How Bubba’s-Q Boneless Ribs Survived the ‘Shark Tank’

How Bubba's-Q Boneless Ribs Survived the 'Shark Tank'Shark Tank Appearance: Dec. 6, 2013
Investor: Daymond John
Deal: $300,000 for a 30 percent stake
Results: Annual Sales of $3 million

 

 

During the spring of 2013, former Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions football player Al “Bubba” Baker was 10 minutes into a highly unpleasant meeting at his local bank in Avon, Ohio. Then he received a life-changing phone call.

Baker was trying to convince the bankers to extend his credit so his year-old business, Bubba’s-Q Boneless Ribs, could stay afloat. (He had launched the company, which makes deboned baby back rib meat that can be prepared in the microwave and eaten with a knife and fork, after his wife, Sabrina, complained that the ribs they sold at the family restaurant, Bubba’s-Q World Famous B-B-Q & Catering, were too messy.) Baker was behind on repaying loans and “about to get slapped around by the bankers” when his cellphone lit up.

The call was from a producer with ABC’s Emmy-winning reality show Shark Tank. Baker’s daughter Brittani, a partner in Bubba’s-Q, had applied to the casting department of the show on her dad’s behalf and with his grudging consent. The producer wanted to arrange a Skype audition for the next day. “When I walked back into this real serious meeting, the bankers were like kids who’d heard Santa was on his way,” Baker says. “They said, ‘We’ll table this conversation. You go get ready for the interview.’ ”

Daymond John invested when Bubba and Brittani taped their appearance a few months later. Before the show aired, John told Baker to launch a website that could take consumers’ orders. The company’s $154,000 in sales had been through 48 Ohio stores at that point. In the 24 hours after their Shark Tank episode, Bubba’s-Q had $150,000 in online orders. By the end of the week, orders had exceeded $400,000.

“Until then we’d never sold a single boneless rib online,” Baker says. Bubba’s-Q wasn’t prepared for the demand; shipping and handling costs had been miscalculated, for one thing. Even worse, the company’s midsize Missouri-based co-packer, which was handling the processing and packaging of the ribs, wasn’t prepared either, and management called Baker in a panic. The co-packer couldn’t gear up production to that level, so Baker issued refunds for half of the  orders.

“That’s when we learned that we did not have the capacity for growth,” Baker says. John recommended a Canadian co-packer that raised its own hogs and had 14,000 employees. “It was exciting to be talking to them,” Baker says, “but after months of conversations, they gave me a quote that was so high, I said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind!’ ”

Baker was on a Goldilocks-like quest to find the just-right co-packer for the next two years. Sales of Bubba’s-Q Boneless Ribs were too large for midsize co-packers but not large enough for big co-packers. Baker spoke to scores of co-packers, beginning each conversation with, “Do you have a 5,000-pound smoker?” A representative for one co-packer told him, “We don’t start up our smokers for less than 50,000 pounds of meat.” Others couldn’t handle even a few thousand pounds.

He crisscrossed the country to visit promising co-packers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Florida for trial runs. The trips, with the cost of raw ingredients, flights and hotel stays, were pricey. “Our expenditure was more than what we grossed in sales,” Baker says. “We were taking money out of the restaurant to cover the shortfall.”

Meanwhile, John was becoming concerned. Baker had to slow him down, asking him not to tweet about Bubba’s to his vast social network and telling him they weren’t ready for some of the potential deals he was lining up.

Despite being frustrated by the pace, John was fully committed. “He told us he was in it for the long run,” Baker says, “and that he was willing to front us some money, whether it was $35,000 or whatever, until we had our co-packer in place and we were up to full production. He never made me sign anything. It was a handshake deal.”

John’s faith in the company gave Baker a needed jolt of confidence. “Daymond put me in a position where I was able to excel.” In early 2015, Baker met with Rastelli Foods in Swedesboro, New Jersey. Ray Rastelli, founder of the 40-year-old family-owned co-packer, was so impressed by Baker’s vision for Bubba’s-Q Boneless Ribs that he came on board as an active partner, freeing Baker to focus on being the face of the brand.

That, in turn, has led to Baker’s appearances on QVC and deals with Costco, Wal-Mart and several national supermarket chains. John says that for all the bumps in the road, “working with Bubba has been exactly what I hoped for. The big ol’ lovable guy has made me part of his family, and the success of the ribs on QVC and in retail has surpassed my expectations.” Baker predicts that Bubba’s-Q Boneless Ribs will pass $100 million in sales within a couple of years.

The former NFL defensive lineman says he has felt growing pains from giving up control of day-to-day operations and settling into his new role. “The only person who likes change is a wet baby. But I’ve got to be the expert at being Bubba. No one else can do that.”

Related: The Shark Tank Guide to Surviving the Treacherous Waters of Entrepreneurship

 

This article appears in the May 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Shelley Levitt

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