Former NDSU Football player and current owner of Big Deck Barbecue, Zach Willis, leads a busy life. While he runs Big Deck Barbecue with the help of only a few others, he also finds time to exercise, spend time with family and friends, and co-host a podcast, among other endeavors. We sat down to talk to Zach about moving his business to a new location, increasing production and distribution, marketing his products, and how he balances all of that with his personal life and health goals.
A Big Deck Barbecue Q&A with Zach Willis
Since he fully took over Big Deck Barbecue, Zach Willis has been working hard to grow his business. From moving to a new facility to hiring more employees, Willis’ ventures have had him working up to 50 hours a week—including production time and time for administrative duties for the company. Along with his dad, fiancee, and friend and employee Alessandro, Zach works to balance the everyday duties associated with running a small business. We asked Zach about his current business ventures and how much time he has been putting into this business, which is now his full-time job.
Q. When are you going to complete this move from square one to your own facility?
A: Hopefully by April. Actually, it was supposed to be last August. And we just ran into capital issues and then construction delays. We also had issues with ordering equipment, and it’s just hard to get all that stuff right now. So the loose deadline is April. And then it’ll be nice out, so we can host people, open up for retail shopping, and it’ll just kind of be a perfect storm of timing.
The new facility is in the same little strip mall as Skill Cutz and Domino’s. It’s pretty easy to find. It’ll be good. It’s kind of like a central place in Fargo—people are coming from the south, people are coming from the north.
Q. How much is that going to increase your production?
A: Basically tenfold. No exaggeration. We’ll go from about 200 bottles an hour to nearly 1,500 in a half hour. The fun part is the more you can produce, the more you can sell. So that’s what we’re excited about—expanding our distribution and expanding our network.
Q. Has that been your main issue, fulfilling orders and keeping up with demand?
A: Yeah, we got into trouble with that a little bit. It got to the point where we couldn’t find bottles or people to make it with us, and it took three or four weeks to fill orders. So once we hit that point, we kind of realized that danger zone of growing too fast, and started to settle it down and let it market itself. We’re at the point now where we can put the foot on the gas pedal and really start to ramp up marketing, getting it in more people’s hands, because we can meet the demand now.
Q. How often are you having to produce right now?
A: We usually aim for once a week. So even if we don’t have orders in, then we’re just building inventory. That way, it’s a faster turnaround for customers on the website and for people buying for our distributors or our direct-to-consumer vendors. But usually, once a week is what we aim for. We do one big cook, then we have the day for labeling. We have the day for packaging. This process makes it easier for everyone.
Q. Why did you decide to do the rebrand?
A: Truthfully, it was the fact that it was my business now. I wanted to put my touch on it. Before, it felt like I was doing something to carry on my dad’s dream. And that is still a driving factor in what we do. What I do. But it was my little spin on that, that I got to put my personal touches [on the label]. When people see it on shelves, that was my creative decision and my expression of myself in my vehicle, which is barbecue sauce. You can’t do that in many ways besides flavors. But if you can mess with the label and change what people see on shelves, I think that’s kind of a cool thing.
Q. Is your dad still involved?
A: He helps a little bit with the marketing. He likes posting on social media. And I think he’s good at it. He’s good at connecting with the community and really understanding what people want to see with content. And he will help us at the vendor shows with selling. But other than that, I took everything over.
When he gave me the company, we were at a point where we realized that we might have something with the business and we had different visions on how we were going to grow it. And it just basically came down to the fact that I was in a better situation where if it didn’t work out, I could recover. I have no mortgage to pay. I have no mouths to feed. I pay my rent and my car bill and that’s it every month. And he has two kids and a wife at home that he has to help provide for, he has to pay for the mortgage, and all these things. So there was a little bit [of tension] and that’s where the main riff came from, on how we’re going to basically form the business model to grow it.
I was on the more conservative side as far as how we could grow the business. He wanted to help, and he thought e-commerce would be our big push along with selling it direct-to-consumer on our website. And then doing vendor shows like The Home and Garden Show and the Pride of Dakota, big vendor shows. I didn’t agree. I thought the game was in volume and the best way to do that is get in touch with distributors and put it on as many shelves as possible. You sacrifice profit margin but you make up for that in volume. And that’s the fastest way to grow is when you let somebody else sell it for you. We disagreed on that. And I think it probably would have gotten bad if we let it continue the way it was. But he gave me the best gift I’ve ever received in my life and said, ‘Run with it. It’s yours.’ So I have a full-equity position. I gave 10% to my fiancee and now it’s us two— we’re the actual owners of the company.
Q. Do you have any other employees?
A: I have one other employee, Alessandro. He’s a buddy from high school. He’s actually part-time. He’s working to finish up his degree at M-State right now, but I couldn’t ask for a better worker. He works his tail off and shows up on time. There’s not much else you can ask for. I’m very thankful to have him on the team.
I hired him for production. I just needed more hands. He does the grunt work, the not-pretty part, but it’s the only way product gets put in the bottle. He’s actually going to be expanding his role. Hopefully, if everything works out where he stays in Fargo post-graduation. He’s going to be in the sales/order fulfillment part of it. I think he’s very detail-oriented. And him being able to go in and be the personal point of contact with customers, I think it will be good.
Did You Know?
Willis has launched a podcast for his brand this year called Big Deck Podcast that gives an inside look at his life and Big Deck Barbecue! Two episodes have been released so far—check them out on Apple Podcasts or Spotify!
Q. When you expand to this new location are you going to have to hire a bunch more employees for production?
A: I actually think we’re going to take on one or two more employees. But working in Square One was kind of a blessing and a curse in the fact that you pay by the hour, and it’s a shared kitchen—you can’t just work in there all the time. Because of that, we have our process as tight and as quick as it possibly can be. And now we’re moving to somewhere where it’s really easy, we can make it all at one time. We don’t have to have somebody actively cooking the sauce. Our machine will do that for itself. We have one person bottling, one person putting on caps, and one person labeling, so we don’t need a bunch more hands. But you know, if we expand past this place in the next few years, that’s when I think it’d be kind of crazy and we’ll have to have a lot more labor on hand.
Q. How many locations are you in at the moment?
A: I think it’s around 75. We should be hitting about 100 in the next six months. And then after that, it could be really big or we’ll be there. And we’ll be content. For the meantime, we kind of hit where we need to be to sustain everything that we have going on. And we can kind of pick and choose more where we want everything and who we want to carry it and be more selective, which is a position we’ve never been in before. So it’s nice, it just determines how much work you’re going to do.
Right now we kind of want to focus on distribution in the Upper Midwest. I think that’s our demographic and who we can connect to easily. Dot’s Pretzel laid out the blueprint of how to do it. And that’s kind of what we’re following: build as big of an empire as you can in North Dakota and then just start to expand to different states one at a time as you can handle the production. And if you have a good product at the end of the day, then the rest takes care of itself.
Q. What’s the process like of getting into stores like that?
A: SCHEELS and stores like that are direct-to-consumer. That is usually just a store director. You just have to find the right people, the right buyers. I know we’re in talks with Bass Pro Shops. I just connected with one of their buyers, and she put me in touch with the right people. Otherwise, places like Hornbacher’s, the giant conglomerates that own a bunch of stores and make up the bulk of our revenue as far as who it’s sold to, is sold through a middleman through our distributor. We sell it to the distributor, and then they handle everything else as far as putting it on shelves, getting it to the stores, and selling it to the stores. So it’s been good and that’s the route I’m going to continue to take because I just don’t have the infrastructure or the capital to have fleets of trucks going all over the place.
Q. What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve encountered recently?
A: Now it’s just expanding our network as far as who we’re selling to. E-commerce is a tough game, and getting people onto the website and converting those into sales is not easy. That’s probably our biggest challenge as far as what we can do. Otherwise, it’s just the production part of it. It’s keeping up with demand and being able to make everything that’s ordered. And that’s going to be solved here soon. We’ve nailed down all of our supply chain issues. We have easy access to everything we need. We’re going to have our own central roof over our head, which is very nice and it’s going to solve a lot of problems. But now is the fun part. You just get to go in and sell. And that’s what we do it for. I have a real passion for what we do. It’s a cool thing to wake up and say “I sell barbecue sauce for a living.” And now we’ll just get to be able to do that. Hit the phones, get in touch with vendors, build those personal connections. Maybe it’s not the right time for them now, but they know somebody who it would be the right time for. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned is just not taking no for an answer in the business sense, because it means no for now. We’ll do it eventually. And it’ll work out. I’m going to get you to say yes, somewhere down the road. It’s just about how long it will take.
Q. How much time are you putting in a week on average?
A: It’s probably 45-50 hours, I guess. Most of it is things that I don’t even really consider work. It’s just things that need to be done. The administrative stuff is what takes up a lot of my time. And I’m looking to outsource that elsewhere. So in that sense, I’ll have the free time to do what I’m passionate about, and that’s selling it and telling the story. I have a marketing degree. So I love getting on socials and doing that stuff. And that’ll only open up more time to do that, when production gets easier, and I don’t have to handle as much of the administrative side of it.
Life Outside of Barbecue: A Q&A with Zach Willis
Though the barbecue business is a large part of Willis’ life, it isn’t his only priority. He has a passion for sports and supports the NDSU Bison through “The Benchwarmers” podcast— featured episodes on the larger podcast, the Bison Report. We talked to him about this podcast, and life outside of barbecue, as well as his tips for time management when you lead such a busy life.
Q. You are working 45-50 hours a week. I know you go to the gym in the morning. You have the podcast. So I have to imagine that time management is a big thing for you. Do you have any tips for time management?
A: Yes, I was really horrible at that until I realized it wasn’t an option to be horrible at it. You have to be very regimented in what you’re doing. And even now, I’m going right to another meeting after this. So it’s just about staying disciplined to what you have scheduled, and understanding what you have scheduled, but also knowing it’s not the end of the world if things have to change. I just use a Google Calendar. And sometimes you get a text for a scheduled meeting or something like that. And you think, “oh, I’ll remember that.” You never do. You’ve got to throw it on the calendar and be really disciplined with that. And then checking your calendar. It’s one thing to put it on there. But if I got a notification 30 minutes before something’s happening—I need to know farther ahead of time than that. And there are just things that are non-negotiable about what I’m doing. Like I have a lunch break, I have time to myself to kind of center and basically reset what I’m doing for the day. And I know I’m going to the gym in the morning. Everything else after that is time that can be filled. I’m very early in the stages of learning how to be good at it, but sticking to a calendar, having your non-negotiables about what can be moved and what can’t, and then understanding that things are going to change. It’s not going to go as planned all the time. Knowing that has kind of made it easier for not only just getting to places on time, that’s a very small part of time management but also the mentality that comes with the stress of running around and knowing I have all these things to do today. If you sit down every morning, and everything you have to do is on your Google Calendar, and nothing else is going to come up, then you know what you have to do. There’s no stress and, feeling like your hair’s on fire running around.
Q. What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t selling bbq sauce?
A: Shoot, I don’t even know. I would have liked to actually work in marketing, either in-house or with a consulting firm, actually putting true business strategies in place and seeing how they work as far as social media and bouncing between buying a magazine ad or buying a TV ad or buying a radio ad. Because that’s a pretty one-to-one thing. It’s not necessarily equitable in revenue, you don’t see that increase right away. But brand exposure, people knowing who you are, is a really big thing in any business. So that’d be pretty cool, I think. I probably would have tried to do it in the sports world. Starting with the RedHawks, or something like that. Maybe starting at NDSU and climbing my way up that ladder, because I really enjoy being around sports, obviously. I probably would have been in marketing or sales of some sort. I’m outgoing and like talking to people. So that’s probably where I would have fallen.
Q. Can you tell me what you’re doing with the Bison report?
A: Yeah, so we have our “The Benchwarmers” podcast. It’s me and Quinn Alo, one of my best friends. We met each other during football at NDSU. We talk a little bit about Bison stuff, but it’s less analytics. It’s just kind of a former player’s perspective. I think what was really interesting was talking after losses or losing to SDSU in the championship.
What is really going on as far as thoughts in the locker room? Is it really doomsday like people think it is? Or is it more like, okay, we know what we need to do next year? It’s just a different perspective on it. We thought we were only going to do it during football season. But I talked to Quinn and even when we don’t record, we’ll sit and call each other for an hour and a half and BS. So we might as well record it and just keep going.
I don’t know how much longer we’re going to go into the offseason, talking about spring ball, all that fun stuff. We might go through winter training, but we might just wait for football season again if we cut it off. We call and talk to each other about nothing for an hour and a half anyway. And what’s been cool is we’ve had interviews with former teammates that are in the NFL or going to the NFL now. It’s a little like if you were a fly on the wall, if we were all sitting at the bar, and just having a beer talking about what we talked about. It’s a real conversation. We don’t cut anything. I’m not really interested in sitting down and editing and throwing in fancy transitions. We record, hit stop, and upload it right to Spotify, or wherever you listen to it and it’s been really good. That’s more of the brand-building. People get to know who I really am as the Big Deck guy. It’s a true peek into how I really am and what it’s like to be sitting and talking to me. So it’s been good as far as that, too. But it’s also more of that creative outlet where I get to express and talk about what I want to talk about is rather than just being shackled to ‘you’re the barbecue sauce guy.’ I can kind of expand my horizons beyond that.
Q. Is there anything you want to say to our readers?
A: Every time I get the chance to, I want to express my gratitude for everybody that supports us and chooses us at the store. Because you’re not supporting some giant conglomerate where some nameless, faceless guy is the CEO. You’re reading about who you’re supporting. It’s me, it’s my family. And it’s a business that puts a roof over my head, which is very cool. And I’m very appreciative of the people who are consuming and excited and support what we are, like how we are actively creatively expressing ourselves, which I think a lot of people crave. And you want people to be excited about what you’re putting out there. There’s no better feeling.
Big Deck Barbecue Co
Did you know?
The new Big Deck Barbecue label features a drawn version of Willis’ first dog, Frank, using barbecue sauce while grilling.
Support Zach Willis
Listen to The Benchwarmers— Bison Report Podcast wherever you get your podcasts