Rebels With a Cause

Illustration by Chris Hall

Entrepreneurial middle schoolers evolve
into focused jerky makers

1998. Downingtown Middle School Cafeteria. Fifth period lunch. I had just finished my brown-bagged salami, mustard and Cooler Ranch Doritos sandwich, and scrounged through my backpack for the $5 bill my mom gave me each morning for drinks and snacks. I got the same thing everyday: strawberry kiwi lemonade ($1.49), a giant chocolate chip cookie ($1), and a Taco Bell soft taco ($1.50). Yes, our cafeteria actually served Taco Bell, an inconceivable travesty by current childhood nutrition standards, and heaven on earth to a 12-year-old. It was that golden era of flavor, when adulterated concerns like “health” and “natural ingredients” never got in the way of unalloyed indulgence.

As I headed toward the Taco Bell sign, I heard “Yo, Bill!” from somewhere in the middle of the room, and spotted my neighbor Kyle Whitmore and his friend Tucker Rinehart waving me over. As I squeezed on to the end of a bench at their table, Kyle handed me a slab of beef jerky unlike any I had seen before. Being a Little League baseball player, I knew every brand, style and flavor of jerky hanging in every gas station in a 20-mile radius. This was no gas station jerky. I asked where it was from, and as any middle-school boy would, Kyle responded, “Shut up and try it.” I ripped off a huge bite, and for the next 15 seconds, my mouth exploded with primal pleasure. I demanded to know where he got it. 

He pointed a few tables down. There in the center was the biggest bag of jerky I’d ever seen. As I watched, a kid pulled out slab after slab, weighed each on a small battery-powered scale, stuffed them into sandwich bags, and exchanged them for the tightly gripped $1 and $5 bills thrust toward him. From the periphery, it looked like a dice game; from closer up, it looked like an open-air drug market. I worked my way along the tables, leaned over the other boys clamoring around the bag and stuck out my $5. Thirty seconds later, the soft, worn bill was replaced by my first bag of Righteous Felon jerky … and that is how I met Brendan Cawley, secondary school jerky kingpin and Chief Trafficking Officer of the Righteous Felon Jerky Cartel.  

Thirteen years later, on a lazy Saturday in 2011, Brendan walked into his house with two huge grocery bags—one filled with ingredients, the other with beef. Kyle, Tucker and I were on the couch with fellow Downingtown alum Geoff Wolk and Brendan’s younger brother, Kyle Cawley. On the same dehydrator Brendan used back in middle school, our three flagship flavors (O.G. Hickory, Che-Potle Guevara and Habanero Escobar) were tweaked to perfection, and the brand followed quickly after.

A year later, the six of us, along with older Cawley brother, Michael, and cousin, Mike Deming, would be known simply as “The Cartel.” Led by Brendan’s relentless spirit, a few high school friends and family set out to build a jerky empire.

First, though, we needed a beef supplier. Choosing a sustainable beef source was essential to both our core values and our business. Over the following year, we searched (not too) far and (not too) wide for the right fit, looking first to the farms in our own backyard of Chester County, and then inevitably toward Lancaster County. Finally, we found Roseda Farm, just below the Mason-Dixon line in Monkton, Md. Their certified black Angus cows are pasture-raised and never receive hormones or antibiotics. Not only does the farm implement stormwater management techniques to mitigate watershed pollution, but their onsite solar array produces more energy than they use. We are proud to put Roseda’s logo on the back of every bag of RF jerky.

In collaboration with Victory Brewing Company, we just released our fourth flavor: Victorious B.I.G. (Beer. Infused. Gastronomy.), a sweet and savory delight steeped in Victory’s Storm King Imperial Stout. For a couple of friends from Downingtown with a little dehydrator, we still can’t believe we’re working with our hometown craft beer heroes. We attribute much of our success to the vibrant food culture of Philadelphia. Whether it’s local brew or local chew, this city has an incredible community of producers and consumers making responsible, sustainable choices. From the local produce in our neighbor CSAs and co-ops to the world-class selections at Di Bruno Brothers, Philadelphia is at the forefront of a more sustainable food culture, and we are thrilled to be a part of it. Righteous Felon is really just a group of lifelong friends who stuck together, and in the City of Brotherly Love, nothing is more local and sustainable than that.

Bill Cohen is a founding owner and Trafficking Lieutenant at Righteous Felon Jerky Cartel and a Master’s of Environmental Studies student at the University of Pennsylvania. righteousfelon.com.