The Slim Jim manufacturing plant, located in Troy, Ohio, produces approximately one billion of the meat sticks per year, which go on to line the shelves of convenience stores, grocery stores and gas stations round the nation. In other words: If you never want to lay eyes on one of these greasy animal logs ever again, you’re shit out of luck, because they’re literally everywhere.
But that wasn’t always the case: In fact, Slim Jims only made their way into convenience stores during the 1950s, and they looked and tasted a lot different to the highly-processed meat rods we come across today. And so, let’s take a trip back in time to see how the most American snack ever became just that.
1920s to 1940s: The Sophisticated Bar Snack
In 1929, Adolph Levis (really!), who would later become the inventor of the Slim Jim, dropped out of school in order to sell condiments, spices and pickled meats to taverns and delicatessens during the Great Depression. He was 16 at the time.
More than a decade later, in the early 1940s, Levis partnered up with his brother-in-law, Joseph Cherry, to hire a local meat packer who could develop dried beef sticks that were smaller and easier to eat than large sausages. “The original product was called Penn Rose — a combination of Levis’ native state of Pennsylvania and his wife’s name, Rose,” explains Slim Jim brand director Spencer Fivelson.
But of course, Penn Rose didn’t stick, and the duo decided on the name Slim Jim in order to appeal to more sophisticated bar-goers (sophistication being a more desirable trait during the 1940s, when many men walked around wearing suits and top hats). “Given that the product was more slender than the pickled sausages that were popular during this era, ‘Slim’ was a logical descriptor,” Fivelson adds, noting that the original logo was of a man sporting a top hat and cane, and that the tagline was “Make Your Next Drink Taste Better.” An array of ashtrays (supposedly from this time period) listed on eBay sport the slogan:
1950s: The Beat Snack
While Slim Jims were originally sold in jars of vinegar — primarily in the Northeast — they were individually wrapped with cellophane after Levis and Cherry founded Cherry-Levis Food Products in the early 1950s. “While it remained a popular bar food, this also allowed for the product to be sold in convenience stores,” Fivelson explains, adding that the immense growth of the Interstate Highway System during the 1950s, accompanied by a growing interest in taking road trips inspired by Beatnik culture and On the Road author Jack Kerouac, drastically increased the Slim Jim’s popularity (more time on the road meant more opportunities to stop at gas stations and convenience stores).
This transition from bar food to convenience store snack also introduced the Slim Jim to a younger audience. “Convenience stores have always been a critical channel where younger consumers shop, and we continue to see that today,” Fivelson says, adding that Slim Jims became a right-of-passage purchase for teenage boys looking to spend their spare change. “At a certain age, you make your mark as a man by buying that first six-pack of beer. This is something you can purchase at age 12, 13 or 14: Whenever your parents give you an allowance, and you have some disposable income.”
1960s to 1980s: The Rapidly Expanding Snack
Cherry-Levis Food Products was sold to General Mills in 1967, which then merged Slim Jim production into another meatpacking operation — GoodMark Foods — in 1982. Then, in 1998, GoodMark was bought by Conagra, a food conglomerate based in Omaha. “With the acquisition by General Mills, Slim Jim transitioned from a regional brand found in the Northeast to a nationally-recognized snack,” says Fivelson.
Over this time, the Slim Jim was reformulated several times, eventually eliminating organ meat and some additives (like monosodium glutamate) and adding some chicken meat to the formula. “Throughout the years, there have been changes to the ingredients in terms of the spice blend and meats,” Fivelson says. “But the goal with these changes has always been to maintain consistency with what consumers expect from a Slim Jim: Bold, spicy flavor and an unmistakable snap.”
1990s: The X-treme Snack
The Slim Jim marketing team began to lean heavily into the extreme youth culture being relentlessly sold during the 1990s, most notably recruiting Randy “Macho Man” Savage as a brand ambassador. “Randy Savage was the perfect Slim Jim spokesperson because his … personality mirrored what Slim Jim represents,” Fivelson says. “The ‘Snap Into a Slim Jim’ line is repeated to us by consumers every day in Macho Man’s iconic voice. He’s the reason that tag line has such resonance, more than two decades after those spots aired.”
These commercials mostly involved teenagers being saved from their adult-induced boredom once Savage arrives on the scene, aggressively creating fun-filled chaos with the help of his trusty Slim Jim. A few years later, in 1998, Slim Jim debuted the “Slim Jim Guy” commercials, which featured a character who was destructive, insane and frankly, downright creepy — a poor man’s Ace Ventura minus the (already questionable) charm.
2000s and Beyond: The ‘Healthy’ Snack
In 2009, Slim Jim production was momentarily halted after their only factory (which was located in Garner, North Carolina) exploded, resulting in the deaths of three workers. While that factory reopened shortly thereafter, the facility was permanently closed in 2011 (on the same day that Savage died in a car accident, oddly enough). As of today, the only remaining Slim Jim factory is located in Troy, Ohio.
Despite the explosion and related setbacks, Slim Jim continued to press forward, attempting to expand their market by offering more options and “healthier” choices. “One of our most recent initiatives is the introduction of Slim Jim Premium, a meat snack that appeals to a slightly older male consumer,” Fivelson says, adding that their Premium product comes in different flavors and boasts “healthier” ingredients, like “grass-fed beef” and “premium pork.”
Fivelson also notes that Slim Jim packaging now sports protein callouts (their Monster Meat Stick, for instance, loudly announces that it delivers 11 grams of protein), since American snackers are currently more health-minded than ever. “If you look at total protein snack consumption today, it’s huge,” he explains. “Consumers are eating more protein snacks, and more snacks in general, than they ever have.”
Despite the recent health kick, Slim Jim occasionally continues to brand themselves as wild and crazy, too: In 2015, a team of physicists, engineers, meteorologists and meat emissaries sent a Slim Jim into space using a weather balloon, for no real reason other than that, hey, it’s extreme!
Where the Slim Jim will go from here on remains unclear: Their most recent commercials are still very deliberately odd, while continuing to push the idea that the Slim Jim is a healthier snack than other options (as you can imagine, this is debatable), also making use of those “grass-fed beef” and “premium pork” labels.
Whatever the future, Slim Jim remains an icon of American snacking, because we love our snacks, we love our meat and we certainly love our highly-processed mystery foods.