Jessica Kwong smiles and throws her hands in the air in front of her vegan jerky products

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After her CALS team’s jackfruit jerky won a major competition, Jessica Kwong ’18 launched a brand that’s now in stores and online

By Melissa Newcomb

In 2017, Jessica Kwong ’18 co-captained a team of food science majors that won a national product development competition in Las Vegas—a prestigious annual event in which Cornellians have repeatedly taken the top prize.

Then, when it came time to decide what to do after graduation, Kwong declined a job offer in favor of going all in on that winning product.

“I told myself, ‘You’ll regret not taking the risk,’” she recalls. “It’s a win-win situation: I create a successful business, or I go back to the food industry with more knowledge and experience.”

Kwong presents her vegan jerky on stage at a competition
Making a pitch for her brand in 2022.

Now, Kwong’s company, Jack & Friends, sells online and in dozens of NYC retailers—and it’s set to land in Whole Foods throughout the Northeast in fall 2024.

Her product: a vegan spin on beef jerky made from shredded jackfruit.

Popular in Southeast Asia (and increasingly appearing on menus in the U.S.), the fruit has a neutral flavor, a meaty texture, and an absorbency that makes it ideal for adding seasonings.

Jessica Kwong smiles with her graduation cap and gown on
At Commencement.

Jack & Friends currently offers three varieties: ginger teriyaki, sweet barbeque, and tomato and poblano pepper (which, a New York Times review noted, has “mouth-filling heat”).

Each 2.2-ounce, two-serving bag has 15 grams of protein (derived from peas), nine grams of fiber, and no added sugar, and is free of common allergens.

Says Kwong: “Our mission is to craft products you can feel good about eating, regardless of your lifestyle or diet.”

While Jack & Friends jerky is manufactured in the Midwest (and the company is based in NYC), it traces its roots to a product development lab on the Hill.

Each year, food science students vie to design ingenious new offerings, with the ultimate aim of winning the Institute of Food Technologists’ Student Association & Mars Product Development Competition.

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The Big Red has emerged victorious there multiple times, with such products as Pizza Pop-Ups (toaster-ready pizza), Stir-Ins (flavored cookies for dunking in coffee), and Squashetti (vegetable pasta with tomato sauce).

Our mission is to craft products you can feel good about eating, regardless of your lifestyle or diet.

The summer after Kwong’s junior year, her team’s entry—then known as Jack’d Jerky—took first place. The Big Red squad then advanced to the international competition, held in in China—where they finished second.

After continuing to experiment with new formulations, flavors, and spice blends in her Collegetown apartment as a senior, Kwong launched Jack & Friends.

In June 2024, the brand took home the audience choice award—and a prize package worth $50,000—at the Naturally New York Pitch Slam.

(As it happens, the event's $150,000 grand prize went to a business founded by fellow Cornellians: Whipnotic, a line of flavored whipped creams created by sisters Tracy Luckow ’99 and Lori Luckow Gitomer ’01.)

Jack & Friends vegan jerky bags on a table with vegetables and other ingredients
The jerky and some of its ingredients.

While Jack & Friends jerky is vegan, Kwong notes, most of her customers are not.

Rather, they’re “flexitarians”—people who eat mostly plant-based foods but occasionally include meat in their diet.

“The goal is to not just be a vegan replacement,” she says. “First and foremost, we want to be a tasty snack.”

Top: Kwong reps Jack & Friends at a trade show. (All images provided)

Published June 25, 2024


  1. Dr. Douglas Kent Wohlfeiler Wyler, Class of 1970

    Can’t wait to try these jackfruit jerky. Being vegan for the last eight years, I’ve craved certain things, including jerky. I love the innovation that Cornell stirs in people. Can’t wait to see what else is coming down the pike.

  2. Chris Roberts, Class of 1975

    Love this idea! A vegan jerky option is a great snack- I am always looking for snacks with no added sugar. Can’t wait to try it.

  3. Annee, Class of 1993

    CONGRATS!!! As a 14+ year vegan, I look forward to trying this snack. What will win me over as a repeat customer, however, will be the packaging – biodegradable and compostable YES, plastic NO. GO BIG RED!

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