How a Chicago BBQ Lover Got His Sauce Into Nearly 200 Stores
Notes on an entrepreneurial home run from John B. Perkins of Johnny B’s
If you’ve watched so much as a single episode of Shark Tank, you know how hard it is to get your shiny new food product onto the shelves of your local corporate grocery store.
John B. Perkins — owner of Johnny B’s, a Chicago- and Kentucky-based sauce and seasoning company — did exactly that, taking his family-recipe barbecue sauce into nearly 200 Jewel Osco and related stores throughout Illinois and Northwest Indiana. It didn’t happen overnight — and Perkins says he hopes it’s only the beginning for his brand. “Grocery retail is an area where African Americans don’t get a lot of opportunity,” he says. “But we’re fighters, and we’re not gonna quit.”
Here’s how he got the job done.
1. Have a killer idea
When Perkins’s parents retired from the barbecue game, he knew he didn’t want to take over their successful restaurant. Instead, he thought about how he’d loved competing with his dad in barbecue competitions. “I started really looking at the business of barbecue and how folks really made money,” he says. “I was always interested in how you made money with residual income.”
2. Master your market research
Perkins met with a student consulting group at Loyola University Chicago’s MBA program, asking for help with market research. This pointed to a desire for healthier, lighter sauces. Perkins worked alongside his dad in their kitchen for six months to tweak their wet and dry sauces., developing a recipe with less sugar and sodium, and no high-fructose corn syrup.
3. Refine your brand
This super-competitive space required successful branding up front: “You don’t build a brand by being in the store,” he said. “Before you try to hit the shelf, you have got to build a brand.” Johnny B’s, he decided, would occupy its own niche within the barbeque sauce and seasoning category. “Johnny B’s goal is to disrupt the BBQ sauce category, which will give other small companies a chance to generate wealth and positively impact their communities with jobs creation,” he says.
4. Get your product shelf-ready
After completing a 12-week Small Business Entrepreneur class at the University of Chicago, Perkins decided to work with a licensed product development team and manufacturer, who could guarantee seamless scalability while ensuring that his product would be FDA-compliant and fulfill product specification requirements. Otherwise, he says, breaking into grocery chains would have been next to impossible. ”Buyers really do not want to work with products that are not retail ready, so my focus was to be retail ready when presenting,” he says.
5. Spread the word
Perkins says it wasn’t too hard getting his sauce into mom-and-pop shops, with his product perfected, his insurance in hand, and a pro-caliber presentation. “Once you get your product in a bottle, and it looks professional, smaller groceries are kind of impressed by that,” he says. “I was able to talk some of the lingo in terms of what they were looking for when purchasing because I was ready.”
Perkins also opened his own retail presences, online and, in 2012, at the Orland Square Mall. “It got us out there a little bit,” he says. “I think our brand was starting to hit a little bit more.” Perkins also went to farmer’s markets and local rib and barbecue festivals (often bringing home first-place prizes for his sauces).
6. Keep learning
Perkins participated in many small-business programs, including the class at the University of Chicago; he also joined Alignable, a small business network, and took workshops and seminars through the Good Food Accelerator in Chicago. The classes, he says, helped him understand “what language is used by buyers in the industry” so he could use “different types of terminology that they were looking for, which made the conversation easier.”
7. Get in front of the right people
Perkins conducted extensive research on the decision-makers at the big grocery stores. He’d talk to store managers, who’d give him intel on the person in charge of buying for the sauce category. In 2015, he found out that one such person regularly went to a particular branch of Jewel and Perkins, showed up, and introduced himself. “I gave him my pitch, I gave him some samples, and I showed him a little presentation that I had,” Perkins said. It did the trick, and Perkins was accepted into the Direct Ship Delivery program in 12 stores, which meant he brought the product to the stores themselves instead of working through a manufacturer who would directly ship or a distributor.
8. Find the right operating model
After Perkins got into those 12 Jewel Osco stores, he realized it wasn’t the best model for him since it meant he had to go to each store, convince store managers to stock him, and keep the product in stock. Other set-ups, which required the use of a distributor, meant higher visibility — including an additional 92 stores in Kentucky, Northwest Indiana and parts of Chicago — but also higher costs. “We had no chance of becoming profitable because our selling price was too high for the customers that we attract,” he says.
The best model for Johnny B’s was to “become an approved Warehouse Program Vendor.” In 2021, he signed a deal with Jewel Osco that allowed him to ship directly from their manufacturer to stores. It took six years and a lot of hard work from that initial meeting in 2015 to get into the Direct Ship Delivery program — but in the process, he graduated from having to sell several cases to individual stores to the stores ordering seven pallets from his manufacturer. And he’s now going through the process with other major chains as well.
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