The journey to Cactus Pete's

Many stars aligned for this hobby to become a family business


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  • Want a taste? Brian Gerri's tasty jerky is the centerpiece of Cactus Pete's in Hewitt. He also sells it at several local farmer's markets.




  • Brian and Ushanee Gerri spend their days creating the tasty treat that is Cactus Pete Jerky.




  • Cactus Pete's offers more than just Jerky. It is located at 1939 Greenwood Lake Turnpike in Hewitt.




Brian Gerri had been working as a reverse mortgage consultant for 12 years and he’d just about had it. “My wife and I were sitting down talking: What should we do?”

Let’s start a business, they decided. Something on the side.

But what? Well, Gerri liked making jerky at home, in a little round dehydrator he’d gotten at Macy’s. His wife, Ushanee Gerri, mixed up a marinade she usually used for barbecue, using some combination of jarred chili oil from the Asian supermarket, soy sauce, vinegar, ketchup – they can’t quite remember now. Hot & Spicy Szechuan, they ended up calling it. They brought it to parties and it was a hit. They had stumbled upon a gaping unfilled niche in the snack industry.

Then they had a son, followed by twin girls, and they took an intermission until 2010, when they fired the dehydrator back up. In 2011, Brian quit working for Wells Fargo, and Cactus Pete’s became the full-time family business.

With three young kids, the move was a huge leap of faith. But leaps of faith had worked out for them before.

Let’s rewind to Valentine’s Day, 2001. Brian, a Jersey boy through and through, met Ushanee Maglaya, who lived in the Philippines, on a dating site. Three months later, he bought a plane ticket to the Philippines. His family assumed he had gone insane. A week after that, he bought a ring at a pawn shop, got down on one knee on the beach and asked Ushanee to marry him. At which point she started to cry.

“You scared me!” she recalled.

She said yes.
The suburbs were lonely for Ushanee at first. For a few years, she was afraid to drive so was often housebound. But she overcame that hurdle, and she worked on her English.

Fast forward: Brian and Ushanee, both 42, have found their own space in Hewitt with a commercial kitchen. They of course sell jerky, which Brian makes 40 pounds of each day, but Cactus Pete’s is also an eatery with a fusion menu that includes sliders and Southeast Asian spring rolls called lumpia. Brian gets there early each morning, slices meat and loads up trays to get them into the dehydrators before opening the doors. Ushanee chats up customers while offering samples and is the life of the store. They both man the kitchen at lunchtime. The couple’s identical five-year-old daughters nestle on cushions underneath the counter and swivel on stools.

They sell jerky at farmers markets, street fairs and festivals, where their seven-year-old son sometimes works the cash register. They buy some of their beef from Lowland Farms in Warwick, N.Y., and use habanero peppers from R&G Produce in Pine Island, N.Y. By happy accident, it turns out that the soy sauce they use is local, too.

It was “some Asian brand we’d never heard of,” said Brian. Hoping to buy it in bulk, they looked up Wan Ja Shan, and discovered it was brewed, of all places in the world, 30 miles away in Middletown, N.Y.

What’s it like working together? “I’m sad when my wife leaves the door,” said Brian. “I’m happy when she comes in the door. We love it. We have more time together.”

He looked at Ushanee, who was quiet.

“Are you crying?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said. “I’m happy.”

Editor's note: This story previously appeared in Dirt Magazine, a sister publication of The West Milford Messenger.

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