Justin Esch, co-founder of Seattle-based J&D’s Foods talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his company’s bacon-inspired products and his mission to boldly take bacon where it has never been before.
Have you ever wished you could come up with an idea and turn it into a multimillion-dollar business? Justin Esch and his business partner Dave Lefkow did just that—with, of all things, bacon flavor. The two men, then colleagues at an online recruiting job site, were talking shop during a business trip to Miami in early 2007 when inspiration struck. “We were sitting in a bar discussing life and asking ourselves what’s next,” says Esch. “I said I wanted to be an entrepreneur and Dave shared a couple of his ideas. I told him that, being from Chicago, I think everything should taste like bacon. Four or five hours later, after a few drinks, we said ‘Let’s do it! Let’s try and make bacon-flavored salt.’ We laughed as we bought the URL from a Blackberry [hand-held phone]. When we woke up the next day, we started a food company.”
Esch insists the duo didn’t set out to make it big. “We were just two friends having fun and trying to do something different. We kept our day jobs and worked on bacon salt at our headquarters in Dave’s garage on nights and weekends.” Lefkow’s then 3-year-old son scored a $5,000 win on “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” which provided the first round of funding. (The money was repaid long ago.) “We are obviously a full-time business now,” adds Esch, “and we sell to every major retailer in North America and on five continents.”
Opportunist: How did you take your product from Dave’s garage to the marketplace?
Esch: It took us about six months to figure out how to make the seasoning salt. Neither of us had worked in the food business, but we slowly pieced it together. We got bottles and lids and labels and filled the bottles with bacon salt. It was the single sketchiest thing you’ve ever seen…little bottles with shrunk-down labels we had printed out and scotch taped onto the side.
Opportunist: Do you remember your very first day in business?
Esch: It was July 16, 2007, which was a Monday, and I took a day off work and went to Dave’s house. We had plastic folding picnic tables from Costco and a used laptop I bought from work to set up a PayPal account, and we started selling directly from our baconsalt.com website. We had 20 shipping boxes and packing tape and a case of beer. We turned on the website and that was the company. It took us about three hours to fill the first order and we were off and running—and never looked back. Seventy-eight hours into the business it was profitable.
Opportunist: You have credited social media with helping to propel you into the stratosphere. How so?
Esch: What we lacked in food business knowledge we had in social media marketing. We both worked for a competitor of Linkedin and we taught people how to understand spheres of influence and how to use Myspace and Facebook to reach out to people. Myspace was still relevant back then, so we went on Myspace and did a search query for “I love bacon” through all the user profiles.
Opportunist: Did you discover lots of bacon lovers?
Esch: Tens of thousands of people had “I love bacon” embedded in their profile. We sat there and manually sent them direct messages and emails saying “Hey, we know you like bacon. Check out our product. We’d like you to be the first to try it.” People just completely bought into it and started talking about it online. It got huge and began to snowball and people were flooding to our website.
Opportunist: Tell us about some of your other products.
Esch: We make 40 products, including Ranch dressing packets and microwave popcorn and shake-and-bake type batter and rubs and T-shirts. We also make silly novelty products like bacon-flavored baby formula, lip balm, bacon air and even a bacon-flavored personal lubricant called baconlube. We also make coffins that look like bacon. Look on our website for the full range of products.
Opportunist: Of course, we are dying to know—no pun intended—have you sold many “bacon-wrapped” coffins?
Esch: Yes, a couple of them. It’s a weird thing, though, a coffin. Even if you’re a person who loves bacon, you have to die to use it. So, it’s not like an impulse purchase. [Laughs] Lots of people email us and ask to reserve one in advance.
Opportunist: No kidding?
Esch: The funeral business is a weird business. There are lots of places that offer extreme options, especially to baby boomers now that they are getting older. It’s all about individualism. You can find incredible caskets that are a representation of the things you love—from giant Air Jordan shoes and crazy cars to big lobsters. If you Google it, you’ll see some really crazy stuff. There are even funeral homes that will cremate you and pack your ashes into fireworks. I believe the author Hunter Thompson’s ashes were fired from a cannon. Some places even turn human ashes into jewelry.
Esch: We bought a bunch of steel caskets at Costco and had them wrapped at an auto design shop to look like they are covered with bacon. We are young with a weird sense of humor. Those things do sell and we do make good money on them, but it’s really more about branding the company.
Opportunist: You guys are known for your over-the-top publicity stunts.
Esch: We have many ridiculous guerilla-marketing stunts and we like to push the boundaries of what you can do to keep people interested. So much nonsense goes into promoting this business and we enjoy being irreverent and having fun.
When we launched our Baconnaise [bacon-flavored mayonnaise], we promoted the world’s first mayonnaise wresting match. We hired a guy to wear a bacon suit and we poured 6,000 pounds of mayonnaise into the basement of a nightclub and let people fight in mayonnaise. It was the most disgusting thing you’ve ever seen. [Laughs] The smell was horrible, but we raised thousands of dollars for charity, and we got some national press.
Our bacon-flavored croutons are amazing but, let’s face it, not really newsworthy. A coffin wrapped in bacon that sells for $3,000 is almost guaranteed to be in the news. That’s part of the strategy and it’s also totally fun.
Opportunist: Tell us about your bacon mascot.
Esch: Bacon is what I’d call the ultimate man food. Dave and I both love football, and tailgating and football go together. So, we figured the best thing to do was to load up a van and go to all the college and pro football games around the country and pass out free samples. It evolved into taking a bacon mascot into games and stealing all the condiments and replacing them with bacon salt. Our “bacon guy” became the Most Wanted Man in sports. For months everyone wanted to know Who are these people and why is there a guy in a bacon suit at the end zone of every football game?
Opportunist: You and your products are certainly making the rounds on national TV. What’s that been like for you?
Esch: It really hit home and we thought, Wow, this is really going to be big when two years into [the business], in 2009, we got invited to be on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” There was no looking back. We were on right after Cameron Diaz, about 30 minutes into the show, for like nine minutes. Oprah was very nice. When we walked out, she said “It’s Justin and Dave” and then she ate a Baconnaise sandwich and made fun of our bacon-flavored lip balm. That experience was wild.
Opportunist: Did sales go through the roof?
Esch: That experience set the tone for how far we could take it. The producers of the show warned us about the “Oprah effect.” We aired at four o’clock on the East Coast—you tape in the morning, and then it rolls west across the country and airs about eight times in one day. We called our website provider and he assured us that we were unlimited and that, no matter what, our site would not go down. But, of course, our website and phones went down following the very first airing on the East Coast.
Our products have been on just about every TV show in America at this point. Jay Leno has featured our products. “The Daily Show’s” John Stewart made fun of us and became a fan because we make kosher bacon products. We even made it onto ABC News with Charles Gibson. Kim Jong-il got 30 seconds and we got a minute and a half. [Laughs] We have been on “Good Morning America,” and “TODAY’s” Kathie Lee [Gifford] and Hoda [Kotb] always talk about our products.
Opportunist: We understand you donate some of your products to U.S. troops overseas.
Esch: Operation Bacon Salt donates free products to troops stationed overseas in the bacon-oppressed regions of the world. We make nonperishable kosher and vegetarian bacon products that are ideal for mailing. We get tons of funny photos from troops overseas who are always very thankful to receive them. It’s a good, positive thing to do. This wasn’t our plan but just a byproduct of doing goodwill and doing free things for the troops. And the Defense Commissary Agency supplies them with products to sell on military bases and commissaries worldwide.
You can even get bacon salt in prison. The federal prison will supply you with bacon salt. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Are your products truly American-made?
Esch: Yes, everything is done here in the states. We have Made in USA certified products—and it actually says so on the products. Most of our items are made on the West Coast, in Oregon and Washington, and we also work with one factory in Indiana and another in Kentucky. We contract manufacture everything, which makes things more nimble for us and economically works better right now. We don’t want to run factories.
Opportunist: Where can we find your products?
Esch: In most leading grocery stores. The two biggest are Walmart and Kroger. You can also find them online at Amazon and, of course, via our website. The hard thing about the grocery business is that not every grocery store sells every one of your products. They sell different ones.
Opportunist: If we may be so bold, is it correct to assume that you guys became millionaires from bacon-flavored salt?
Esch: Dave and I are pretty modest people. We parlay all of our proceeds into the business and just kind of keep it growing. And we have 10 full-time employees.
Opportunist: Are any seasonal or holiday products in the works?
Esch: We have some fun white elephants, such as seasonal flavors of bacon salt and novelty products and bacon-flavored soda. Our holiday stuff is going to be hilarious this year. It launches during the second week of November—a week before Thanksgiving—so look for it online around that time.
Opportunist: Do you have any ambition to take the company public?
Esch: The idea that we would ever go public is so far beyond anything we would imagine. We would probably sell to a larger food brand before we would ever take it public.
Opportunist: What would you say is the key to your success?
Esch: Some of those things are out of your control. Some of it is pure luck and some is timing. We appreciate people buying our stuff and the fact that this worked for us. I’ve heard that about 95 percent of food companies that get launched fail. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but it seems people out there do try a lot. We are very fortunate for the opportunity we’ve been given.
This has been an absolutely incredible ride. I tell people all the time that we are undeniable proof that the American Dream is alive and well.
Opportunist: What’s next?
Esch: Gosh. I have no idea. We’ve started to expand the business outside the purview of bacon croutons, for example, and we launched blue cheese flavored and tomato basil. We are developing some new microwave popcorn flavors. We are expanding our footprint and continuing to make innovative products. You won’t see any me-too products on our website. We like to make new things that don’t already exist. The next few years will see us expanding our presence in the categories we are already in and looking into the snack food category. We don’t know if it’s crackers or chips or wheat snacks, but we are looking at whatever makes sense for us in that space.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.