Every Saturday and Sunday, Marty Mortimer spends hours sitting by himself at a kiosk in Southern Hills Mall, inviting the passersby to try what he calls “gourmet jerky.”
The constant foot traffic guarantees him that at least one person will stop and look at his collection of 16 flavors of jerky, 13 of which are made from beef, the remainders made of bacon. If he’s lucky enough to convince shoppers to purchase a package or two of Sioux City Jerky to take home, Mortimer’s next feat is to have them come back for more. And he’s confident they will do so.
“This jerky, I can honestly say, and almost guarantee you, is better than any jerky I’ve ever tasted,” Mortimer says, adjusting his illusory salesman cap.
Being the sole employee of Sioux City Jerky, it’s a necessity that he be more than just its owner and operator. At times, Mortimer is its marketing director, while other instances he’s the only active distributor and taste tester. It’s a job that requires him to wear multiple hats.
Mortimer continues his sales pitch: “You go into a gas station – and there are so many people that can side with me on this – and you see a bunch of name brand companies, and a majority of the time they just got blah tastes or they’re so chewy. You bite into a piece of this gourmet jerky that I have, and it’s so tender and it tastes like a brisket coming out of the oven. It just melts in your mouth.”
Considering himself a jerky connoisseur of sorts, Mortimer, 53, likens the tastes and textures of homestyle jerky to the products released by Sioux City Jerky. Homemade jerky is a snack he is all too familiar with. He remembers making his own deer jerky with his dad when he was a kid, an activity he has carried with him all these years.
“I still have the same kind of dehydrator I’ve had forever,” he says with a laugh, almost like he can’t believe the thing has lasted as long as it has. “Most of mine was deer. As I got older and didn’t have any deer meat left, I’d go buy me a roast and slice it up. It’s purdy good. I got it down to a science.”
Before Mortimer moved to Sioux City three-and-a-half years ago, he remembers his buddies would try his cured-and-dried meat creations and say to him, “Man! You need to sell this!”
To which Mortimer usually quipped, “Yeah, easier said than done.”
TURNING HOBBY & PASSION INTO BUSINESS
Indeed. Mortimer is finding out for himself just how difficult it really is. He already knew selling and distributing wild game meats like venison would be an impossible task; the Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship states that under “Iowa state law, fallow deer, sika deer, red deer, mule deer, white tailed deer or elk must be (state mandatory) inspected before they can be sold for food in Iowa.”
In order to pursue a jerky business that adequately follows USDA regulations, Mortimer would need to narrow his sights to beef- and pork-based jerkies. However, the provisions needed to make and distribute homemade jerky would be much too costly and would not likely meet proper inspections. So, instead, Mortimer decided to form a partnership.
“I’m having someone make it for me,” Mortimer said, adding that the Sioux City Jerky products shipped to him are already inspected and given the proper labels. As to whom the collaboration is with, Mortimer only gave a bashful grin: “I can’t give you all my secrets.”
Mortimer did say that he sometimes had a say in what flavors were produced and is in charge of naming the samples shipped to him. Currently, Sioux City Jerky creations are split into five groups: Asian, Bacon, Coastline, Down-Home and Southwestern. Smokey, savory, spicy and sweet flavor varieties take up most of the inventory, like Crackin Pepper, Mucho Carne Asada, Mango Habanero and Sumo Teriyaki.
When a new flavor is made, Mortimer is the first to try it. He laughs and says the tastings are “pure punishment.” He shakes his head thinking about all those stomach aches he didn’t mean to give himself. “You don’t even want to know how many nights I sit in here at midnight tasting them. Pure punishment. At least it is after you sit there and eat a ton of ‘em.”
Even though he might enjoy the samples he’s given, Mortimer is carefully examining the pieces for the right tastes and textures he’s come to expect from his collaborators. So what exactly makes a good jerky? From Mortimer’s experience, there’s a combination of factors that go into that answer: “There’s the amount of time you actually soak it into the flavoring and the amount of time you take to dehydrate it. And of course there’s the quality of meat that you use.”
Aware of the quality expectations Mortimer has set for his product, the owner of Sioux City Jerky said he has the same high standards for the business itself: “You about have to with all the competition and such. I want to be up there with the big dogs. Right now I’m a little dog starting out.”
One aspect Mortimer felt was vitally important to the business was the presentation of the Sioux City Jerky website. After weighing out his options, he officially settled on Orange Rocket Design to construct the site. In addition to selling physical products at his Southern Hills Mall kiosk and the Southern Hills Hy-Vee in Sioux City, the only other way for customers to purchase Sioux City Jerky would be through the site’s online store.
Perhaps now Mortimer will have a chance against those other name-brand jerky makers stacking the shelves of gas stations – the so-called big dogs.
Mortimer said, “I want at least a fighting chance to start climbing up the ladder to reach these guys.”
FINDING THE MOTIVATION AND DRIVE
Technically, Mortimer’s work with Sioux City Jerky is a side gig. Although with the amount of time and money he’s invested into the business, it might be more accurate to describe his duties as another full-time job. When he’s not selling his gourmet jerky, Mortimer works as a manager at the Sioux City branch of IBT Industrial Solutions.
Besides teasing the idea of a jerky business in his head from time to time, he didn’t really take the initiative all that seriously until he found himself injured from a motorcycle wreck five years ago. Mortimer said he was fortunate enough to live from the ordeal and spent a month-and-a-half at a surgical intensive care unit and then spent the same amount of time healing at home with the help of a nurse to check up on him.
While he was recovering from his injuries at home, his mind wandered toward the idea of a bucket list. Finishing college was at the top of that list.
“I started that many years ago, trust me,” Mortimer says to me, shaking his head and grinning, unwilling to tell me the exact year he began college classes in his youth. “It was long time ago. I ended up getting married, getting a full-time job and not finishing my college.”
He would start by finishing his associate degree. Mortimer only needed to complete a college-level algebra course to earn it, too. Upon finishing the night class, he discovered he actually enjoyed learning again. Eventually, he set his sights toward a bachelor’s degree in business. Through online courses at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, Mortimer managed to check that aspiration off his ever-growing bucket list.
Coincidentally, his capstone class tasked him to write a paper about how a person would start their own business. Researching for that assignment, he says, inspired him to take the plunge. “That’s how I began to find out different ways on how to start your own jerky company. Found out there were several different options.”
It was a slow start at first. Mortimer knew he didn’t want to go into debt with his venture. “It’s one thing using your own capital that you have to take a chance,” he said. “But I didn’t really want to get myself buried right out of the gate.”
With his motivation dwindling, Mortimer got word of tragic news. His daughter and her four children, Mortimer’s grandchildren, died in a house fire January 2018 in Pratt, Kansas.
“After that happened… I started pushing forward to get this accomplished,” Mortimer said. “That’s what really motivated me. A lot of people say they’re going to start their own business, but they don’t have the gumption. They’re more comfortable working a full-time job and not having to worry about all this other stuff. Let me tell ya, I’m learnin’ real quick how constant this is.”
Now that Mortimer is out there selling Sioux City Jerky products, he decided that at some point he’s going to donate part of his proceeds to the Children’s Miracle Network in memory of his daughter and grandkids. In the meantime, Mortimer intends to finish his master’s degree at Friends University; a decision he made as soon as he drove more than 400 miles to his graduation ceremony.
“When they walked up and put that little cape on I went, ‘I gotta have me one of them!’”
It could be done. Mortimer’s track record has proven it. Like jerky making, all it will take is hard, meticulous work and a little patience.