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A lot of interesting ideas started with late-night discussions on the Hill: new political strategies, changes to government programs, catchy new campaign slogans.
Former Senate staffers Heath Hall and Brett Thompson came up with a barbecue business.
Thompson, previously a legislative director for former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), and Hall, who also worked for Talent, were eating bland pizza at the time and began talking about the great corner barbecue joints in their hometown of Kansas City.
“It would be so great if there was a really good barbecue joint near the Capitol that we could order from right now,” Hall recalls them thinking.
And so Pork Barrel BBQ was born. The company manufactures barbecue rubs, sauces — and now Que, a perfume that smells like a good old-fashioned barbecue.
The scent that Hall and Thompson expect to revolutionize the fragrance industry does smell like barbecue. At first, it overwhelms with a deep smokiness reminiscent of iron-bellied, wood-fired grills, then it mellows into a blend of spices with a hint of sweetness. It took them numerous tries to get the formula right, but they finally found a company who could deliver on their vision.
“A lot of the early batches were so far off,” Thompson said. “We’re known for having good barbecue sauces, so we couldn’t have a bad fragrance.”
To market the fragrance, Hall and Thompson created three commercials for Que that can be found on their website. Two are spoofs of classic perfume ads (think J’adore by Dior and White Diamonds by Elizabeth Taylor), and one plays off the Match.com dating commercials. Visitors to their website can vote for their favorite commercial, and if they’d really like to see it on prime-time television, they can buy a bottle of Que.
“If we sell 50 million bottles of it, we will take the winning commercial and we will buy a spot in the next year’s Super Bowl,” Hall joked.
They’re still a bit far from that goal: They sold about 50 bottles during the first 36 hours it was on sale.
The two swear that the fragrance is not a marketing ploy, but a product that they think will take off — first in Washington and then in New York.
Although they left the Hill after Talent lost his bid for re-election in 2006, both are still involved in the political world. Hall works as director of strategic operations at the Heritage Foundation and, Thompson is the managing director of Mercury PR in D.C.
Their involvement in politics is part of what makes their company so successful, Thompson said.
Experience briefing Senators on policy issues gave them the confidence to pitch their barbecue sauce to the CEOs of grocery chains. And the type of personality required for most Congressional careers tends to also help a person succeed in business.
“There’s a certain kind of determination that comes from working on the Hill that translates really well to the entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.
Hall explained that they run Pork Barrel BBQ the way they ran campaigns when they were working for Talent.
“You have your voters, and then you have your customers. You have the ideas you’re pushing, and you have the products you’re pushing,” he said. “The very real thing about campaigning is getting your ideas and your candidate out there, getting them the press, going through grass-roots efforts to meet potential voters. We try to do all we can to get attention to the company and get in papers, on TV, on the radio.”
Part of what they call their “grass-roots effort” to get their brand out involves offering free samples in stores — more than 55,000 of them last year. And they frequently participate in competitions, picking up several awards around the country.
They sell two sauces and a spice rub in major grocery chains, and they’re opening a restaurant in Alexandria, Va., this July. Hall explained that he hopes their restaurant will, like the D.C. food scene itself, bring the best national food traditions to one location.
“We’re going to take the influences we’ve learned from some of the best grillmasters across the nation and bring them back,” Hall said. “We won’t call ourselves a Memphis barbecue joint or a Carolina joint, but we’ll really try to integrate all the food traditions of barbecue in the U.S.”
Even though the business has grown past what they had originally hoped or imagined, neither has plans to leave their day jobs for a life of professional barbecuing. They both expressed contentment with having a foot in both worlds.
“It’s the American dream to own your own company, and in some ways, I feel like we’ve already achieved that,” Thompson said. “I’m very happy to be in my position.”
However, Hall said, there’s one thing he enjoys about barbecue that he can’t find in the political world.
“In politics, you can make 50 percent of the people happy and 50 percent of the people mad,” he said, “but with barbecue, it’s hard not to get into that upper 90 approval rating.”