Turning Barbecue into Business
Learn how local entrepreneurs have turned their love of barbecue into full-fledged companies.
Every fall, hundreds of competitors crowd into Kansas City’s West Bottoms for the annual American Royal Barbecue—the World Series of Barbecue.
Most of them are perfectly content to pursue their love of ’cue strictly as a hobby. But if someone has a hobby they love and they’re good at it, it’s probably inevitable that at some point they’ll contemplate turning it into a business.
Just ask Todd Johns.
Johns and his wife, Audrey, began competing in barbecue events as the Pork Pullin Plowboys in 2001. Even in a very competitive field, they were such a success that in 2007 they began wholesaling their sauces and rubs, and launched a small catering business on the side.
Then in 2009, the Plowboys were named Grand Champions of the American Royal Barbecue, and their retail sales have increased fivefold since. Last June, Johns quit his day job of 21 years to focus all his efforts on Plowboys, a 72-seat restaurant in Blue Springs the couple opened. The Johns now earn their living entirely from barbecue.
But making that jump—from enthusiast to entrepreneur—isn’t always easy.
“It takes a lot of work,” Johns said. “You can’t just clock out at the end of the day. Everything is your responsibility. I knew I wouldn’t be able to just phone it in, but I work 14 to 16 hours a day and, still, my list of things to do keeps getting bigger.”
A Different Set of Skills
Most barbecue-based entrepreneurs get their start through competitions—but that’s very different from running a company.
Russell Muehlberger and Jon Niederbremer, owners of Jon Russell’s Kansas City Barbecue, enjoyed success on the competitive barbecue circuit before opening their restaurant in south Overland Park in September 2012.
The two have known each other since high school and have been competing as a team since 1989. In addition to perfecting their barbecue during 24 years of competition, and winning some 300 ribbons and trophies, Muehlberger is a graduate of the culinary program at Johnson County Community College and a certified executive chef.
“I’ve been in the kitchen my entire life,” he said. “I know this business. It runs you over pretty quick. Being a chef or a restaurant owner is not the easiest thing.”
Running his own business, he added, “That’s a whole different story. That’s where Jon and I are really learning a lot, about sales and marketing and things like that.”
He said their biggest challenge is developing a team.
“You have to hire people and then you have to show them everything that you know. Then you have to leave them, and they have to be able to do it the way you want it done. That takes a lot of effort and a lot of follow-up.”
Niederbremer, formerly a construction worker for Price Brothers Real Estate, is the general manager of the restaurant and handles day-to-day operations. Muehlberger serves as executive vice president of restaurant operations for 39 Bev Co, a group of six restaurants whose owners, Price Brothers Real Estate, are investors in the Jon Russell restaurant. Price Brothers has given Muehlberger and Niederbremer a lot of useful business advice and takes care of accounting, human resources and other administrative tasks.
Serving Up Multiple Income Streams
Rod Gray was in the remodeling business when he started competing in barbecue contests in 2001 and found his calling. In 2006, with the economy souring, burned out on the construction industry and with some big wins under his belt, Gray closed his remodeling business and took up barbecuing full time.
“It was inevitable,” he said. “I had 22 employees, and it had just taken its toll. I wasn’t the same person I was when I got into the business. I just decided it was time to get out of that.”
Since then, he has succeeded in making a living in the barbecue business. The trick has been finding multiple streams of income.
He describes himself as a full-time barbecue competitor, participating in some 35 contests a year all over the country. This summer, he won the grand champion title—and $50,000—on BBQ Pitmasters, a barbecue-competition show on Destination America.
A large portion of his annual income is from his three sponsors. The cash prizes, if any, are gravy.
“We never, ever count on the winnings from a barbecue contest as a factor in our annual budget,” Gray said.
He and his wife, Sheri, also teach four or five classes per year and do one large catered event. Last January, they introduced a line of rubs and sauces, which are available in Kansas City-area grocery stores and barbecue specialty stores around the country.
Was the transition to barbecue professional harder than he thought it would be?
“Now, I would tell you that it was easy, but back then I would tell you it was hard,” he said. “It was kind of a leap of faith.”
His years in the business world, as well as degrees in business and marketing, helped in making the switch, as well as the fact that Sheri still works for a local utility company.
Gray’s marketing savvy was instrumental in obtaining his first sponsor. He had been using Greased Lightning, an all-purpose cleaner and degreaser, for years when he learned that the Atlanta-based company wanted to sponsor a barbecue team. He submitted a proposal and Greased Lightning has been his major sponsor for the past six years.
He has since added sponsorships from the Kansas City Barbecue Store and Reser’s, a manufacturer of prepared foods.
“I have always had a marketing mind and a head for business. Still,” he added with a laugh, “I’m not quite sure how we do it some days. But we have a plan, so it’s not like we’re just going willy-nilly. It’s all pretty methodical and pretty planned. We run it like a small business. We keep books like a small business. It’s no longer a hobby that I do for fun. It’s my job.”
Riding an Explosion
Being open to unexpected opportunities has also been key for local barbecue entrepreneurs.
Jason Day and Aaron Chronister, for example, started competing in contests as Burnt Finger BBQ in 2008.
They started a website, www.bbqaddicts.com, as a way of generating some funds to support their expensive new hobby.
The plan was to post articles and recipes and earn commissions by driving traffic to other websites.
The second article Day wrote for the site was a recipe for a massive, torpedo-shaped mash-up of bacon, sausage and barbecue sauce that he christened the Bacon Explosion.
And explode it did.
The recipe went viral within a few days, and their telephones rang nonstop with requests for interviews from media outlets all over the world.
The recipe logged nearly 400,000 views in the first month of the Bacon Explosion posting in 2008.
It has since been viewed millions of times and has become one of the most downloaded recipes in the history of the Internet.
Demand was so great that they turned Bacon Explosion into a commercial product.
They now sell three different versions of it on their website, along with a line of sauces and rubs, a cookbook and small-batch products from other Kansas City-area barbecue cooks. Like all the barbecue cooks interviewed for this story who market their own sauces and rubs, Day outsources the manufacture of his retail products.
Since Bacon Explosion is a meat-based product, it must be manufactured and shipped in accordance with USDA regulations. Sauces and rubs can be produced by a commercial manufacturer in quantity with far greater consistency and efficiency than can be done by barbecue cooks at home.
Day bought out Chronister in 2011, and now he and his wife, Megan, manage Bacon Explosion and the barbecue empire it has spawned while working at day jobs. He works for a laboratory testing company, and she does fundraising for an area hospital.
Their goal is for both to be able to work full-time on their barbecue ventures.
Earlier this year, BBQ Addicts was one of five small businesses chosen to participate in Lead Bank’s Eastern Jackson County Challenge, a six-month business accelerator program.
Day said the help was very much needed. “The (initial) publicity we got was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Day said. “Big companies pay millions of dollars to get that kind of publicity, and we did it pretty much accidentally.
We’ve just been running to the biggest fire, trying to keep up with everything.” The accelerator program culminated in a Pitch Night, and the Days’ 10-minute presentation took first prize of $40,000. They plan to use the money primarily to revamp their website, turning it into a true e-commerce platform.
They also are looking at some changes to their sauce and rub line, with a possible rebranding and relaunching later this year.
“We’ve never had a true business strategy because this isn’t what we really set out to do,” Jason Day said.
“The business accelerator program has helped us focus our energy into evaluating what we have, what the good opportunities are, and putting down a strategy for growth.” David Conrads, a former Kansas Citian, is a freelance writer based in Texas. SideBar: Enthusiasm Is Not Enough
Michele Markey is vice president of Kauffman FastTrac, a training program for aspiring and growing entrepreneurs. More than 350,000 people around the world have gone through the program. Markey has advice for anyone looking to turn a serious hobby into a viable business:
Be forewarned // Starting a business requires work, and lots of it. Many new entrepreneurs underestimate the sheer amount of time and energy it takes to set up and launch a successful new business.
Do your due diligence // Talk to customers. Test the market. Be realistic. Don’t let your passion for your product or idea cloud your judgment.
Find a community in which to network // Where you can walk the path of entrepreneurship together and support one another.