What started with an overpriced dehydrator has since grown into a fully fledged snack business for three Northwestern University entrepreneurs.

The company, aptly named Minimal Snacks, has a mission as clear as the nutrition label on the back of their high-protein, air-dried beef: to bring food back to its roots with a handful of high-quality ingredients. 

Founder and Northwestern alumnus Ryan Teo said his endeavors in the snack industry were inspired by an Engineering Entrepreneurship class taught at the university and his desire to optimize body function through food. 

Before factory farming, humans relied on hunter-gatherer techniques for necessary fuel and survival. In the past century, hyper-processed corn and soy products have replaced the diet of our ancestors, making it difficult to find whole food options in everyday grocery aisles. Minimal hopes to revolutionize the snack industry by making simple products mainstream. 

“Very few snacks on the market resemble the natural world,” Teo said. “We’ve evolved as a civilization so quickly, that I don’t think our bodies have had time to evolve at the same rate.”

Teo decided on using beef and shiitake mushrooms to emulate biltong, a dried meat snack popular in Southern Africa, to create something suitable for American consumers without unrecognizable additives. Unlike the similar beef jerky, biltong is typically made from finer cuts of meat and cured over a longer period of time. The result is a thicker, softer slice of dried beef, free of sugar, trans fat and carbohydrates. 

Along with fellow senior and co-founder Ansh Prasad, Teo put on his gloves and hairnet and began experimenting with different recipes and preparation methods in 2019. Operating entirely out-of-pocket to get the company off the ground, the pair eventually teamed up with the largest biltong producer in the US, Stormberg Foods. 

Prasad said their partnership with Stromberg Foods was a turning point for the budding business, which allowed them to make the jump from a few college kids in a Chicago test kitchen to a reputable food distributor. 

After months of back and forth between the two companies, during which Minimal tested products with varying amounts of salt and mushroom concentrate and conducted numerous focus groups, the team’s efforts culminated in the air-dried beef jerky now packaged into sleek, black bags. 

The final result features only four basic ingredients: whole-muscle beef, shiitake mushroom extract, red wine vinegar and salt. It is a list Prasad said they are so proud of, they decided to publicize it on the front of every package.  

Nixie Strazza

“We think people should be more conscious of what goes into the food that they put in their body,” Prasad said. “Whether that’s a snack food, protein bar or milkshake, we want people to start reading the labels of their favorite foods.”  

Every sub-200 calorie bag of Minimal beef boasts 23 grams of protein and 0 grams of sugar, two benefits the team has emphasized in advertising campaigns on their website and Instagram platform

A weightlifter and life-long athlete, senior and product manager Liliana Sydorenko said she joined the Minimal team because she was impressed with the protein-to-calorie ratio of the product and the short list of ingredients used in the air-dried beef. 

Sydorenko said she was sick of relying on protein bars chock full of processed whey, soy and pea protein isolates (and 20 other ingredients used to mask the unpalatable chalky flavor) as her main source of fuel in between workouts. Like Teo, Sydorenko saw a gap in the market for a health conscious, protein-efficient snack. 

“This is a staple for the briefcase, the gym bag, the hiking bag or the backpack,'' Sydorenko said. “It’s really an everyday snack.”

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Minimal connected with well-respected beef connoisseurs to get the word out about their product, described by Teo as, “a cross between prosciutto and jerky.” Responses from the likes of former NU wrestler Ryan Deakin and @reqteqsmoker Mike Patten regarding flavor have been nothing short of glowing reviews Sydorenko said. 

“These are people who we do not know and we have not paid, and everybody’s loved it,” she added. 

To take their company from a few hundred bags to a few thousand, Minimal posted their story to Kickstarter on January 3rd with the hopes of raising enough money to increase production. 

Within two hours of launching their Kickstarter campaign, Minimal blew past their $5,000 fundraising goal, eventually garnering over $13,000 from hundreds of supporters. Now with 38 days to go, the brand is aiming for the $30k benchmark, after which they will release merchandise and announce new flavors currently in development. 

Sydorenko said their staggering success on Kickstarter gives Minimal the “clout” needed for future expansion.  

“If we can say our Kickstarter was funded in X number of hours, that’s something we can take to publications, potential partners and retailers,” Sydorenko said. “The more people that engage with us on our platforms, the more credibility we have to scale upwards.”

Nixie Strazza

Sydorenko is excited to expand the Minimal family to include both sweet and savory options in line with the brand’s minimalistic mission.

The immediate next step for Minimal, however, is setting up an online store and recuperating all that Teo and Prasad poured into the initial stages, though the team said the ultimate goal is to have bags of their delicious air-dried beef in every Whole Foods across America.

“We want to start a ripple effect in the market to change the way snack companies make snacks,” Sydorenko said. “It would be great to see other companies using fewer ingredients, processing less and going back to the basics.”

Photos courtesy of Ansh Prasad.