Beef jerky has been a staple of snacking for a long, long, long time. While there is some contention as to just how long, with Native Americans making jerky from salted and dried buffalo and deer for centuries, the term “jerky” itself comes from the word “ch’arki.” That word comes the Quechua tribe, a South American Incan tribe, who were drying and salting alpaca and llamas in the 1500s. It became a staple in diets during the exploration of the West because of its high protein and ability to not go bad for long periods of time.
Old Santa Fe Trail Beef Jerky is a local business specializing in the Southwestern style of jerky known as carne seca. Spanish for “dried meat,” it’s a far more traditional style with thinly sliced meat and no moisture, making for a very dry, brittle jerky compared with the standard fare found in stores. Speaking with Andrew Chavez, manager and accounts receivable, he tells me how his dad’s small start-up has grown over the past 31 years into the large-scale operation they are now.
“We started out in 1988, Matthew (Chavez’s father) worked at his uncle’s butcher shop, Nelson’s Meats, and then opened MGM Meats with his brother and brother’s wife. They eventually started experimenting with jerky and that’s how they got started,” says Chavez. Located off Central, just east of Louisiana (7500 Central Ave SE), you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking they’re a smaller operation. The tiny storefront hides a large production facility behind it, producing over three tons of beef jerky per week. That is quite frankly a shockingly large number for a local, family owned business.
“We’ve really expanded a lot by being able to sell to a ton of stores in and out of state,” says Chavez, while showing the facility to me. It’s later in the afternoon while we’re talking, and the building has people running around packaging and moving and preparing to ship an immense amount of jerky. There are boxes filled to the brim, stacked 8 feet high all around, with even more outside on pallets waiting for pick up. “For 31 years, we’ve been doing this and consistently expanding. It’s been mostly word of mouth,” he says. That’s a very New Mexican business approach.
When talking about what sets them apart from larger national jerky brands, Chavez says, “Everyone knows that the bigger brands use lots of preservatives, that the texture is different, and it’s not local Southwestern dry jerky. Ours uses no preservatives, simple ingredients and is a traditional carne seca.” In fact, his father designed and built unique ovens in order to keep up with demand while maintaining a high level of quality and consistency.
So what recommendations do they have for people trying their jerky the first time? “Our most popular is green chile or original, since it’s so simple and straightforward,” he says, pulling a couple packages out and showing the ingredient list on the back. It’s refreshing to see an entire list of ingredients that I can easily recognize and read, with one package having 8 total ingredients on it, the first three being “beef, water and salt.” Another recommendation he makes is that anyone going through the ketogenic aka keto diet should give their products a try, since they’re totally keto friendly.
So how does a staff of 14 handle making over three tons of jerky a week? A lot of coordination, time and teamwork. The process starts around 5am, when the meat gets unloaded from the coolers, where it was placed the night before. They check to make sure it’s the right temperature and consistency for slicing so it slices easily but is not so soft as to become uneven. Once the meat is ready, it gets sliced to a consistent thickness and placed onto the trays, where they season it and prepare it for cooking. These trays ae moved onto racks that they stack 9 feet high and are then moved into their ovens where they cook. The entire time, a USDA inspector is carefully monitoring everything to ensure they are meeting the highest quality standards and avoiding any potential bacteria or foodborne sicknesses. Once the cooking is done, the jerky gets moved into barrels and is ready to be set for packaging and shipping throughout the week. On average, they do two to three cooks a day like this.
While the process sounds very straightforward and simple, Chavez points out that there’s a lot of science behind it. For the oven cook alone, they must track humidity and temperature to ensure they reach certain levels on both to get the high-quality product they’re known for and that there’s no chance anyone can get sick.
What’s next for Old Santa Fe Trail Beef Jerky? “We’re looking to collaborate with other lightweight snack businesses,” Chavez tells me. The goal is to cross promote with other similar businesses online to help expand the snack market locally. With the rise of snack delivery services over the past 5 years, there’s never been a better time to get into the market and having a locally sourced snack service is most New Mexicans’ dream.
To get in on my favorite jerky ever, you can visit their storefront or order online at oldsantafetrailbeefjerky.com. Recently they launched a new flavor, Red Chile Teriyaki, but if you’re not sure which one to try, they’ve got a sample pack with a little bit of everything for sale as well.