BBQ’n Fools have done both.
The “Fools” — in a Seussian naming frenzy they became Fool 1, Fool 2, Fool 3 — are Tom Brohamer, Grant Ford and Kurt Weidmann. They sell competition-level BBQ sauce that gives the big brands a serious case of nerves.
It Takes a Winning Recipe
“We’re a traditional barbecue sauce,” Ford says, “But at a competition level of quality. We use real bourbon whiskey in our sauce, and didn’t change the recipe to make more money selling it in stores. We use the product right out of the bottle when we’re at a competition.”
A competition is where dozens or hundreds of guys, and more than a few women, gather for a weekend hauling giant smokers behind pick-ups, and spend the first 12 hours getting the chicken or pulled pork just right.
Competing means a commitment to spending weekends dealing with ridiculously persnickety judges who consider barbecue holier than the Eucharist.
In a dozen years the Fools have won hundreds of awards. Their website is peppered with judges’ comments, and judgments from barbecue, spicy foods, and gourmet magazines — along with compliments that end simply with first names and cities: Merle in Madison, or Myrna in Hemet.
That same sauce is in the stores, but not on a grocery store aisle end cap for 99 cents a bottle. They’re in 10 Southern California Albertson’s stores, and Whole Foods Markets in the Pacific Northwest, as well as specialty stores such as Joe’s Butcher Shop in Carmel, Indiana.
The first sale began inauspiciously enough, from a chance encounter in an Albertson’s parking lot between Ford and Chris Velardi, the store manager. “First time I saw Grant we were barbecuing out front,” Velardi says. “He came up and said, ‘Hey, you’re doing it wrong.’” (Ford’s as subtle as a bull in a butcher block; we’re friends, so I can say that. And he never stops talking up his sauce.)
He started telling Velardi about it, in between critiquing the man’s grilling technique. (A sin in Man Land, by the way.) And yes, Ford happened to have a case of the sauce in the trunk of his car.
Velardi liked Grant’s chutzpah, and says he enjoys helping smaller, entrepreneurial companies get their product on the shelf.
But you have to follow through, Velardi says. “Grant developed a rapport with me,” he says. “He offered demos, he rotated and dusted the bottles.”
If you don’t deliver when you say you will, and take care of stock — Velardi will drop you. He’s done it before.
“I’ll tell you what, most directors don’t want the extra hassle of a small supplier,” he says. “If they don’t deliver on their promises the small suppliers are dropped, fast.”
So the recipe plus Velardi plus execution propelled the product into 40 stores. Through industry mergers and tightening policies, that is down to 10. But Ford says his Albertson’s meat managers will fight to keep his product in their department, and his relationships are steady.
BBQ’n Fools sells two to eight cases per quarter, per stores, he says. There are 12 bottles in a case, so that’s 25 to 200 per quarter, each location.
Others order differently. Joe’s in Carmel buys twice a year, 20 to 25 cases at a time, for instance.
Ford says they do little business east of the Mississippi because the shipping costs on cases of glass bottles are too high. “That’s been probably our biggest rejection,” Ford says. He says glass adds six to seven pounds per case to shipping, so they are working on a plastic bottled product for 2012.
Roll with the Changes
The business itself has also changed several times from when Brohamer cooked in his kitchen in the late 1990s.
When it started, the trio all lived in California. Brohamer brought a recipe, Ford brought business acumen, and Weidmann was the “creative department” — he came up with the colorful logo.
But each also had full-time jobs: Brohamer as an IBM project manager, Ford in the printing industry, and Weidmann as a Hollywood crewman. A printing industry upheaval ultimately sent Ford to Indiana, where his wife Jeni is from, and where a promotion for her awaited.
So the headquarters moved to Bend, OR, where Brohamer has roots, and the partners were spread over several states.
Win Some, Lose Some
The Fools lost a few stores because Ford couldn’t personally take care of them, and lost a few others who didn’t want to order via UPS over a partner in the company.
“It’s worked out OK in many cases because some of our customers will go to a nearby Albertson’s for our sauce,” Ford says. “But there was nothing we could do.”
Ford says being a premium sauce maker has hurt the team somewhat, as well, because stores don’t get the same mark-up on high-end product.
“There’s an upper limit,” to price on new product, Velardi agrees.
That brought more specialty stores into the mix, however, because they typically understand the cost and value of such products, Ford says. A Whole Foods also, though a chain, is not as concerned about price.
“It’s more like work compared to when we were a BBQ competition cooking team. But we still love what we do.”–Grant Ford
In the last 10 years, the Fools have gone from the two sauces Velardi originally ordered, to nine, including more sauces, grilling sauces — used during grilling not at the table — and meat rubs — used prior to grilling.
This is serious barbecue.
The Fools still compete, regularly earning perfect scores — all judges must give the highest score possible for this. They attend the National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show annually in New Mexico, a state that’s a locus of spicy food products.
Weidmann isn’t as involved in day-to-day as Brohamer and Ford. Brohamer has the website duties. He’s on the road for months at a time for IBM, and is plugged in all the time anyway. Ford runs a catering business — the sauce is prominent — and hustles thousands of contacts annually to get the product in more stores.
“It’s more of a business,” Ford says. “It’s more like work compared to when we were a BBQ competition cooking team. But we still love what we do.”
When the Fools were founded, Brohamer and Ford purchased a bottle of port to open and drink on their 10th anniversary. They drank it, and bought a second bottle to open on their 20th, about eight years from now.
“We don’t party too much, but that was a celebration,” said Ford. “Tom keeps that second bottle in his storage unit, for next time.”