With graduation looming, the frequency of nosy questions about post-graduation life from parents, friends, friends of parents and parents of friends far and wide reaches its peak. “What are you doing after graduation?” Is a question every senior dreads answering, but for Jessica Kwong ’18, the question brought on an entirely new crisis: Accept the return offer for one of the biggest snack companies in the world or start from scratch building her very own company? She eventually decided on the latter, and Kwong declined the job offer in favor of creating what would eventually become Jack & Friends in March 2019, a plant-based jerky line with jackfruit as a main ingredient.
I had the pleasure of tasting Jack & Friends jerky for myself earlier this semester, and I have to say that I was impressed by the product itself. Never having had vegan jerky before, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of taste or texture. I was apprehensive about the smell of the jerky right out of the bag (because it definitely doesn’t smell anything like roasted meat) but Jack & Friends pleasantly surprised me by how palatable their product was — the chew of regular jerky combined with a kick of spices had me reaching back into the bag for one, two or three more strips every time. They were satisfying to eat and also had a great flavor that didn’t leave any weird aftertaste like some other meat alternatives do. Jack & Friends can be ordered online, and is available in Manndibles and all three Greenstar locations in Ithaca.
The Sun interviewed Kwong to learn more about how her time at Cornell contributed to her journey as a business owner.
The Sun: Where did the idea for starting Jack & Friends or creating your own plant-based jerky come from?
Jessica Kwong: The initial concept for a jackfruit-based jerky stemmed from a product I created as the leader of a competition team while still in school, and in looking at the trajectory of the plant-based food market and the gap in vegan jerky offerings, I knew there was a lot of potential for continued development. After graduation and months of [research and development] to completely revamp the original concept, I succeeded in creating a “plant-based jerky for any lifestyle” that I was proud to launch as part of the brand’s platform of inclusivity. As a vegan and top 8 allergen-free product that also packs 21g of protein per bag with no added sugar, Jack & Friends jerky is the only plant-based jerky of its kind currently on the market.
Sun: That’s awesome! I know you’ve talked briefly about how your own brand came about after declining a job offer from a huge snack company. How did you feel and what was the thought process behind turning down that offer to start your own brand?
JK: The two to three weeks I was given to make a decision on my return offer were probably the most stressful weeks during my senior year. Turning down stable income? From one of the largest snack companies in the world? With a good work environment? It sounded ridiculous even to me. I ultimately decided — after many conversations with family members, friends and mentors — to start my own food company because I would have regretted wasting its potential. I’ve always wanted to tackle entrepreneurship at some point in my life (no, the sticker business I started when I was 8 years old did not count), and I was positive I could create a product that was viable in the marketplace. Even if Jack & Friends crashed and burned as a worst-case scenario, I knew I would have come out of the experience knowing so much more, and the food industry would always be there for me to return to if I wanted to transition back into a more traditional, full-time role.
Sun: Going forward with no regrets, I like that. So, how did your Cornell education help you with creating Jack & Friends?
JK: The knowledge and skills I gained through Cornell’s Food Science program has given me such a strong advantage in research and development and product development as well as navigating every technical aspect of building a food brand. Almost all food entrepreneurs have no technical background in food, so they have to stumble through or hire a contractor to handle product development, process optimization, nutrition label generation, sensory analysis, food safety plan development, etc., whereas I can essentially perform all of these tasks on my own. Having the ability to troubleshoot and problem solve as obstacles arise is extremely valuable as well.
Sun: A one-man team does seem a lot more efficient. Along with that, were there any classes or professors you remember that played a part in helping you toward where you are now?
JK: Rather than one defining person or memory, I believe my overall experience within the Food Science department for four years helped shape my career. In addition to the curriculum and extracurricular resources, one of the reasons I loved the department so much was because it felt like a close-knit community — not only among fellow students, but also between students and professors. Having a team of highly qualified individuals be very forthcoming with their time to answer questions and provide support is a luxury, and it helped normalize the idea of reaching out to professionals much more experienced than me to ask for advice. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the best when it comes to keeping in touch, but even so, I’ve contacted many of my past professors since graduation about everything from product-process parameters to food recommendations in Spain. These practices have translated into my current role as well — early-stage businesses are all about community and collaboration, so feeling comfortable to cold email strangers on LinkedIn and then maintaining that network is a huge asset.
Sun: The food science department seems like a great place to be. Did you have a favorite place to eat at Cornell?
JK: As a Food Science alum, I have to give a shout out to the Dairy Bar. The ice cream is obviously amazing, but the sandwiches and other items were also great for lunch. Off campus, Four Seasons, Oishii Bowl, Agave and Viva were the places I remember going to the most often for dinner (although I mostly cooked for myself).
Sun: Your post-grad journey is one that many students are struggling with currently. What advice can you give to current students who are unsure of where their path may lead to after graduation?
JK: Be proactive in taking advantage of opportunities and creating your own opportunities during all four years at Cornell. There are a lot of resources within each department and the university in general — you just have to find and use them. Even if you’re unsure of your career path, try something. If it ends up being an area you want to continue to explore, that’s great. If you found out it wasn’t for you, that’s still great because now you know what you don’t like and can better search for a career that you enjoy. Also, don’t forget that life after graduation is rarely a straight path — your first job [or]career is most likely not going to be your last, and that’s okay, so don’t lose too much sleep about getting it “right” the first time.
Sun: What can we look forward to in the future for you and the company?
JK: Jack & Friends launched its first product only eight months ago, but we’re growing every day and have already been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, selected for curated pop up events, carried in over 15 retail partners, and much more. I’m actively working on scaling up production right now, so keep an eye out for more stores across the country that carry our jerky and some exciting potential partnerships in the near future. Look forward to two new flavors slated to launch in early 2020 as well.