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.”