Few things are more grueling than delivering an elevator pitch to a group of skeptical investors. Pork Barrel BBQ did it in front of 4 million TV viewers on Shark Tank. Nothing has been the same since.
ABC Shark Tank/Courtesy Pork Barrel BBQ
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 QA 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.