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Welcome to Jerktown, where George Page and Bob Schintzius are out to change the reputation of beef jerky forever.

The two owners of Jerktown U.S.A., a year-old, Buffalo-based beef jerky enterprise, are marketing their "gourmet slice jerky" as a yuppie treat and exercise junky's dream.

They brag that their product -- with 17 grams of protein, 0.5 grams of fat, and 80 calories -- is the perfect treat for the health conscious socialite, and say that they want to bring "closet jerky eaters" into the open.

"People are embarrassed that they like it," said Page, the company's president. "But it's a great, high-quality snack."

Believe it or not, beef jerky is the nation's No. 1 snack food, according to Robert Hiel, president of R.J. Hiel and Associates, a Las Vegas-based gourmet food distributor, so apparently more than cowpokes eat it.

"It's got a lot of potential in new markets as well," Page added.

Page and Schintzius have marketed their product to places like Bally Total Fitness in Amherst and five-star hotels on the Las Vegas strip -- venues that are a far cry from "Bud's Redneck Website," where beef jerky is No. 2 on a top 10 list of "Redneck Favorite Foods."

"Nobody thinks of beef jerky as a health food, but it's a 97 percent fat-free piece of protein that's easy to pop in after the gym," said Schintzius. "The yuppie dream."

But Evemarie Pytlak, a registered dietitian at Baker Victory Services, warns that while beef jerky is a good snack, it shouldn't be treated as a performance enhancer or a way to build muscle.

"Protein doesn't build muscle," she said. "That's a myth. Only exercise does." She added that the high sodium content of Jerktown beef jerky -- 600 milligrams for a one-ounce piece -- isn't healthy, especially after exercising.

Jerktown was born about a year ago when Page was struck by the number of sales at a beef jerky stand at the Erie County Fair. A few weeks later, he was paired with Schintzius and a manufacturer in Idaho.

Their plan was to take beef jerky into new territory: health clubs, movie theaters, hotel room service and gift shops. They used Las Vegas, a city with an average of 250,000 tourists a week, as their test market.

"I walked through 18 pairs of shoes in Vegas," said Schintzius. "And I wouldn't take no for an answer."

His efforts worked. After a year, Jerktown boasts seven-figure sales, according to Schintzius, who said that "it's the product's quality, taste, and price got us into some great places."

The $2-an-ounce beef jerky is smoked and dehydrated pieces of top round. It comes in "gourmet thin slice" or "thick cut" and in flavors such as Red Hot Chili, Teriyaki, and Honey Glazed.

But more notable than what it is, is where the jerky's been turning up.

For example, at a Las Vegas hotel you might find a small piece of jerky on your pillow instead of a chocolate. And at Bally Total Fitness, it's on the shelf next to protein powders and energy bars.

"We're selling it really well," said Alan Plath, the assistant manager at Bally's. "It's something our customers like after a workout to help them see results."

In Western New York, beef jerky has a long way to go to catch up with, say, chicken wings.

"There's a wide gap in jerky appreciation here," said Andy Hurley, director of development for the University at Buffalo athletic program. "That really suggests opportunities."

Jerktown currently has sales representatives in Buffalo; Chicago; Minneapolis; Salt Lake City; San Diego; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Reno; Las Vegas, and Alexandria, Va. But Schintzius said the hub of the company will always be Buffalo.

"Our roots are here, but so is the golden triangle," he said, referring to Buffalo's close proximity to Toronto and Rochester. "We're 90 minutes from the biggest city in Canada, and if you want to tap the Canadian market, where's a better place to do it from?"

While the beef jerky is manufactured in Idaho and made from western cattle, Page and Schintzius said they hope to create some Jerktown jobs in Western New York by putting their Web site and mail order headquarters here.

The owners of Jerktown said that they want to be named "entrepreneur of the year" and to someday have their names on the stadium at UB.

The UB athletic department, in its first year as Division I, is getting some proceeds from Jerktown U.S.A. beef jerky sold on campus.

"Bob (Schintzius) wanted to do something to help UB, so now every on campus sale will benefit us," Hurley said. He added that Schintzius has also made significant contributions to UB athletic scholarships.

"This UB thing is really important to us," Schintzius said. "I went there and learned the things that got me here. It means a lot to do something -- to bring money in and put it in the area."

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