077 Steve Lulofs – Veterans Q

Veterans Q

077 Steve Lulofs -

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This is Episode Eleven of Season Six, my U.S. Road Trip Part II. While I was at the NBBQA Conference, there was one name that seemed to get called out more than any other at the Excellence Awards, and that was Veterans Q. So naturally, Steve was one of the people I had to grab for a deep dive episode of the podcast. A Veteran himself, Steve has founded a BBQ business whose sole purpose is to support his fellow Veterans, a group of people in our community who do so much for us and receive little in return. But I can’t tell you much more about that without giving too much away!

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STEVE LULOFS - VETERANS Q

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STEVE LULOFS - VETERANS Q

SHOW NOTES

  • The last thing he cooked was Tri-Tip for Memorial Day
  • He only started cooking Tri-Tip about 6 – 8 months ago. It’s not generally available in Chicago
    • He smoked it at 275F til an internal of 135F
    • Then a quick sear for about 2 minutes on each side
    • Rest for 15 – 20 minutes and slice thinly
  • He cooks on a Pit Barrel Cooker, which was his first ever smoker
    • It’s simple, easy and has a great charcoal flavour
  • Memorial Day
    • They do a lot of work with Veterans
    • Memorial Day is for remembering fallen service people
    • His town has a parade
    • After the parade, everyone who was in the parade with him goes back to his house for a BBQ get together
    • It also marks the start of summer for them
  • At NBBQA
    • Veterans Q winning so many prizes was a big shock for them
    • They got an email telling them that Veterans Q had won an award
    • He thought he’d get one, but he got a 6th place, 3rd for their sauces. They also got 6th place, 3rd place, and 2nd place for their Chicken & Pork Rub
    • Hearing his name called at the same awards night as legends like Tuffy Stone was very humbling and awesome
  • Before opening Veterans Q
    • It’s still a side hobby at this stage, not a full-time job
    • He works for the US Government in the Department of Labour full time
      • He works in the Immigration department, finding workers for farmers
    • He runs the sauce company on the weekends and at night
  • Steve was in the army from ‘02 to ‘10 including a tour of Iraq
    • He grew up a military brat – his father and brothers were military
    • He loved the ‘teamwork’ and atmosphere of military life
    • When he returned, he started volunteering for veterans groups
    • That’s the Veterans connection. The ‘Q’ is homage to Tuffy Stone
  • Making the jump from competitive BBQ to running a sauce company
    • When he started, he used to make all his own sauces and rubs
    • He went to his first competition 2 months after buying his first smoker
    • He researched recipes on the internet, put together some samples and began trialling on friends and families
    • The process has been comparatively smooth for him
    • He started making them in summer 2015 and started catering friends’ parties
    • Within 8 months stores were calling him and asking to stock his products. 
    • The stores loved his mission – Veterans Q donates all profits to Veterans organisations
    • He didn’t know anything about business when he started Veterans Q and has had to learn that on the fly
    • They started out donating their prize money and any catering profits to Veterans organisations
    • He went to a manufacturer and had 700 bottles made to free up his time to spend with his family and kids
    • He thought that the 700 bottles would last a couple of years, but they were all sold out in a matter of months
  • What was the feeling like when the stores started calling him? 
    • They couldn’t believe it at first
    • Then he got inspired and started taking sample to grocery stores
    • He got told ‘No’ alot, but there were still many stores who were keen to give him a go
  • He loves selling his sauces online as he gets personal contact with the customers
    • He handles all the orders, boxing and shipping himself
    • He gets to know the peoples’ names and then ends up e-meeting them online
  • The biggest challenge he’s had to overcome
    • Not knowing the business
    • The rapid growth has been both a blessing and a curse
    • Last year they exploded so fast that this year he wanted to slow the growth a bit while learning the business side of things
    • He wants to grind more this year
  • They got into hundreds of stores last year, and only two stores have dropped them after being priced out
    • When they sell to Mom & Pop stores to have to charge higher prices
    • Supermarkets are able to get volume discounts and can then sell the bottles to the public at higher prices
    • He does prefer selling to Mom & Pop stores coz that’s where the heart and soul of the industry is
  • The highlight for him is seeing how excited his kids get about it all
    • The second best highlight for him is being able to write a cheque to a charity
  • Coming up in the future
    • He’s bringing out a whole new line of products
    • Right now they have 2 sauces in the production phase with the manufacturers, trying to get it right, which he’s hoping to get out this year
      • A mustard sauce, and a whiskey sauce
    • They’re also bringing out a whole new line of sauces, condiments and rubs

How do you know when you have a recipe worth pursuing? 

  • For him it was a gut instinct
  • He also had feedback from friends and neighbours
    • When those people stop saying there are things you need to add or change, that’s the time to start trying to sell it
  • If you’re not 100% sure of it, then you’re not ready to start selling it

How wide a base should the feedback be coming from? 

  • Reach out to everyone that you can for feedback
    • Partners, kids, people in the street, people at work etc
  • Seek out the blunt people, not the ‘yes’ people – their feedback will be the most honest
  • There will always be some people who don’t like it. Embrace that fact and find a solution to the recipe
  • If someone’s telling you how good it is because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, you might end up investing money into a dud
  • You need to have a thick skin and be prepared to hear ‘No’ a lot

What’s the process of going into production?

  • He started reaching out to co-packers who made sauces and rubs
  • He found one that he liked and asked them to teach him about the process
  • Make sure you get the non-disclosures sorted FIRST!
  • Send them the recipe
  • They will get the EXACT ingredients, right down to the brand
  • They aim to replicate the recipes at scale, which can create complications in and of itself
  • There is a period of back and forth with the manufacturer, tweaking until it’s right
  • Just because you have a recipe that you love, doesn’t mean that the recipe can be scaled
  • Manufacturers may use a different method of heating, or cook in different materials E.g. Stainless Steel vs Copper

Steve wanted his Veterans Q sauces to be all-natural so no artificial colours, flavours etc

Labelling:

  • Labelling is as important, if not more, than the BBQ sauce itself
  • Steve went to 5 or 6 grocery stores and took photos of the BBQ sauce sections
    • Close up and Far away shots
    • He went back and reviewed the photos to see what stood out, or what patterns emerged
    • The only things that were popping were the white labels from Sweet Baby Rays
  • Your label differentiates your BBQ sauce from everything else on the shelves
  • From there it was a matter of graphic designing
  • Steve wanted Veterans Q to have quite a generic label to avoid offending everybody and that it would stand the test of time
    • He wanted to have the same label now and in 50 years time
  • He went to a graphic designer, gave them the brief and showed him some examples of what he liked
    • He used the same graphic designer as had designed his original logo
    • The process was pretty quick, only 3 to 4 months
  • Once the label was designed, he then took the label around as well and field tested it with all the same people
  • He wanted his logo to be the ‘McDonald’s of BBQ’

What do you need to do to get into stores, if they are not chasing you? 

  • You have to hustle and grind
  • Every week, Steve is out there cold calling, visiting stores, trying to line up interviews, sampling etc
  • Get out there, put your boots on the ground and get grinding
  • When someone asks you a hard question and you mess up answering it, go home, work out the answer, and arm yourself with it before the next visit

What’s the hardest thing about going pro with rubs and sauces? 

  • Being one of a million people doing the same thing is the hardest thing
  • Why would someone grab yours over another brand? 
  • How do you differentiate yourself from the competition

Steve’s mission / story drives a lot of traffic his way – it’s sets Veteran’s Q apart

Unexpected curveballs

  • The cost of everything
  • Steve had no idea of how much it would cost to get a product manufactured or into a store
  • There are many hidden costs, such as splitting the cost of discounts with supermarkets

The easiest part of the process for him has been coming up with the products

  • He finds recipe making really easy
  • It only took him six or eight tries to get his sauce recipe right

Top Three Tips for people looking to get into making rubs & sauces

  • Be ready to hear ‘No’ a lot. Get a thick skin. ‘No’ is a good thing
  • Figure out who you are and who your company is. Figure out how you stand out from everyone else
  • Have a great product – you can have a great story and slick packaging, but it is only a great product that will have them coming back again and again
  • Brisket – fat side down
  • Chicken – wings
  • Pork ribs – St Louis
  • Sauce – on the side
    • Sauce covers up the taste of the meat
    • Seasonings are more important than sauce
  • Money Muscle – Overated
  • Hardest thing for him to cook – Money Muscle
  • One tip or trick he wishes he’d known sooner – good quality ingredients and tools
  • The next trend: healthy alternatives to BBQ
  • Pellet Grills in Comps: Yes
  • His fantasy BBQ team: Tuffy Stone, his crew from Chicago

STEVE LULOFS - VETARANS Q

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