Love at first bite: A chance pit stop on a country road turned into a booming business for Ajay Avery
Ajay’s Montana Bananas Gourmet Beef Jerky
Facebook: Ajay’s Montana Bananas Gourmet Beef Jerky
Phone: 530-613-4295 or 800-262-5759
In the 1970s, Ajay Avery spent a lot of time on the road with his San Francisco-based band, “Cayenne.”
Life could be grueling for the singer/drummer, as the band spent more time on tour than they did at home. The group mostly played colleges, night clubs, casinos and outdoor festivals throughout the western United States and Canada. While recording executives occasionally expressed interest, the cut-throat business meant that a lucrative record deal always seemed to be just out of reach.
“I learned how to live on tuna fish and cheddar cheese,” said Avery. “We’d stock up in the car on non-perishable food so we didn’t have to stop.”
One night, just as they were pulling out of Missoula, Montana, Avery made a quick stop at an old, single-pump gas station.
“Right next to the pump was an old, plain-looking building,” he said. “I decided to pop my head in the door, and oh, my god. It turned out to be this amazing little custom meat shop. The owner was selling hand cut pieces wrapped in butcher paper.”
The owner had his own smoke house, where he would smoke venison for local hunters. But it was the deli tray of thick, hand cut strips of beef jerky that caught his eye.
“I was transfixed,” said Avery. “I figured if it was half as good as it looked, it would be twice as good as the jerky I’d ever had. I told the man, ‘Give me some of THAT.’”
Hurts, so good
Back on the road for the next four hours, Avery and his bandmate couldn’t stop eating the custom “cowboy dry” jerky, a traditional mainstay on the cattle drives of Big Sky Country. After the first two hours, Avery’s jaw started to hurt, but he couldn’t stop. He was hooked.
“It was just so good and different,” he said, with a laugh. “By the time we got to Lewiston, Idaho I didn’t even want to talk. Then I had to sing for four hours. It was painful.”
Ten days later, Avery passed through Missoula and again stopped in the shop, eager for a another batch. But the jerky was gone. The owner, Ben Wilkinson, said he only made standing orders for local families every three months, which he’d been doing for the past 35 years. Last time, Avery had popped in just in time to buy the leftovers.
“I told him I couldn’t wait three months — and asked him if he could make an entire batch just for me,” said Avery. “It was then and there that Ajay’s Montana Bananas Gourmet Beef Jerky was conceived.”
Back home in California, 30, then 40, then 110-pound batches of jerky began arriving at Avery’s parents’ house in Rio Vista. He’d then take it out on the road and sell it during his down time. It sold like hot cakes. He developed a friendship with Wilkinson, who offered to share his jerky recipe and help him get set up in a Sacramento smoke house. His generosity stunned Avery. As it turns out, he was dying of cancer. All he asked for was a one percent royalty until he died. It would then go to his wife, Helen, until she died. After that, it the business was all Avery’s.
In 1985, Avery moved with his young family to Grass Valley and opened his office on the ground floor of this new three story house. His wife, who was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, passed away two years ago. Today, Avery’s daughter, Caitlin, and her husband David Dalzell, have now taken over everyday operations, with Avery serving as consultant and filling in as needed.
“I don’t get the social media stuff at all,” said Avery, now 66. “I don’t understand it and I’m too damn old to learn. I leave that up to the kids — they’re doing a great job.”
Now in its 40th year, the continued growth of Ajay’s Montana Bananas Gourmet Beef Jerky has been astounding. For the past 11 years, Bev Mo has carried the product in 150 stores throughout the western United States. For the past six years, more than 100 Raley’s/Bel Air/Nob Hill stores have also carried the jerky. North Coast Mercantile, a Budweiser franchise based in Eureka, has been selling it since 1981 and various “small niche” distributors also carry it in 25 states.
In November, Guy Fieri, an American restaurateur, author, game show host and television personality, invited Avery to his studio in Santa Rosa. He told Avery he had discovered his jerky while growing up in rural Humboldt County and has been a loyal customer ever since.
This summer, Ajay’s Montana Bananas Gourmet Beef Jerky celebrated its 20th year of having a booth at the Nevada County Fair, and its 40th year in business. The jerky comes in three basic flavors — medium, hot and teriyaki — and three types, vertical thick cut, slab style thin cut and beef sticks.
But despite its tremendous success, Avery still enjoys the phone messages, emails and letters he gets from individual customers, many of whom are lifelong fans.
“I’m so grateful for our success,” he said. “But the best part is when I get a call from a cowboy somewhere out in the middle of nowhere who says, ‘Hey man — you make some kick-ass jerky. I’ve been eating it since the late ’70s.’”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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