Ajay Avery, owner of Ajay's Montana Banana Beef Jerky Co., shows off a large slab of beef jerky Wednesday at his booth at the Nevada County Fair.
After an aborted career as a musician, Avery
has found a niche hawking the smoked, dried delicacy.
dreams of becoming the "Jimmy Dean of beef jerky" aren't too far-fetched when you consider how he
got started in the business.Avery was the singer/songwriter in a country rock group that was going nowhere when he walked into an old-time butcher shop in Missoula, Mont., in 1977 and bought some "Cowboy Dry" jerky.
"We were in heaven," he
said recently."It was the best jerky we ever had."
That experience - and the band's demise shortly thereafter - formed the genesis of Ajay's Montana Banana beef jerky
, which now generates $1 million a year in retail sales in 13 states and spurred dreams of emulating Dean, a country singer who made a fortune selling pork sausage.Avery
is selling the classic Cowboy Dry and several modern versions of the Old West staple this week from his
booth at the Nevada County Fair, his
10th year at the fair and the only one he
The rest of the time, Avery
Alta Sierra-area home two days a week to drive a delivery route through California and Nevada, tries to line up more distributors, and promotes the concept of high-quality jerky.
Many retailers "don't want a better product," he
said."They want a mediocre product at a deep discount."Avery
never envisioned becoming the Pied Piper of a convenience store staple when he
left Rio Vista in the early '70s to seek fame and fortune in the music world.He was a member of Cayene, a group that toured the western states from 1973 to 1978.
The band was getting close to the end when Avery
visited the Missoula butcher shop, and he
started selling the jerky between tours and during his
free time on the road.He
took 110 pounds of the jerky to a four-week engagement at a Stuart Anderson's restaurant in Tempe, Ariz., in the spring of 1978."I made more money from the jerky than I did at Stuart Anderson's," Avery
returned to the butcher shop to make a deal with its proprietor, Ben Wilkinson.
signed up his
first store in August 1979 and started looking for distributors outside the candy/tobacco distributors that typically handle beef jerky.Avery
had more persistence than knowledge or experience when he
started."I just kept pounding my head on the walls until I knocked down some walls," he
said."As a starving musician, I learned to live on very little."He
now has a network of about 80 distributors, including two Budweiser distributors that have been carrying his
products for 24 years.
Many of them are private party distributors who cater directly to "the beer-drinking, wrench-turning, blue-collar kind of guy," Avery
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has set his
sights on signing up a national distributor, as well as large retail chains "that like a really, really good product," he
said."The objective quality of what we do can't be beat."
Most beef jerky sold today is made with teriyaki oil, which makes it softer, sweeter and adds weight.Avery
also makes jerky with the oil, but prefers the water-based Cowboy Dry.
"The water makes it chewier, so it should be broken into small pieces and chewed like gum," Avery
said."But the taste lasts and lasts."He
added that there is no significance to the name Montana Banana."I'm a songwriter," Avery