Caddie Jeff King cooks the most popular homemade beef jerky on the PGA Tour, and now he's turning pro
A couple of years ago, Jeff King was on his way to a friend’s boathouse outside Gun Barrel, Texas, when he stopped at a Bass Pro Shop. (No, we didn’t steal that line from a Hank Williams song.) On a lark he bought a dehydrator to try his hand at homemade beef jerky. This was the unlikely beginning of a craze that would sweep the PGA Tour, as King’s jerky has become the on-course fuel of choice for dozens of brand-name players. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Back at the boathouse, King made his first few batches for his parents, Jerry and Bunny. “It was god-awful,” says Jeff. “I remember I made a turkey jerky with pineapple that was so bad you wouldn’t feed it to rats.”
King kept tinkering with his formula after he returned to his cramped apartment in Dallas. From 1998 to 2011 he caddied primarily on the LPGA tour, packing for Cristie Kerr, Pat Hurst and enjoying a long run with Candie Kung. This last relationship would come to flavor his jerky. “Most white guys think all soy sauce is the same,” says King. “If you spend a lot of time around Asian women, you learn that’s not true.”
He began testing a half-dozen soy sauces for his marinades, ultimately settling on Pearl River Bridge Golden Label. Sounding like a snooty sommelier, he says it has “a darker flavor note and just the right amount of saltiness.” Into his secret sauce King sprinkled varying amounts of garlic and onion powders, brown sugar, cayenne, chili and black peppers and liquid smoke. His choice of beef was important -- King became loyal to flank steak, whereas most commercial jerky is made from top round carrying a USDA rating of “utility meat.” Says King, “It’s basically one grade above road-kill.”
King took his homemade jerky on the road, and it quickly developed a cult following among grazing golfers. At an LPGA event in the spring of 2012 he sold 30 pounds in four hours, at $40 a pound. “That’s when I knew I was on to something,” he says. King, 40, had always enjoyed the low-key life on the LPGA tour, a choice he affirmed after he went broke in 2000 caddying for Eric Booker as he finished 198th on the PGA Tour money list. “Why would I leave the LPGA?” King says. “I have all these top players calling me, I have a chance to win tournaments, all my friends are out there. Driving seven hours in a car with a couple of other caddies, stopping at a bar or two along the way, that was fun. We were like a traveling fraternity.”
But in recent years he began to feel run-down by the LPGA’s increasingly far-flung schedule, and his closest wingman had gone on to bigger things: Lance Bennett was carrying for Matt Kuchar, a human ATM. So in May 2012 King made the jump to the PGA Tour, to pack for Vaughn Taylor, a 2006 Ryder Cupper. He brought his jerky with him. By now King had perfected two more flavors, the so-called “sweet chili,” which turns up the heat with crushed red pepper, and a tangy version inspired by Buffalo wings that is enlivened by Worcestershire sauce, Frank’s Hot Sauce and extra brown sugar. In addition to the homegrown flavors, King’s jerky was distinctive for coming in long, meaty strips, which preserved a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.
Taylor didn’t keep his card for 2013, so King linked up with promising rookie Luke List. A pair of newbies don’t usually attract much attention from their colleagues but, says List, “It seems like wherever we set up on the range it becomes a gathering spot.” It is indeed fun to watch List pound drivers -- he leads the Tour in driving distance, at 306.5 yards a pop -- but fellow players and caddies were looking to buy, or mooch, the jerky.
“It’s hands down the best I’ve ever had,” says Kuchar. “I’ve always enjoyed going around the country tasting handmade jerky, and nothing’s close to this stuff for its flavor and tenderness.”
“I told Jeff he should call it Birdie Jerky because it seems whenever I have some I birdie that hole,” says Billy Horschel, noting the benefits of a timely protein boost. “It’s addictive. My caddie and I have to put restraints on our ourselves. We can easily go through a pound a day, but we just try to have a few pieces every few holes.” Adds Davis Love III, a noted carnivore: “It’s so good that I’ve suspended my jerky-making at home until [King] gives me some lessons. My wife and daughter and I once went to a couple football games over one weekend and we ate four of those big [one-pound] bags. We said, ‘We’ve got to stop doing that!’”
King took so many orders from so many players he was spending nearly all of his down time making jerky. Four dehydrators cluttered his kitchen, and he was buying steak in 70-pound boxes from an Asian market in Dallas. (It takes about three pounds of raw meat to make one pound of jerky.) Says King, “I would walk in, and these little old ladies behind the counter would yell at me, ‘Two boxes or three?!’” He often worked through the night, pumping club music as he cut meat in a trance. At one point he was so hopelessly behind schedule he flew in his parents in to help with production.
At Pebble Beach this year, King reconnected with an old friend, Adam Papazian, whom he hadn’t seen in about five years. They knew each other from golf’s minor leagues going back to the late ’90s. Papazian is a native of Salinas, Calif., the self-styled “Salad Bowl of the World”; having given up on his dreams of playing golf professionally, he was now working on the business side of Big Agriculture, specializing in, he says, “taking products from people’s kitchens to the marketplace.” After listening to King’s tale and sampling his wares, Papazian said, “So, do you want to start a company?”
King was flabbergasted. “I had no idea this is what Adam does for a living,” he says. “I knew he was in the food world, but that was the extent of it. I don’t know if it was fate or what that brought us together. Anyway, the next morning I called my parents and told them I was going to be a CEO. We died laughing. It was the most ridiculous idea any of us had ever heard.”
A couple of months after that fateful conversation King returned to the Monterey Peninsula for a meeting that would help shape the future of his nascent company. Papazian, now officially his co-partner, had gathered a deep-pocketed would-be investor along with Michael Cory, a former design director at Starbucks whom these days runs his own marketing firm. Cory was charged with shaping the image of the company, and King clearly needed the help. “My idea of a focus group was sitting around drinking beer with a bunch of caddies and trying to come up with a name,” he says. Mulligan Meats and Wormburner Jerky was the best they could do.
Papazian was partial to Chief and Honcho, until it was discovered that is the name of an erotic magazine for gay men. Ultimately Cory’s counsel would be heeded and the company was christened as Kingmade Jerky. Sitting at a restaurant in Carmel, Cory passed around prototypes of the clever logo, which features an urbane steer dressed alternately as a golfer, a skier and a hunter. The chosen slogan was: “Superior sustenance for active sophisticates.” Sipping a coffee, Cory laid out his vision: “The brand needs to tell a story. Jerky is a little bit macho, but we want to distinguish ourselves with quality and the sophistication of its flavor.” Only slightly kidding, he called it “artisanal jerky.” Much business-school jargon ensued, and King had a slightly glazed look when the meeting ended an hour later. “My head is spinning,” he says. “Those are big words for a caddie, you know? There have been plenty of moments when I’ve wondered what the heck I’m doing. This whole thing is an accident. Me even being a caddie is an accident.”
King grew up in Hammond, Ind., in the exurbs of Chicago. His father coached high school basketball across Indiana for 22 years, and he’ll proudly tell you that in 1978, at Bishop Noll Institute, he had the 18th-ranked team in the country. Jeff was a natural athlete who excelled in hoops and hockey, but golf was his true love. Says Jerry, “I used to drop him off at the course in the morning and say I’d be back at sunset. And then I’d have to wait another half hour because he’d be out there in the dark.”
King was good enough to play for Division II Emporia (Kan.) College but smart enough to realize he didn’t have the talent or the single-mindedness to survive as a touring pro. Still enamored with the game, he spent three years after college teaching at the David Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla. There he came to the attention of Mi Hyun Kim, a superstar in Korea who in 1999 was embarking on her maiden LPGA season. She made King an offer he couldn’t refuse, and suddenly he was a professional caddie. Expectations were so sky-high for Kim -- at least among her handlers -- -that when she failed to win any of her first seven tournaments King was made the scapegoat and unceremoniously fired. “That was a rude introduction to the business side of things,” he says with a laugh. As he has after every firing, King drove to his parents’ house to spend some time with his yellow lab Casey. “Sometimes you just need to be with your dog,” he says.
King could have gone back to teaching but caddying was already in his blood. “The thing about Jeff is, he grew up playing team sports and hanging out in the locker rooms with me and my players,” says Jerry. “He’s always loved competition and being in the middle of the action. Caddying made him feel like he was part of a team again.”
This spirit of collaboration would become crucial as Kingmade struggled to mass-produce its jerky. Papazian raised $175,000 to launch the company -- hitting up friends and family and even getting $25,000 from Bennett, Kuchar’s caddie -- but the the jerky itself remained the biggest hurdle. In the late spring, King sent his recipes to a processing plant in Chicago, but even after a series of phone consultations the samples that came back were, “like eating cardboard,” he says. “It was depressing.” Papazian located a more boutique operation by the name of C & C Processing, in Diller, Neb. This time King wanted to handle things face-to-face. He loaded up his 2010 Camry with gallons of soy sauce and boxes of spices and made the 600-mile drive to Diller (pop. 258). “I wasn’t coming home ’til we got it right,” King says. He spent three nights on a couch at the home of C & C’s president, Chad Lottman. A week later the first vacuum-tumbled samples arrived at King’s apartment. “I was almost too nervous to open them,” he says. “If the jerky wasn’t right, this whole thing was going down the tubes.” When he finally found the courage to tear the plastic, “it smelled exactly the same as my kitchen when I’m make my jerky. It was like, Yessss!” The only difference is in the texture. At home King slow-cooks his jerky at 155 degrees, but for commercial operations the USDA mandates a minimum temperature of 270, which has left the jerky a touch drier. It’s something King has learned to live with.
The first orders from kingmadejerky.com shipped at the end of July. The website offers the classic, sweet chili and Buffalo flavors, at $54 a pound. C & C can produce up to 3,000 pounds of jerky a week, though it will take a while to build that kind of demand. King’s buddies on Tour have been happy to help with the promotion; tweets have gone out from loyal customers like Graeme McDowell (“Great tasting without all the junk”), Rickie Fowler (“#Go Time), Andres Gonzalez (“Eat the jerky the pros eat!!!”) and Horschel (“Not being paid for this”). Dozens of caddies are carrying towels with the snazzy Kingmade logo. The Tour fraternity is happy to pitch in because King is such an unassuming guy but also because he’s representative of a pleasing entrepreneurial spirit. “It’s the American Dream,” says Love.
Papazian likes to note that beef jerky is a $7 billion a year industry, but his partner is trying not to think about the money. “I’ve been struggling to make ends meet for so long I’m kind of used to it,” King says. “If by some chance this thing takes off, I wouldn’t mind having a little extra money for travel expenses, but I don’t see any scenario where I’d quit caddying. It’s who I am.”
That’s good news for List, who is trying to keep his card through the Web.com tour finals. “He does such a good job out there,” says List. “He’s so positive all the time. And he’s very knowledgeable about the golf swing, which can be a major asset.” Still, List enjoys teasing his looper about his budding jerky empire. At the PGA Tour event in Puerto Rico, a yacht was parked alongside one of the ocean holes and List told his caddie, “Next year that’s going to be yours.” It has become a running joke between them, but in truth King has bigger dreams. “What am I going to do with a yacht?” he says. “If this thing becomes a success what I would really love is to sponsor Luke, to have my name on his shirt. I seriously doubt in all of golf history that a caddie has sponsored a player. How cool would that be?”
And no matter how big Kingmade gets, expect its blue-collar gourmet to continue to toil in his kitchen. King still takes special orders from his friends in golf. He makes a sweet flavor that is popular on the LPGA -- Kung helps with distribution -- and a jerky with ghost peppers, one of spiciest varietals on the planet. That’s reserved for a select few friends he has vetted to make sure they won’t croak upon taking a bite. List didn’t qualify for the PGA Championship, so King spent the week at home testing out new recipes, including vanilla rum and another mixing ale with Italian salad dressing. He was enthusing about these creations when his phone buzzed. “Just got a text from an LPGA caddie asking me to do a taco flavor,” he said. “That might be worth a shot.”