label design for Watermelon Road’s new fall flavor to setting up shipping platforms ahead of our big website launch, and then testing and confirming our final ingredients list so our labels will print in time for our next photo shoot, which I also need to schedule today. Believe it or not, today is my “day off.”
Most days, though, I am slicing hundreds of pounds of fresh fruit, which then gets seasoned with citrus and herbs and dehydrated so we don’t lose nutrients and flavor. We then hand-pack, batch and seal each bag to send to retail stores in NYC and the Hamptons and to online retailers across the U.S. This all takes place at Foodworks Brooklyn — an incubator for food startups like ours that provides a platform and resources like hourly kitchen space, local distribution and mentorship programs. This is probably the fastest way to get into a commercial kitchen and test out ideas.
I didn’t have the straightest of paths into the world of food startups. I grew up in a small town outside of Wichita, Kansas, a place they often reference in movies as “the middle of nowhere.” I didn’t travel far for college, went to the University of Kansas — go Jayhawks! — where I majored in finance, graduated early and got the hell out of Dodge, which is also a Kansas reference, FYI.
It was clear to me that something in our food system had gone terribly wrong.
When I was studying abroad in Italy, I fell in love with good, authentic local food made from simple, unprocessed ingredients. Well, that and wine. Lots and lots of wine. After graduation, I moved to NYC and into the world of investment banking, then on to research and, finally, a hedge fund before leaving it all behind to start Watermelon Road.
I love clean, wholesome ingredients, and very much want to make clean eating fun and easy for families on the go. Plus, after my husband and numerous family and friends were diagnosed with autoimmune disorders and other diseases with strong ties to gut health, it was clear to me that something in our food system had gone terribly wrong. I overhauled our diet, and while this was easy enough to do at home, it was and still is relatively difficult to find clean, unprocessed snacks when at work, traveling or on the go. So, I began making clean snacks to send to work with my husband, and for myself.
One of the best parts of the job is that we are always testing out and developing new flavors. These unique and approachable flavor combinations usually start in my kitchen with friends and family as test subjects. Most don’t make it beyond this, but I know that I am onto something when my test batches vanish before I can even ask people to try them. That’s what happened with our new apple pie flavor launching this fall.
Not every day here is a good day, though. There are days that I feel overwhelmed, in over my head and like a total fraud. But then there are the amazing days that make me think that we are really onto something.
One such day came only weeks after we first launched Watermelon Road into a handful of retail stores. Campbell Soup Co. teamed up with Foodworks for a Real Food Innovation Challenge in which food entrepreneurs had the chance to be awarded grants and mentorship from Campbell.
The application deadline was right after our launch and I felt nowhere near ready to present our story to a panel of judges, but I applied anyway. I was elated when we were selected as a finalist, and over the moon when we were named runner-up.
Having a panel of experienced judges validate our early-stage concept was incredibly rewarding. And the mentorship that comes along with it from Campbell executives will be invaluable as we continue to grow and scale our brand.
But tomorrow we will be back in the kitchen slicing, seasoning, drying and packaging our fruit snacks in the hopes that we can make our customers’ lives a bit easier and their snacks cleaner and more flavorful. We have a long and likely winding road ahead of us, pun intended, to get to where we want to be, but I can’t imagine a journey that I’d rather be taking than down that … wait for it … Watermelon Road.