For anyone who has played or followed the great American sport of football, it doesn’t take long to learn that it is the “intangibles” that separate a “good” player from a “great” player. To have success, one must play with great emotion, heart, desire, determination, toughness, focus and passion. After being drafted to the NFL in 1978 by the Detroit Lions, Al “Bubba” Baker was named Defensive Rookie of the Year with an astounding twenty-three sacks in his first season. He played five seasons with the Lions, and went on to play for several other NFL teams including the St. Louis Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings, and Cleveland Browns. By the time he finished his career in 1990 at age thirty-four, Bubba had been named to three Pro Bowls and earned legendary status as one of the anchors of the “Silver Rush.” He even had five sacks in one game - a team record for the Detroit Lions that still stands today.
As a way to unwind during games, Bubba found himself exploring one of his other great passions: barbeque. “I remember bringing four pork chops between white bread on a flight going to Atlanta, and teammate James Hunter turning around in his seat asking me for a bite.” Bubba responded with shrewd business sense, “I will sell you the whole sandwich for five dollars.” This turned out to be that “a-ha” moment for Bubba as he realized that the five dollars was more than he had paid for the entire batch of chops he cooked up. Quickly Bubba found himself preparing food for every game and selling it to the players. “It got to where I made more money making barbeque then I did on games.” By the end of his career Bubba was smoking full turkeys and cooking whole racks of ribs, certainly improving the camaraderie between himself and his teammates.
Bubba’s love for barbeque started at young age. His uncle, “Daddy Jr.,” owned Jenkins Quality Barbecue in Jacksonville, Florida, highly regarded as one of the best barbeque restaurants in the south. As a young man, Bubba would spend his summers working there, learning the secrets of the family business. He became his uncle’s personal apprentice and the family recipes were verbally passed down to him. He learned the art of slow smoking and the flavorful qualities of each cut of meat. Bubba says, “the only thing I knew was barbeque; sports kept me out of trouble and football ended up being my job, but I loved the all the little intricacies of barbecue.”
After his successful NFL career ended, Bubba devoted himself to the art of barbecue and opened a restaurant with his wife Sabrina in 2005. He noticed that customers would always eat around the bones when ordering his ribs. Also, Bubba’s wife was not fond of the messiness of eating ribs - something had to be done! In 2006 they launched what would be their flagship product: “Bubba’s-Q De-Boned Baby Back Rib Steak.” Bubba’s daughter Brittany came up with the name “De-Boned” to differentiate their product from other “boneless” products that were made from processed meats. The process by which the bones are removed is patented and was exclusive to the restaurant. It was a huge success. Bubba knew he had something special and started thinking of ways to take the concept to new levels. His hope was to get his product to market for distribution across the country. He worked closely with his daughter to write creative marketing catchphrases such as “Bad to D-Bone” and “Home of the D-Boned Baby Back Rib Steak.” These marketing campaigns worked to increase sales, but he found himself overwhelmed with managing all aspects of the business and knew there was still a lot to learn.
While maintaining his loyalty to his brand, Bubba started to reach out to investors to try and find a partnership that made sense. “It was very difficult for me - how do you sell an idea to an investor when you can’t even tell them what it is” (referring to the time when he did not yet have the patent on his “D-Boned Ribs” idea)? The pressure of managing the day to day operations and staying afloat was starting to build; he even thought of giving up at one point, something very uncharacteristic of his personality. “I thought of all those great mentors in my life. I had a great teacher in Floyd Peters; he asked me to do one thing: get around the the corner and hit the quarterback. I still feel that way about life - if I kept coming around the corner, if I keep low, keep my legs moving, keep my head down and stay humble, then the quarterbacks in life are going to have to pack the ball and I am going to get them. That's how I feel about this restaurant, that's how I feel about my life - never give up. I started to use the negative things to influence my drive and turn it into a positive.”
Good things started to happen; Bubba received a patent for his “D-Boned Ribs” and gained attention in the media. He made an appearance on the first season of the PBS television show Start-Up. “Start-Up told my story of how frustrating it can be to find backing and, more importantly, to find a co-packer.” Bubba used the footage from Start-Up as part of his application to appear on the TLC show BBQ Pitmasters and was selected for an appearance. Now, having appeared on two television shows, he submitted a video application and the video features from both shows to the ABC television show Shark Tank. Bubba says, “it has all come full circle,” referring to the fact that Shark Tank star Daymond John is also a featured expert on the first show he appeared on (Start-Up).
On Shark Tank, Bubba landed a deal with business giant Daymond John. Bubba received a $300,000 investment and John received a thirty percent stake in Bubba’s company, and an agreement to license his patented de-boning process to a major meat producer. His new three-way partnership offered much more than Bubba could imagine. The Rastelli Food Group added its forty years of experience in the meat business and help with the day to day operations, and John brought his marketing skills and tech savvy. John has become a great friend and mentor for Bubba and his family; “he is a huge human being, so comfortable in his skin, our family has adopted him! He is not just an investor - he is a partner.”
Soon Bubba had a brand new website for customers to purchase all of his products, including his ribs, bottled barbecue sauce, dry rub and even a cookbook. Bubba oversees quality control over all shipments and goes to great lengths to ensure customer satisfaction. “Quality, service, and consistency IS the brand. I like to call it QSC.” In the first ten days after appearing on Shark Tank he had more than $200,000 in sales; after four months, $400,000 in sales online. Sales have remained strong and he appears regularly on QVC, which results in selling out of his product.
How has he dealt with the success? He was once concerned that people would say he has changed, but he has been so focused on the food and the business that he cannot let it get in the way. Bubba puts his family first and has remained humble through all of it. “Stay with the idea. If I am the smartest guy in the room, I get up and leave, because what am I going to learn”? Bubba jokes about the importance of building the right partnerships and focusing on your strengths, the things that will separate you from the rest of the pack. “We have to incorporate our spirit in what we are doing - you have to ask big and shoot for the moon, because if you fall short, you fall amongst the stars.” In hindsight, he knows some of the original concepts he had were not working. With his new partnership he has realized that it is important to let the professionals guide you in the right direction.
As you can see, the intangible things that made Bubba a great football player also make him a great businessman. His passion and relentless ability to never give up sets him apart from the rest. Love and loyalty to his family, friends, and customers make him who he is today. As far as trying to get around the corner to get the quarterback, he will always be doing that in his heart to ensure success on every play he makes in business and life. Not a bad concept to live by.
What’s next for Bubba? He hates the little double bones you have to fight through when eating chicken wings. “Bubba’s-Q King Wingz” will solve that problem. The product is already packed, smoked and ready to go. If you have eaten his delicious ribs, I’m sure your mouth is watering already. The Superbowl is coming up in February... hmmm…
To purchase any of Bubba’s Q World Famous food products please visit their website at www.bubbasbonelessribs.com. From there you can choose from his delicious De-Boned Baby Back Rib Steak, Bone-In Ribs, Beef Brisket Burger, Wings, BBQ sauce and even desert!