BBQ Company Gets a Grilling
Did she just say I look like a pig? I think she just said I look like a pig! On national TV!
There are certain things for which even the most fastidious entrepreneur cannot prepare--a lesson that Heath Hall learned when he and his business partner, Brett Thompson, appeared on ABC's reality TV show Shark Tank to raise funds for Pork Barrel BBQ, their sauce and spice-rub business. The two entrepreneurs had just completed their pitch before the show's panel of investors. In just six months, they explained, they had developed and branded a line of barbecue products and now had 10,000 units going into production. "What if the 10,000 units doesn't sell?" shot back investor Kevin Harrington. "You guys are starting out with a pretty good product," observed software entrepreneur Kevin O'Leary. "It tastes great. But it is completely unknown as far as I can tell."
And then it was New York City real estate maven Barbara Corcoran's turn. "Heath," she said to Hall, "I have to tell you, I can't look at you without picturing you in a pig costume. You would look adorable as a real-life mascot." The other panelists burst out in laughter. Heath was stunned--she just likened me to swine! He paused. "I guess I'll take that as a compliment," he said.
Corcoran was impressed enough with the co-founders' ability to roll with the punches that she invested $50,000 in Pork Barrel. "I was sizing up how well these guys would bounce back when they were knocked down," Corcoran says. "I don't even like barbecue sauce--I couldn't have been less likely to invest in this. But I saw two superstar salespeople."
As it happens, a month later, in October 2009, when Shark Tank invited the entrepreneurs back for a follow-up segment, Hall made a big entrance--in a pink pig suit.
Shark Tank debuted in August 2009. The show lets entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to a roster of seasoned executives and investors. Since its debut, the "sharks" have heard 152 pitches from entrepreneurs, about half of whom have walked away with an average of roughly $180,000. The questioning by the panel can get brutal--Shark Tank's producers keep a psychologist on hand to speak with entrepreneurs if necessary. But the high stakes and drama have drawn a fan base: Season Three was the highest rated so far, drawing more than six million viewers for the premiere in January.
Hall and Thompson appeared on Shark Tank's sixth episode and remain one of the show's biggest success stories. At the time of the taping, Pork Barrel's products were in just four stores and had generated sales of about $5,000. Now, it's one of the fastest-growing brands in the crowded and hypercompetitive barbecue-product niche, with sales of $3 million, a presence in 5,000 stores nationwide, and a Pork Barrel restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. "Almost nobody makes it in this business," says Dave Raymond, founder of Sweet Baby Ray's, one of the top-selling retail barbecue brands. "But Hall and Thompson had the cojones to move this business forward."
The brand was born one wintry night in 2006. Hall and Thompson, then legislative aides to Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, were working late on Capitol Hill amid budget negotiations. As one member of Congress after another took the floor to put forth one amendment after another, Hall remarked, "Man, what I wouldn't give for some great barbecue right now." The two began reminiscing about their favorite barbecue joints back home in Missouri. "It just kind of hit us," Hall says. "Pork barrel spending projects, barbecue. Pork barrel barbecue. That would be a pretty cool name."
That's all it was until mid-2008. Talent had lost his reelection bid, and both Hall and Thompson had moved on to jobs in the private sector--Hall at the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation and Thompson at the public affairs firm Mercury. In his spare time, Hall crafted six spice rubs. He and Thompson invited some friends from the Hill to try them out. Their friends were impressed. So the two men found a small manufacturer to make a rub. A few months later, they began working on a sauce.
Thompson landed Pork Barrel's first retail customer by making a cold call on a local butcher. But attempts to break into big grocery chains were a bust. Though Thompson and Hall still had their day jobs and weren't relying on the business for income, they were dismayed that they had little to show after sinking close to $100,000 into the venture. "Our desire was to build a real business," says Hall.
But the two men kept at it, handing out free samples to anyone who expressed the slightest interest and even anyone who didn't. One of those samples ended up in the hands of someone on the production team at Shark Tank, who e-mailed Thompson inviting the two to audition. Neither had heard of the show. But both had heard of its producer--Mark Burnett, who produced Survivor and The Apprentice--and decided to go for it.
Rather than play it safe and follow the producer's instructions to submit a straightforward Q&A video, they gathered some political friends and put together a 60 Minutes-style profile of the company. Among the participants was Hall's buddy the pundit Tucker Carlson, who tells the camera, "Pork Barrel BBQ--that's the phrase on the lips of every Washingtonian in the know. And nothing brings this city together like pork."
Six weeks later, the pair flew to Los Angeles for the taping. They had prepped exhaustively--creating dossiers on each of the five investors and spending more than 100 hours drafting answers to potential questions. The hard work paid off. "They had it all," says Burnett. "Energy, a great idea, and an interesting story." Thompson and Hall returned to D.C. under strict orders not to discuss the show before it aired. But they nonetheless soon learned about the power of national exposure. A hint that they were going to appear on an unnamed television program helped seal a deal with the Harris Teeter chain of grocery stores. And after a food blogger wrote that Hall and Thompson were about to appear "on a supersecret reality show," the pair was approached by some Alexandria restaurateurs about opening a Pork Barrel BBQ-themed outlet.
The episode aired on Sunday, September 13, and the impact was immediate. Keeping one eye on the television and the other on Pork Barrel's website, Hall watched orders for rubs and sauce hit a record $15,000--compared with a usual daily take of about $100. The next day, the pair got a call inviting them to appear on the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends. That weekend, they borrowed a bus from their new restaurant partners, loaded it with grills, smokers, and more than 500 pounds of pork, brisket, and chicken, and drove to New York. Fox contributor Mike Huckabee stopped by the set for a taste.
The Shark Tank appearance also led to their biggest break yet--an e-mail from a manager at Costco's regional offices in Sterling, Virginia, who had seen the show. For three days, Hall and Thompson set up inside a northern Virginia store and offered samples to shoppers. The customers loved the stuff, and now Pork Barrel's products are in 11 D.C.-area Costcos. The following January, at a food show in San Francisco, a buyer from Safeway introduced himself and said: "We are going to help you build your brand." The products are now in more than 150 Safeway stores.
Given that Thompson and Hall, both 37, are attorneys who have spent their entire careers in politics, you might think they would need the assistance. But the way they see it, Capitol Hill is a great business school. "We treat our brand like a candidate," says Thompson. "You have paid media and unearned media. And you need a good ground game--which for our business is things like aggressive sampling at supermarkets or trade shows." Adds Hall: "Our voters are our customers."
To reach them, Thompson and Hall have embraced social media. Their Twitter feed and Facebook page are updated constantly--with interviews with big-name chefs, recipes, and quirky barbecue news (such as a story about a guy who retooled his Cadillac into a smoker). Hall and Thompson personally respond to as many as 100 messages a day, usually within 30 minutes. "They have 32,000 followers on Twitter; I have 500," says Sweet Baby Ray's founder Dave Raymond, with a sense of awe.
Meanwhile, Thompson and Hall have come up with one memorable stunt after another. In June 2011, they released a fragrance called Que--"an intoxicating bouquet of spices, smoke, meat, and sweet summer sweat." Thompson sent 300 samples to media outlets along with e-mail links to a video in which Hall saunters across a room in his pink pig suit leaving a trail of meat, barbecue tools, and an apron in his wake. Those e-mails were followed by perhaps 1,000 follow-up calls. Hall says the full-court press was inspired by his experience in politics. "In a campaign, you want five to 10 points of contact with a voter in the week before the election," he says. "Yes, you may irritate some people. But there are a lot of people who, if you didn't reach out to them, wouldn't take the time to cast their ballot." Indeed, the stunt garnered mentions in Cosmopolitan and Glamour and on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
Thompson and Hall know they need to continue to capitalize on their momentum. Fortunately, they now have the funds to do so. In March, Pork Barrel landed an undisclosed investment from Rex Encore, a St. Louis-based private equity firm. Hall quit his job and now devotes all of his energy to the business.
He also got revenge on his investor. On March 9, Shark Tank ran yet another update on Pork Barrel. In this segment, Barbara Corcoran showed up at the Pork Barrel restaurant, clad in a striking if familiar outfit. "The production staff made me wear a goddamned pig suit," she says. Laughing it off, Corcoran told the restaurant crowd, "These were two obnoxious little attorneys in Washington, D.C., with a dream--and they took my little $50,000 investment, and they turned it into a hugely successful business. Let's toast these two great American hustlers." Hall could not have been happier. "Turnabout is fair play," he says. "It's the best I've ever seen her look."
And the Winner Is...
Of the more than 20,000 businesses that apply to appear on Shark Tank each season, only 60 make the cut. Here are five that turned their 15 minutes of fame into big bucks.
Notehall, Santa Clara, California
In October 2009, the founders of this online marketplace for study guides and class notes impressed Barbara Corcoran enough for her to invest $90,000 for a 25 percent stake. Smart move: In 2011, Notehall was acquired for $3.7 million.
Talbott Teas, Chicago
Investor Kevin O'Leary agreed to invest $250,000 for a 35 percent stake in this gourmet teamaker in February. The deal never closed: Instead, O'Leary introduced the company to Jamba Juice, which acquired Talbott Teas earlier this year.
ReadeRest, Fullerton, California
Last February, investor Lori Greiner agreed to pay $150,000 for 65 percent of this maker of magnetic eyeglass holders. Greiner helped get the product on QVC, which sent sales from $65,000 to $2 million.
OrigAudio, Costa Mesa, California
In May 2011, investor Robert Herjavec paid $150,000 for a 15 percent stake in OrigAudio, which makes a portable speaker called the Rock-It. The publicity helped the company strike some big deals, including one with Bed Bath & Beyond. Sales this year are expected to top $5 million, up from $700,000.
CitiKitty, Morrisville, Pennsylvania
In May 2011, Kevin Harrington agreed to invest $100,000 for a 20 percent stake in this maker of toilet-training systems for cats. (The deal was renegotiated after the taping, with terms undisclosed.) Since then, sales have tripled, hitting $1 million in 2011.