Food & Drink

The Unexpected Origin of America’s Most Iconic Road Trip Snack

And how Slim Jims have remained a gas station favorite for generations.

Slim Jim road trip snack
Photo: Lukasz Pawel Szczepanski/Shutterstock; Illustration: Maitane Romagosa/Thrillist

When you peel back that plastic wrapper, a Slim Jim’s pungent smell spills out and fills your air-conditioned car for hours. But Slim Jims were never supposed to be sitting in your cup holder or buried between the seats. The founder originally set out to create a bar snack, but packaging innovation made the brand synonymous with road trips. Now, more than seventy years later, a new generation is keeping that tradition alive through a wild, digital approach.

Slim Jim’s public relations manager, Dan Skinner, explained to me that Slim Jim sees an “uptick” in sales around spring break and summer that can be attributed to people hitting the road. This phenomenon could be chalked up to the fact that they’re easy to eat, transportable  (even, according to Jennifer Lawrence, to the Oscars), and are carried at nearly every convenience store and gas station across the country. But there’s more to it than that.

To fully understand how Slim Jims have become a road trip staple, we need to start at the beginning. The beef jerky was first created in the 1940s to nourish Pennsylvania bar patrons who were chewing through pepperoni like it was going out of style -- even though it was difficult to eat in public and even more difficult for bartenders to keep in stock due to the long curing time it required.

Slim Jim’s founder, Adolph Levis, came up with a solution. His snack was shorter and thinner than regular rods of pepperoni, which meant that it would be easier to eat while tossing back beers or sipping on martinis, and the new shape lent itself to its catchy name. Just as Virginia Slims were a sophisticated alternative to regular old cigarettes marketed toward women, Slim Jims arose as alternative bar fare made for suited-up patrons who would never chomp on unsightly pepperoni in public.

Just as Virginia Slims were a sophisticated alternative to regular old cigarettes marketed toward women, Slim Jims arose as alternative bar fare made for suited-up patrons.

The snack immediately took off and could be found behind any respectable bar, but it wasn’t until years later that the company would become intertwined with road trips. Slim Jims were housed behind the bar in glass jars with a shallow pool of vinegar to keep the snack fresh. This practice continued for the first decade until the late 1960s, but as America’s Interstate Highway System expanded and road trip culture took off, the snacks were individually wrapped in cellophane for the first time. And with that, it expanded from a regional Northeastern bar snack to a nationwide favorite at gas stations across the country. 

But how exactly has the snack remained the go-to for all these years, even in the face of competition and changing tastes?

In 2010, Slim Jims sales dipped four percent and leadership at the company stressed over how to appeal to the younger generation. The brand had relied on “Macho Man” Randy Savage to target teenage boys in the ‘90s, but that generation was growing up and leaving Slim Jims behind. Not to mention, the snack had more competition than ever. As people hopped on the Keto diet and other supposedly healthy bandwagons, companies hawking what Atlantic writer Amanda Mull called “gentrified Slim Jims” were taking over Whole Foods shelves.

That combination forecasted the brand’s future -- and it was bleak. Until a super fan started the @slimjimsdoingthings Instagram account in 2018. It housed harebrained memes, quirky jokes, and a following who loved the absurdity of it all. It also happened to dominate the actual Slim Jim account when it came to followers -- at the time, it had 15,000 followers to the regular account’s 5,000 -- so Slim Jim brought the founder on board to craft its official online presence.

It ended up being a successful strategy. With the help of Andy Hines, the brain behind @slimjimsdoingthings, sales tripled and the brand reigned its young male following back in with the 21st century equivalent of a jacked wrestler figurehead and hyper-masculine slogans. The meme machine churned out daily posts using popular meme formats and garnered more than a million dedicated followers dubbed the “Long Boi Gang.”

From creating a ridiculous social media presence to innovating the snack for our love of road trips, it’s clear that Slim Jim is determined to stay relevant. Without memes to modernize this snack and bring in a new customer base, we might be stuck chomping on tofurkey jerky in cramped cars all summer long. And had it not been for the expansion of America’s highway system, we may not have even been able to enjoy a Slim Jim on the go in the first place.

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Liz Provencher is an editorial assistant at Thrillist. You can talk to her at lprovencher@thrillist.com or see all the (non-Slim Jim) things she eats on Instagram.