Sometimes life and circumstance have a way of pushing people toward their destiny—or at least taking more control of it. If Randall Hughes hadn’t been laid off from his job at a bio-science firm during the recent economic downturn, he might never have started Oaktown Jerk, a small Oakland-based business selling artisan beef jerky.
Food has long been a passion for Randall. He originally started working in the food industry with a counter job at a bakery in 1985. Then he was noticed by two prominent chefs from Canada, Michael Isles and Jimmy Moffat (formerly of 42 Degrees and The Slow Club), who saw more potential in him than just standing behind a counter ringing up pastries.
“They could tell I was bored. Michael said, ‘Let’s get you some knife skills and get you a different job.’ Then I started working as a prep cook and what not and that was the beginning of my cooking.”
So Randall learned how to cook. He took time to travel throughout Southeast Asia. At one point, he nearly enrolled at the Cordon Bleu in France. Then he realized what he was really interested in was “the nuts and bolts of food and nutrition.” That realization sent him to UC Davis, where he studied science and graduated in 1999.
Afterward, he returned to the Bay Area, where life put him on path that led him away from kitchens to laboratories instead, studying women’s health, HPV and cervical cancer. According to Randall, working in a lab proved to be an excellent preparation for eventually getting back to the kitchen due to the requirements labs have for keeping sterile, super clean environments.
“I think what helped me was I worked in a clean lab where I did DNA-based testing. It had to be super, super clean. You could easily contaminate results with your own or somebody else’s DNA. That carried over to the kitchen quite well in terms of having a super hygienic facility and strong work habits.”
After being laid off from his lab job in 2009, Randall tried for a year and a half to find another job, even looking beyond bio-tech hoping to transfer his scientific skills to the solar market. At the same time, he’d been developing his jerky recipes.
“This came together at just the right time and then I heard about the underground markets and that was the beginning.”
Randall started taking his jerky to the Underground Market started by Iso Rabins and Forage SF. He got such a great reception that the business has been growing ever since. Sold at local farmer’s markets (Old Oakland on Fridays and San Rafael on Sundays), his website and at special events and food fairs, the jerky comes in seven regular—and occasional seasonal—flavors. The tongue-in-cheek name was a suggestion from his brother-in-law.
“He’s real sharp that way,” Randall said. “We were trying to come up with a name, and he says ‘Oaktown Jerk.’”
Randall credits his wife for running the website and his friend Tuffy Tuffington, a local artist who makes posters for rock bands, for the company’s branding – which consists of a cow skull with flames coming out of its mouth reminiscent of a spicier, more masculine, rock n’ roll version of a Georgia O’Keefe desert skull painting.
Starting a brick and mortar establishment is something Randall is contemplating, possibly combined with a production facility or even a small working ranch. Working through the legal parameters of such things is one of the challenges of growing a small business, he acknowledged. “It makes you refocus and learn things you never had to learn about or know before and what you need to do to do that and protect your assets. It’s been quite interesting,” he said.
Although running his own business has him working harder and sleeping less than ever, the satisfaction and sense of having more control over—or making his own—destiny are worth it for Randall especially after struggling through a poor job market.
“It brings me back to job security. You control your own destiny, and it makes you think about being in control of your own destiny and not leaving it up to somebody else. As far as I’m concerned, everyone should find that thing inside them that they’re passionate about and they should pursue it. Or at least find it inside them and know what’s there.”
What drew you to food?
I’ve been in food all my life. I’ve been cooking for over 35 years. I got my start with two world-renowned chefs that came down from Canada—one is in Hawaii now and the other is teaching at Chico State. Growing up in the Bay Area, it’s a hot bed for different types of cuisines, ethnic diversity—more than just the mainstream American food. And then traveling helped out a lot.
I’ve been to Indonesia, Thailand. They have a bunch of good street food. I was lucky and fortunate to be invited into people’s homes where they fixed food for me that I never would have eaten in a restaurant.
I could never find any good jerky, and I love jerky. It’s good road food, good snack food, it’s high protein. There was something about it that was less than desirable. That was one reason—from being a food snob. And I saw it to have much more potential.
The food scientist in me got me thinking about why certain foods need stuff that give them a high shelf-life—nitrates, high fructose corn syrup. Being passionate about food, I wanted to try something that was a challenge—that, and my career as a scientist made for a perfect combination to get into the food science behind what I was making, the marinades I was making, why you need certain things for shelf stability.
I don’t think I would have gotten to where I’m at without the Underground Markets and Iso Rabins. He started in 2009 as a way for people to get their goods to the general public and get feedback from people other than friends and family—which you always want. That was critical in the momentum of this company and the decision to get a commercial kitchen, become a meat processor and invest.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
I’d say that I have a love for food. A lot of that crosses cultural boundaries, and I’ve eaten things that are very unique dishes. A lot of the Southeast Asian travels have influenced greatly my marinades—star anise, habañero, Thai basil. I’ve made a Mandarin Szechuan. So it’s funny because some of my marinades, they come from having the experiences that I do. It makes it easy to draw on experience and what flavors go together. My Mandarin Szechuan, a lot of people claim it tastes very authentic. Some of the other marinades, I just think they’re fun, and I dabble with it until I get it to where I think it’s a savory or flavorful marinade and then I get feedback from our customers. It’s not that it’s ‘correct’ from where it’s coming from, but that it tastes good and the flavors go well together.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
Don’t be quick to sell off your company. People are quick to do that. Coming to the Underground Markets, there are headhunters looking for talent and they know that people are bootstrapping their companies. If you lose more than 50 percent, you’re not calling the shots anymore.
Funding has been an obstacle. Something I just learned about was public funding—a lot of people have popped up that are people pleased to fund endeavors—we haven’t tried that yet. That’s been the biggest challenge. We’re actually blessed because we have a brand that’s taken off, so we’re hoping that time and the combination of that and being out there will build equity in our company.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
What happens is, as you grow, you need help and then you have to pay them [investors], so it really comes back to funding. Make sure you get your funding and you know where you can get your funding and you don’t give away the majority part of the business. There’s a bunch of resources for small businesses. We’re lucky here in Oakland, there’s a couple contacts here to help small businesses.
The next goal for us would be to buy commercial property instead of renting. When you do a build out, you don’t want to leave that to someone else.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
It’s mine, it’s ours. It’s a family business. We get to call the shots. My creativity’s not stifled by somebody else’s decision making. I guess you could also say, the worst thing, too, is that I’m the boss. I’m the help. I’ve been running it for two and a half years by myself. My wife does the web design, and I’m the chef. It’s a full-time job, but when you get your product to market and you get so many comments and so many people love it, you know you have something here.
I used to work as a scientist. There were so many reasons I could think of not to do this. I might lose money. But the biggest reason was—if I didn’t do it and I got this far—what would happen if you don’t do it? You fall on your face and you get back up and try something else, another venture. That said though, I said going in, if it didn’t work, I didn’t want to come back and say that it didn’t work and you didn’t do better. I’ve never worked so hard or slept so little but I feel great. It makes it very hard having your own company to hand off pieces and delegate tasks when you have high standards and have expectations of what people should do, so that’s kind of tricky.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
I like spicy jerky. My favorite has to be the Thai Basil, star anise and habañero. And hickory smoked spicy. I think those are my favorites.
And then there’s a few that are still on the back burner. White peach and chipotle, mango habañero. That’s the fun thing—taking seasonal fruit and making a really flavorful combination.
Starting at farmer’s markets, it’s really helpful to do a seasonal jerky. You can support the farmers…we’re all about sustainability and supporting local.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
That’s a really tough question because there’s got to be at least a dozen of them. The ones I admire most are family operations, and because I’ve been so close to the people at the Underground Market, just folks who reinvented themselves, like an architect who started a chocolate company. That’s a very challenging thing to do.
When the economy was tough, these people dug deep and found other talents that lied within them and they pulled them out. And not only did they pull them out, but they made a product and sent it to market. Wonderful products—Nosh This, Nana Joe’s Granola, Cholita Linda—just hard working, grassroots kinds of businesses, you know. Really, as far as I’m concerned, they’re the crux of our economy, it’s not corporate America. I don’t look up to corporate America. I look up to the little guys. Like Fist of Flour pizza.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
That’s a tough one. If I was at the farmer’s market, it would probably be Cholita Linda’s tacos and a pork knuckle from Roli Roti.
That’s a very tough question for a foodie to answer. There’s so many foods. I think I’d probably be eating Thai food in Thailand.
Favorite Bay area food/resto/chef?
Fist of Flour pizza truck. I love Fist of Flour pizza – they’re always consistent. That’s it, besides my barbecue. I’m still looking for a barbecue that meets my requirements!
Photos courtesy of Randall Hughes, Oaktown Jerk.