Sun 13 Sep 2009
Pork. Here in Washington, it’s one of those four letter words that you just don’t use in polite company. Since the time of the Civil War, politicians have decried the wasteful “pork barrel spending” that sends money to their opponents’ districts for pet projects…all the while defending the necessary and important projects they’re fighting for.
With all this talk of pork, you’d think someone would be cooking up good barbecue within sight of the Capitol dome…but you already know our thoughts on that. Maybe it’s only fitting, then, that the newest entry onto Washington’s barbecue scene has its roots on the Hill.
Back in 2006, Heath Hall and Brett Thompson were staffers for Senator Jim Talent of Missouri. During the many long hours that went into that year’s budget debate, the two men found themselves lamenting the lack of flavor among barbecue options in the area (a common conversation among staffers from all barbecue regions). With all the talk of spending flying around, they started joking that they should team up to bring home the bacon, so to speak, and so they coined the name “Pork Barrel BBQ.”
That could have been the end of it – how many great ideas are hatched in late-night brainstorming sessions and never acted upon? But Senator Talent’s defeat in the 2006 elections soon gave Brett and Heath more free time to focus on their idea. By February of 2008, they were ready to make the jump into the barbecue seasoning business, and they incorporated Pork Barrel BBQ. As Heath puts it, “Thankfully, both of us are lawyers, so we were able to wade through all the un-fun stuff you need to do to set up a business.”
Both men knew what they thought barbecue should taste like, but they wanted to make sure that they had a product that would appeal to a broader audience. So they assembled their Kitchen Cabinet (yeah…the government references fly fast and furious with these guys) and taste-tested five spice blends. Of course the best way to taste-test a rub is to use it on an actual pork shoulder, so you can imagine how much fun that was to do. The results were split – there were positive comments about distinctly different aspects of two of the choices. Brett and Heath did some tinkering and came up with a blend that combined the best parts of both, and they knew they had their All American Spice Rub.
From concept to contests, ABC’s Shark Tank and restaurant after the jump.
Once they had settled on a rub, the next step was producing it and packaging it for retail. Hall explained, “There are way too many headaches that go into getting approved to self-manufacture, so we wanted to find a place that was already equipped to do it and do it well.” They found Old Mansion Foods, an importer and producer of custom-blend spices based in Petersburg, VA. Working with Old Mansion, they were able to put out their first production run of Pork Barrel BBQ’s All-American Spice Rub just before the holidays in 2008.
They sold about 500 tins between early December and Christmas, with a surprising fan making up the bulk of those sales. “Former Congressman Max Sandlin of Texas found out about our rub and really took a liking to it,” said Hall. “So he bought 101 tins – we offered a price break on orders over 100.” Since then, he’s become one of their favorite customers.
With the endorsements of Democrat Sandlin and Republican Talent, Pork Barrel BBQ could claim bipartisan support to go with its “bipartisan flavor.” They joke that the rub can be used conservatively or liberally, depending on your personal preference. You can bet they won’t look down on moderate applications, either.
Selling in person and through their website was a great start, but when 2009 rolled around they decided to make a push for a retail presence. They took a few samples to Stephen Gatward, the local butcher who has set up shop in Del Ray with Let’s Meat on the Avenue (Thompson lives nearby). “He didn’t even hesitate,” Hall recalled. With Gatward on board as their first retailer, they next sat down with Don Norwood of the Organic Butcher of McLean.
From there, they made a concerted effort to get into some of the more recognizable local and national chains in the area (Harris Teeter, Balducci’s, Wagshal’s, The Art of Barbecue), and they’ve been pleasantly surprised with the results. At this point, they’re in 65 stores nationwide, with retail locations in Washington, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Florida. They’ve also got a group in Colorado selling their products at festivals and competitions out west.
With that growth has come a need to further refine their product offerings – and to find a manufacturer with a distribution capacity to help them keep up with demand. Tim Ashman of Ashman Manufacturing was just what they needed – he handles manufacturing and distribution for Rocklands’ products and he had some great insights about how best to package and distribute Pork Barrel rubs and sauces. At his suggestions they switched to a glass jar that allows customers to see the rub, increased the amount of rub in each container and cut the price. “In this economy,” said Hall, “we decided that Pork Barrel BBQ was going to offer America a bailout – lower prices and increased value.”
They’ve also retooled their logo to make it less DC-centric. Gone is the Washington skyline behind the Pork Barrel statue. Now their ‘monumental flavor’ stands on its own.
Take a look at their site, and you’ll notice that they now offer a sauce to complement their rub. It makes sense, but the sauce wasn’t meant to be their second product. It came about as a result of their participation in this year’s National Capital Barbecue Battle. At this annual event, teams are encouraged to enter their own homemade sauce in addition to their beef, pork and chicken. The Pork Barrel Boys did just that with a sauce that they’ve often used for home cooking, and it took second place. “We figured it made sense to fine tune the sauce and turn it into our second product, since we already had the award to promote it,” said Heath. With the help of Ashman, they were able to start producing the sauce for sale within two weeks.
And their impressive growth has not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, they were contacted by Mark Burnett Productions about a program that the reality show mogul was bringing to American television. That show, known as “Dragons’ Den” overseas, became known as Shark Tank and features entrepreneurs pitching their ideas and products to a group of venture capitalists. Last night, Heath and Brett met the Sharks and came off pretty well. They’ve got their pitch down pat, and the flavors piqued the Sharks’ interest. Seeking a $50,000 investment for a ten-percent stake in their company, they found an unreceptive audience – one of whom had been burned in a previous barbecue sauce investment. One by one, the potential investors turned them down until Barabara, the final Shark at the table, offered to put up the $50,000 that was sought…in exchange for fifty percent of the company. She also noted Heath’s ability to pull double duty as the Pork Barrel mascot, which Brett tried to parlay into a slightly better offer. In the end, however, Brett and Heath decided to accept Barbara’s offer.
They’re also turning their success with rubs and sauces into the very thing that got them talking in the first place: a brick-and-mortar location offering quality ‘cue on Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray. They’ve teamed up with Mike Anderson and Bill Blackburn of Alexandria’s Mango Mike’s to make the restaurant a reality. As Hall put it, “These guys have a lot of experience within the restaurant business and respect within the community. We’re proud to be working with them.” The restaurant is going to be built near St. Elmo’s and the Dairy Godmother, and it’s already built a loyal following: at A Taste of Del Ray earlier this month, Pork Barrel BBQ came away with the People’s Choice Award for their pulled pork sandwiches and Bourbon bread pudding.
It sounds like Heath and Brett have big plans for the restaurant – which could be a huge hit or it could get them in trouble with purists. They want to offer a mixture of barbecue that represents various traditions. They’ll be bringing the low-and-slow smoke to brisket, pulled pork, ribs, chicken, and sausage, and Heath hints that they may even try some other items as well. As for sides, you can expect the traditional fare and some inspirations from Mango Mike’s (like that bread pudding). Sauces will reflect different regional traditions, similar to the way they do at Old Glory in Georgetown. But the cooking style is definitely Kansas City-inspired: slow-smoked over a mixture of hickory and oak for that deep, rich flavor. Once the restaurant is open, you can expect them to be smoking around the clock.
Until they’re ready to open their doors next spring, you can follow Pork Barrel BBQ’s progress on their blog and via Twitter. And you can be sure that we’ll be there to try the ‘cue just as soon as they’re open for business.