Former Senate staffers launch barbecue company
By Kris Kitto – 09/23/09 06:49 PM ET
It was 1 o’clock in the morning, and Heath Hall and Brett Thompson were in Russell Senate Office Building Room 493, watching yet another debate over pork-barrel spending.
All they could think about was barbecue from their home state of Missouri.
Sadly, they were eating Armand’s pizza — again — one of the few late-night options on Capitol Hill. As the lawmakers droned on, Hall and Thompson lamented the limited barbecue offerings in Washington.
It was then that the pie-in-the-sky idea hit them. Pork Barrel BBQ — that would be a good name for a barbecue company!
Three years later, Hall and Thompson, both 35, have guided their fledgling company on a path neither one imagined on that seminal night. They have won prestigious taste awards and appeared on national television on account of their barbecue rub and sauce, and are poised to expand their sales and open a restaurant in Alexandria.
The duo got perhaps their biggest boost earlier this month when they appeared on ABC’s new show “Shark Tank,” which puts entrepreneurs before a panel of potential investors. Pork Barrel BBQ came away with a $50,000 investment from New York real estate mogul Barbara Corcoran (though Hall’s ego may have taken a loss, as Corcoran prefaced her offer by telling him, “I can’t look at you without picturing you in a pig costume”).
Hall and Thompson’s barbecue dream has meant spending hundreds of dollars of their own money to buy spices for flavor experimentation, pulling pork at 3 a.m. to prepare for event tastings and working grocery-store sample tables on holidays — all while holding down full-time jobs.
“I cooked, I calculated, a half-ton of pork over the last two and half months,” said Thompson, sitting with Hall last week at an Alexandria coffee shop just steps from the site of the restaurant. The two were headed to New York shortly thereafter for an appearance on the Saturday edition of Fox News’s “Fox and Friends” morning show.
Thompson was Sen. Jim Talent’s (R-Mo.) legislative director in the Senate, Hall a legislative assistant.
But the two lost their Senate jobs when Talent was defeated in 2006. Thompson now works as a lobbyist at IGR Group, and Hall is a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
Though the food industry provides an unlikely segue for departing congressional staffers, both Thompson and Hall have personal histories that give sense to their latest move.
“I was the kid that had the lemonade stand that would stay out after dark for the extra $5,” Thompson said. He went on to start two other small companies — a cake business in college that catered to parents looking for something sweet to send their homesick co-eds, and a music recording company he started after college.
Hall, meanwhile, has always loved food. He comes from a family that enjoys cooking, and he once had an idea for a restaurant in high school after burning a pot while making his famed queso dip.
“My mom said something like, ‘You’ve got to come clean this scorched pot — you guys did it,’ ” he recalled. “And I was like, ‘Oh, “Scorched Pot,” ’ ” — though that restaurant never
Despite Thompson’s early entrepreneurship and Hall’s gastronomical interests — he at one point considered culinary school — they both pursed politics.
Thompson met Talent as a high school sophomore and shortly thereafter began volunteering on his first campaign for a House seat. He worked for Talent through college and law school. When his boss landed in the Senate in 2002, he followed.
Hall interned for John Ashcroft, then a Missouri senator, while in college and returned to Washington after law school, at which time he also won a spot in Talent’s Senate office.
The senator quickly caught on to Hall’s love of food. Hall is known to grow several varieties of tomatoes outside his Washington home, and Talent once e-mailed him during a plane trip over a South Iraq tomato field to tell him he’d found a place where Hall could work after the Senate.
Once they left the Senate, they began experimenting with spice rubs, inviting friends over for their “Kitchen Cabinet” tastings.
Former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas), with whom Thompson now works at IGR, was one of the early fans.
“I’m from Texas, and I know barbecue,” Sandlin said in a phone interview. “It’s like politics in this way: You need a good product, hard work and a little love — and I think they have all three.”
Sandlin has shown up so frequently at Pork Barrel BBQ’s tastings that Hall and Thompson have begun to refer to him jokingly as their international chairman. Sandlin has also been sending the rubs and sauces as gifts to friends and family.
Apparently Talent is a fan, too. On the Pork Barrel BBQ website, one customer testimonial reads, “I used the All American Spice Rub to grill chicken for my teenage daughters — they said it was the best chicken I have ever made — I’m a customer for life!”
The comment came courtesy of a Jim from St. Louis. Talent is from St. Louis and has two daughters. (Hall and Thompson laughed as they admitted that this was Talent.)
Pork Barrel BBQ continues to ride its wave of success. It won the Taste of Del Ray (Alexandria) 2009 People’s Choice Award earlier this month and placed second in the Best BBQ Sauce category and fourth in the Pulled Pork category at the Safeway National Capital BBQ Battle in June. The products are now available online and in 65 stores in four states and Washington. And the Pork Barrel BBQ restaurant, being launched jointly with the owners of Alexandria’s Mango Mike’s restaurant, is set to open in spring 2010.
Hall and Thompson have finally answered that question about good, local barbecue that they pondered as Senate staffers in 2006 — to the point that it has become their lives. Will they ever get sick of eating barbecue?
Said Hall, “Never.”
All Eyes On: Heath Hall
By: Emma Mueller
Oink. Oink. Oink. No, it isn’t H1N1 that has people talking. Pork Barrel BBQ, co-founded by Truman alumnus Heath Hall, has been gaining quite the buzz lately.
Hall, an employee of former Missouri Senator Jim Talent, created the company along with Brett Thompson in the winter of 2006. Not only will they open a restaurant in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Va. this spring, but Pork Barrel BBQ also holds the No. 1 spot for barbecue on Twitter with 18,000 followers.
Hall said the idea for the business resulted from a late night craving for some barbecue during a Senate budget debate.
“While the Senate was debating pork-barrel spending projects and earmarks, we were debating what we were going to have for dinner that night,” Hall said. “I had pizza for about four or five nights in a row and, coming from Missouri, I was like ‘Man, wouldn’t it be great if there were a barbecue restaurant somewhere in the neighborhood?’ There wasn’t anything good in the neighborhood, so we started thinking ‘Pork barrel spending, pork-barrel barbecue.'”
Hall turned his small glimmer of an idea into a successful establishment. Pork Barrel BBQ consists of two products: a barbecue sauce and an all-American spice rub. The products are made with all-natural ingredients and contain no preservatives or MSG. Hall doesn’t classify Pork Barrel BBQ sauce as one particular style, but instead said it reflects his roots: politics.
“We’ll be able to bring a little bit of all the styles of barbecue to the restaurant,” Hall said. “Obviously, Brett and I being from Missouri, we are kind of schooled in the Kansas City style, but we want to be able to hopefully let them [the customers] recall some memories of their favorite [barbecue] restaurant back home.”
The restaurant will feature sauces from all regions of the country, not just the Kansas City influence.
“We’re going to have Carolina vinegar sauce and a Carolina barbecue sauce,” Hall said. “Our original sauce I would classify somewhere between the Kansas City and Texas style sauce. It’s a smoky, tangy sauce. It’s got a little bit of heat, but it’s not super hot. We’re going to be doing a hot sauce, a sweeter sauce and a mango-chipotle barbecue sauce.”
In addition to their brand new restaurant “Pork Barrel BBQ” opening this spring, Hall and Thompson were featured on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” which allows entrepreneurs to pitch their idea in front of five investors in the hopes that their idea will be backed financially by one or more of the investors.
“It was really a shock to us when we got an e-mail and a call from Mark Burnett Productions saying that they’ve been following our company,” Hall said. “Three weeks later we finished about 50 pages of paperwork, a five-minute audition tape and got the call back from them that they were interested in us coming out. It was a pretty interesting experience.
“The opportunity for this level of exposure was something Hall said he never thought he would achieve. Hall said not only did they have their very own Hollywood star trailer, complete with their names on the door, but he and Thompson also were sworn to secrecy for two months until the show aired.
“Out of the five sharks, we ended up getting a deal with Barbara Corcoran, who is a real estate mogul from New York,” Hall said. “She gave us $50,000 for a 50 percent stake in the company, and we’re really excited to work with her. She’s a real shark, a real go-getter. We’re still trying to finalize everything, but we’re sure it’s going to be a great partnership.
“Even with all the new opportunities that have resulted because of one late night idea, Hall always has had a love for food, especially barbecue.
“My dad has always been known as the post office guy of barbecue,” Hall said. “He’s always barbecuing in rain, sleet, snow, summer, winter, fall, spring. It doesn’t matter, he’s always out there on the grill. So a lot of my love for barbecue came from him.”
After you’ve had a chance to read her post on Pork Barrel BBQ stick around and read her other great posts on food – it really is and should be an adventure for each of us. She’s also got some really great food pictures on the site. Check it out – The Foodventure.
To learn more about Shark Tank visit abc.com.
Pork Barrel BBQ is pleased to announce that we have teamed with Mike Anderson and Bill Blackburn, two of the area’s top restaurateurs, to bring a Pork Barrel BBQ Restaurant to the Del Ray Neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia. The restaurant, which is currently under construction, will be in the heart of Del Ray on Mt. Vernon Avenue near St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub and The Dairy Godmother.
“We are honored to team with Mike Anderson and Bill Blackburn who have decades of success running restaurants and are leaders in the Alexandria community,” said Brett Thompson, CEO of Pork Barrel BBQ, and a Del Ray resident.
Heath Hall, Mike Anderson, Bill Blackburn and Brett Thompson at the site of the new Pork Barrel BBQ Restaurant in the Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia.
“Heath and Brett know award winning BBQ, and Bill and I know how to run great restaurants – this is a perfect combination and we can’t wait for our Pork Barrel BBQ restaurant to open its doors next spring,” said Mike Anderson, founder of Mango Mike’s, which has been operating in Alexandria since 1996. “Del Ray has been waiting a long time for great BBQ, and we are excited to team with the Del Ray BBQ Boys in bringing Pork Barrel BBQ to the neighborhood,” said Bill Blackburn.
“Brett and I are excited about the opportunity to bring Pork Barrel BBQ to Del Ray and we can’t imagine better partners to do it with than Mike and Bill,” said Heath Hall, President of Pork Barrel BBQ.