July 18, 2018 10:51:54 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Good fortune just smiled on Michael Pan. Viewers of NBC's TODAY show July 10 saw nutrition and wellness contributor Dave Zinczenko showcase a few of his favorites from among about 200,000 items featured at the recent Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City. One of those was Pan's Mushroom Jerky. What most local viewers didn't realize, however, is that Pan is a Starkville native, one with unflagging entrepreneurial spirit.
"Out of the blue, about a week before the show, they said we'd been picked as one of the brands they wanted to highlight as being a very unique, innovative product, and they loved our story," said Pan in a phone interview Monday from his current home, Vancouver, Washington. That story involves family and fate.
After graduating from Starkville High School in 1997, Pan left Mississippi for the University of Illinois and later worked as a corporate engineer. He also eventually helped launch a Boston start-up, Fancred. But it was a trip to Malaysia in 2008 to visit extended family that would alter the course of Pan's career.
"For me, it was a time when I was reconnecting with my family history that I didn't know very well. Traveling to Malaysia was partially to get to know my family's culture, my roots," the 39-year-old explained. "They fed me like crazy and on one visit to a cousin of mine, he put a bowl (of food) on the table, and I reached for it. I loved it. I asked if it was pork and he said no, this is actually our family's mushroom jerky."
It turns out the cousin's homemade jerky was created using a longtime family recipe. Several of Pan's family members were vegetarian and often struggled to find good snacks that were not only tasty but also had satisfying texture. They found that mushrooms were a great replacement for meat. Not only do they have a meaty texture, they're also natural sources of protein, fiber and antioxidants, Pan said.
"After I heard the story, I fell in love with the background. I had a personal connection to it," he continued.
Pan knew he wanted to try to bring mushroom jerky to America, where interest in plant-based diets and natural foods was on the rise. Even as he continued to work full-time, his enthusiasm for developing a market never waned. He went at it part-time, importing small batches from Malaysia to introduce to the public. Then, when the start-up business he'd helped begin sold in 2016, it gave him the resources to establish Panco Foods and get serious about jerky.
Today, Pan's Mushroom Jerky is produced in a commercial kitchen in Portland, Oregon, where the entrepreneur tests and updates recipes and creates new flavors. He now markets four: Original, Salt and Pepper, Zesty Thai and Applewood BBQ.
"I told myself we wouldn't do (barbecue)," he laughed. "It's too normal, too cliche. But we tried it, and we loved it."
On the rise
For the past several months, Pan has been on a marketing blitz. That includes traveling to national food shows and conventions like the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California, and SXSW Wellness Expo in Austin, Texas. It was the Fancy Food Show in New York that led to the recent exposure on TODAY.
"We thank the Specialty Food Association that puts on that food show and the company called Eat This, Not That," said Pan of the TV opportunity. "Obviously, not a lot of people know about mushroom jerky, and it's difficult and expensive to get the word out. Getting awareness out there is huge, and we did get some great sales from that."
As buzz builds, Pan is determined to control his product and its future.
In a March 25 article by Troy Brynelson in The Columbian in Vancouver, Dave Barcos, founder of The Bridge business incubator, said Pan should trust his instincts.
"It's got incredible potential. Based on the production he's doing now, he can grow three, four, five times," Barcos said of Pan's product. "He's on the cusp of some really, really big growth and he's ready to do it."
Pan told The Dispatch, "We have so many people that want this product, and we want to make it easier for them to get it. We're rolling into retail across the country in the next year."
The mushroom jerky is currently available in about 200 stores, including certain Marshalls and T.J. Maxx locations as well as other businesses under the TJX Companies umbrella. It's also available online at mushroomjerky.com for $9 per bag.
"And I'm working on some placement in Starkville," said Pan, whose mushroom mojo all started with a trip to Malaysia.
He shared, "I knew my family had something special that had to be shared with the rest of the world."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.