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Josh Halpern Of Big Chicken: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand

Even if people love you and your product, you are likely to implode if you can’t keep up with the supply and demand.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Halpern.

CEO of Shaquille O’Neal owned Big Chicken, Josh Halpern is a proven growth strategist who has accelerated brands within the restaurant and retail sectors for Anheuser-Busch InBev and other Fortune 500 companies. Halpern is at the helm of the Big Chicken franchising initiative, working closely with O’Neal and Big Chicken’s ownership group representatives to expand the brand’s presence.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

My first job at 17 was delivering pizzas. To this day, the holiday season that year was the most money I’ve made in an hour thanks to the big business holiday parties on Long Island who tipped graciously. But aside from the money, one of the things I’ll always remember from my time as a pizza delivery driver is what it taught me about customer service. If you were two minutes late on a delivery, the pizza was five degrees colder, the customer was that much hungrier and their perception of you and the business was forever tainted. Building an exceptional guest experience was critical to the restaurant (and my tip!), and that’s something I’ve kept with me to this day. Some of these third-party delivery apps could actually learn a lot from New York pizza delivery drivers…

I delivered pizzas through high school, worked as a brand ambassador for several brands in college, and after graduating, started working at Procter and Gamble as a supplier. From there, I spent time at several other companies including The Clorox Company, Just Born Candy and Anheuser-Busch InBev. Every stop along the way, I had a food or beverage brand report to me, but I like to say that it all started with pizza.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

Big Chicken was founded and built by Shaquille O’Neal and for him, chicken has always been a massive part of his life. When he thinks about chicken, he thinks about his childhood, friends and family. So, when he sought to create a chicken concept, he wanted to ensure that it was not only delicious, but authentic to him, his life and accessible to all. With chicken emblazoned in his memory, Shaquille teamed up with accomplished, world-class chefs Matt Silverman and Matt Piekarski to create Big Chicken. Both gentlemen were so intent on getting the menu right that to this day, Matt Silverman still can’t drink our Big Chicken milkshake because he tried it so many times throughout its development stages. It took them nine months to get the breading on our chicken right — it’s literally their baby.

Coming into the brand, one of the things that I really resonated with was this notion of BIG food, BIG flavor and BIG fun. If a brand has a soul to it that resonates with your soul, it makes it way easier to represent. “Big fun and big personality” is me in a nutshell, so when I saw what we were trying to create and it felt organic to me as an individual, it made it easy to join the team.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

For several years, I was the National Sales Director for Reckitt Benckiser, and we were trying to grow the Frank’s Red Hot market share pretty substantially. So, we put together a few focus groups and asked people what they put Frank’s on. 40% of respondents said verbatim, “I put that sh*t on everything.” At first, we thought, we can’t put that on TV! But our CEO challenged us to think differently, so we came up with the idea to have it come from an elderly woman who we named Ethel. The rest, as they say, is history. This experience taught me that you can drive authenticity, whatever it looks like, by thinking outside the box.

With Big Chicken, so much of that authenticity came from the TV show Big Chicken Shaq that Shaquille made to launch the restaurant. People got to see the restaurant, hear the stories of the menu from Shaquille himself…it makes their experience in the restaurant that much more authentic.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Throughout my career, I’ve sold so many different food and beverage brands, I’ve consulted for a few different companies, and my answer to everyone’s the same.

Many people have an amazing product, great marketing ideas, and they believe that if they build the demand, the supply chain will come. That is most certainly not the case. The number one thing you need to determine before launching a food line is how it will be supplied and distributed. No one really wants to talk to you until they know if you can appropriately supply their demand. I have seen the best branded ideas fail because the supply chain wasn’t built properly from either a sourcing, manufacturing, or logistics perspective.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

First you must ask yourself, how are you actually going to produce the product? Who is your contract manufacturer and is your manufacturer at a place in the country that you want them to be in? If you’re based out of the Northeast, a manufacturer in California doesn’t make sense. But, as you scale, how does your supply chain process evolve?

Then, before you enter the market, you have to know how you want to exit. Because they haven’t considered their exit, a lot of people do things that feel right in the moment, but create issues for them later on. Your behaviors, particularly in Route to Market and third-tier partners (distributors, franchisees, etc.) are areas that have long standing consequences (positive and negative). You have to make sure you’re comfortable with those consequences and if not, you must change your behavior.

Lastly, one of the most common mistakes I see from what could be a great brand is that they expand too quickly without the right infrastructure to support the growth. As mentioned above, it is essential that you determine how the product will be supplied and distributed prior to launching. If not, and you expand too quickly, you’ll prove unreliable from the get-go. Even if people love you and your product, you are likely to implode if you can’t keep up with the supply and demand.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

The best way to translate a good idea into an actual business is through a test and learn approach. When I would launch brands at bigger companies, I would pilot the product in two to three cities with different pricing, promotions, etc. to find what worked best. This approach allows you to “fail cheap and fail fast” so you can get your formula right before you scale. If you pilot in the first 12 to 24 months of a product or brand, you can grow a more predictable P&L and get a good idea of whether it works or does not.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Like I said before, behaviors have positive and negative consequences. At the end of the day, your goal really needs to be to protect the founder’s mentality and create what the founder is looking to create. When you look at an invention consultant, you have to determine what specific role you want them to play and if they will enhance, protect, or impede your innovation. If they’re solving a specific problem, great! If not, how are they adding value to what you are trying to do?

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

It’s not really a question of if, but rather, a question of when.

You’re ultimately trying to raise capital for a percentage of your business, but the bigger you grow, the more venture capital will come in. In that case, the question then becomes “when.” The other question to consider is what role you want your venture capital to play. If it’s just about giving you cash to operate, bootstrapping may be right for you. But if venture capital will help solve strategic issues and get you into the right places, that’s the way to go.

There is no cookie cutter approach. You must determine why you are making the decisions you are and if those decisions will help you grow long-term. People who look for venture capital too early often launch companies that achieve remarkable gains but wind up only owning a small percentage of the business. There are other options that will keep you in equity for longer, or give you cash to go bigger.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

I don’t have experience with filing a patent, but I certainly have some thoughts on how to source ingredients, a manufacturer and how to find a retailer or distributor.

Raw Ingredients — When it comes to sourcing good raw ingredients, it is essential that you have a champion in your organization who understands the finished product. I do not get involved in sourcing our ingredients at Big Chicken because A.) I’m not a culinarian and B.) I trust our culinary team inherently. They can do a food tasting and know if one of our 50 ingredients is off. I can’t do that…I’m not trained that way. You need to make sure you’re leveraging the people on your team who have that level of expertise.

Good Manufacturer — When looking for a manufacturer, ask yourself, can it prototype our product to our spec and deliver a product that matches the expectations we have when it comes to quality? Does the manufacturer currently have the capabilities to create our full product line-up at scale? Are there any other examples of products it has manufactured in the industry we occupy? Does it have a reliable track record in our category? Is it geographically in the right part of the country (which impacts your cost of goods and overall profitability)? Does it pass inspections? Is it a green facility (which may or may not be necessary for your brand)? If you answer yes to all of those questions, then you know you’ve found a good manufacturer.

Retailer or Distributor — If you’re a high-end brand, you most likely want your product to be sold at a higher-priced retailer. If you have a grab-and-go product, you most likely want to be at a more mainstream big-box chain, which also have their own differences. In previous roles, I used to look at brands and say, does this speak more towards Walmart or Target? Big box or small box? City or suburban? These questions help guide you.

If you’re working with a broker or broker network that understands what type of brand you are, they can help you get closer to the retailers and distributors that matter most for you. Brokers take a lot of cost out of sales and hone-in on customers that aren’t core to your DNA, but will help you close more doors faster. Distributors make sense in a lot of perishable categories, but you need to compete for their share of mind — since they specialize in your category, they are selling, shipping and merchandising competitive products too.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. The first question you need to ask yourself when creating a food or beverage brand is, are you meeting an unmet consumer need with your brand? Or, are you offering something that is overwhelmingly consumer preferred? If the answer is no, you need to reassess. In the candy business, we had insight that said 42% of kids’ favorite flavor of candy was red. Mike and Ike candy has 5 flavors in a theater box, so we said, what if we put 5 different reds into this box and call it Red Rageous? Within 60 days of the launch, Red Rageous was our best seller (excluding the original blend). It worked because we drove innovation behind a simple insight.
  2. You need to know how to reduce your operator’s pain while getting the guest experience right. When I started running on-premise sales at Anheuser-Busch, I didn’t know much about restaurants, but was selling beer to every major restaurant chain in the United States. So, I asked our restaurant partners, “What are the three things that keep you up at night?” 90% of our partners answered that they wanted to grow traffic, grow check size, be innovative and have well-trained staff. I wanted to figure out how to drive down one or more of these pain points they had outlined without causing another one to pop-up. So, I looked at all the brands we worked with and assessed our promos and in-store marketing and even if I was able to slightly reduce one of those pain points, it was a win.
  3. You need to have a strong innovation pipeline and a pulse on flavor/culinary trends. For example, if you launch a beverage brand with four flavors, I can assure you that one will do great, two will be ok, and one will fail. So, what’s the next flavor up, because you will always need to replace the bottom flavors? At Big Chicken, we have 7 sandwiches, one of which is always an LTO. So, if the LTO does well, we can talk about having it replace the bottom sandwich.
  4. You not only need to know how the consumer is going to use your product, but you also need to know why a shopper will buy your product and what triggers them to buy it. For example, why does someone buy a 30-pack of Bud Light vs. a six-pack of craft beer for a party? Sure, there’s a price difference, but they also buy it because it will please the greatest number of consumers. Shopping vs. consumption behavior is very different, so you need to understand both to succeed.
  5. Finally, how are you getting the product where it needs to be, and what does your distribution network look like? How do you make sure you’re staying in stock and how are you marketing the item to drive that initial trial? Again, it all comes back to sourcing and distributing — supply chain is basically your offensive line — without a strong one, your brand can’t score with consumers.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

First you must determine what the brand stands for. Is there a corporate social responsibility (CSR) platform? Does it tie into a dietary fad? Will the masses embrace what you stand for? Then, think about what makes your brand fun. What does the packaging look like? When you see it in your fridge, do you say “heck yeah I want that,” or do you not? Is your brand memorable? Is it social? I sold Bud Light during the “Dilly Dilly” campaign, and we were able to grow consumption because of how social the brand was. People weren’t just buying Bud Light; they were buying into the brand and the social experience we created.

Your consumers also want tribal knowledge about the brand that feels exclusive to them. Give them knowledge, recipes and new ways of thinking about your brand. At Big Chicken, we have tribal stories about why we have a sandwich named the Charles Barkley, why we offer a cookie the size of a basketball and why our Mac ’n’ Cheese has a Cheez-It® crust. The more knowledge they have, the more they want to be influencers for our brand.

And, on the topic of influencers, you need to ensure you have the right micro influencers promoting your product. Micro influencers, I would argue, are more important than macro influencers as they can control a very focused population that goes directly to who you’re trying to target.

But, overall, the way to make a product that people care about is to put a focus on quality so the consumer has the best possible experience. At Big Chicken, we use 5 oz. antibiotic and hormone free chicken where most of our competitors use 2 oz. pieces of meat that can’t make the same claims. Our culinary team spent 9 months developing the breading on our chicken to ensure it stood on its own and didn’t need sauce to make it palatable (though our Shaq sauce is unbelievable). We use a southern vanilla base that has flavor notes that make people crazy for our shakes — the list goes on! While Shaquille attracts people to the brand, it is that focus on quality and flavor that keeps them coming back for more. Culinary is the center of what we do.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Ultimately, there is a small fraction of the population that makes the world as a whole a better place. But there are things all of us can do to make a difference in our sliver of the world. For me, I can make a difference in the lives of our consumers and employees. I can build a conscious corporate culture that people buy into and hold themselves accountable to because they don’t want to let us (and their communities) down. The world is better if enough people view it that way. The better question to ask yourself as a leader is, are you inspiring joy?

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The food and beverage landscape does not reflect the population we serve. The number of black and Hispanic entrepreneurs in the United States is not consistent with our population. As an industry, we need to work with suppliers, franchisees, etc. to help close the wealth gap and provide access to capital and opportunities for people to build their own companies.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Shaquille O’Neal. He’s my boss, and I always look forward to the time we spend together. I already know he will order 2 of our MDE sandwiches with cheese and a large Pineapple Cream Soda for the occasion.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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