Not a Restaurant!
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Food is the focus at Chef JJ’s, a barbecue retail store with two locations in Indianapolis. There is a maitre d’-like director of hospitality, and every employee but one is a trained chef. The business hosts dozens of grilling classes a month; farms much of the produce they use; caters countless private dinners and corporate events each year; and even sells thousands of pounds of turkey at Thanksgiving.
“We focus on food and the culinary experience to the point that we are often mistaken for a restaurant,” says the store’s owner and founder, Chef JJ Boston.
But Chef JJ’s is indeed a retail store. It is one of the nation’s top-selling Big Green Egg dealers – the only brand of grill they use and sell. And it does a huge business in grilling accessories, sauces, seasonings, woods, and charcoal. “We are both a certified ‘Gold’ retail dealer and a designated ‘Culinary Partner’ for Big Green Egg,” Boston says.
How Chef JJ’s came to straddle both worlds dates back to 2004, when the overworked, burned-out corporate chef started his own personal-chef business, preparing weekday meals, catering parties, and even traveling to vacation homes to cook for a roster of luxury clients. About a year in, one of Boston’s clients hired him to grill at a backyard party on a Big Green Egg.
“The guy gave me this passionate spiel about how great it was and instructed me on how to use it,” he recalls. Boston was skeptical at first, but by the end of the evening he was hooked. “That night, I grilled recipes I’d made dozens of times, but they tasted 10 times better than before. It was the best appliance I had ever cooked on.”
|Downtown’s grilling class with Executive Sous Chef Jenna Gatchell.|
Afterward, he bought his own Big Green Eggs to use in his private chef business, transporting them in the back of his pickup truck to clients’ homes. Soon a phenomenon began to emerge: after a party, he would end up selling a grill to the client. Within six months, Boston says he was selling more Eggs than any other retailer in the area and he didn’t have a brick-and-mortar store.
These private catering experiences led to a series of “Pop-Up” barbecue dinners at some of Boston’s clients’ swanky homes. Boston sold tickets for $40 each to the BYOB dinners, prepped the menu ingredients offsite in a licensed commercial kitchen, and then cooked the entire meal from appetizers through dessert on Eggs in front of the guests.
The grassroots guest list grew by word of mouth, starting with a small circle of friends at the first dinner, and eventually expanding to as many as 100 attendees per event. The parties were actually demos in disguise. As Boston would interact with guests, sharing his passion for cooking on the Egg, and explaining how easy it was to use, he would invariably sell all the equipment by the end of the night.
Residential success led to cross-promotions with other businesses. For instance, Boston would hold steak dinners at the local wine shop. He would unload the Eggs from his truck, fire them up under a tent on the sidewalk outside the shop, and then cook the steaks and side dishes. Boston sold tickets to the event – and sometimes Eggs, too – and the guests bought wine from the wine shop. “It was a win-win,” he says.
|Chef JJ’s Downtown Reception.|
“I’m a pretty good chef, but a much better entrepreneur,” Boston says. “The only problem was, I was going from place to place and selling so many Eggs out of my truck, it was becoming backbreaking to load and unload them. I realized I needed my own permanent location where people could come.”
He opened Chef JJ’s Back Yard in suburban Indianapolis in 2009, with a 1,300 sq. ft. interior space and a 700 sq. ft. outdoor patio overlooking the White River. In addition to retail space large enough to stock the full line of Big Green Eggs, table surrounds, 25 varieties of cooking woods, charcoal, sauces, seasonings, and a slew of accessory products, the location gave Boston a permanent spot to host grilling classes, private events, corporate dinners, and team-building sessions for up to 40 people at a time.
“People thought I was crazy to open a business during the recession, but we’ve had amazing growth every year,” he says. “My clients were not adversely affected by the downturn. Plus, once they catch the fever, Eggheads are unbelievably passionate. This whole thing grew like a crazy pyramid scheme, and we quickly built a tribal-like community from word-of-mouth referrals. One customer might refer three friends to us in a week.”
By 2014, they had outgrown the original space and couldn’t keep up with demand for classes and events; there was often a five-month waiting list for tickets. In 2015, Boston opened a second location, Chef JJ’s Downtown, in an historic building one block from Lucas Oil Stadium and the Convention Center in downtown Indianapolis.
This urban location features a rooftop loft and garden, a ground-level outdoor patio, an indoor grilling space, and a retail showroom. It can hold three different smaller events at once; or, combined, the entire building can accommodate between 150 and 200 people.
Chef JJ’s Downtown attracts a lot of business professionals and Millennials for grilling classes, private dinners, corporate entertaining, team-building, special wine dinners, and craft beer events. Boston says, “Opening the second location has allowed us to get in front of six times the number of people we could accommodate previously, and sales have grown incredibly.”
The core of the business is outdoor grilling classes – some demo-style, some hands-on – with topics ranging from Grilling 101 techniques for making steaks, chicken and seafood, to smoking, to pizza, to seasonal topics like holiday proteins and side dishes.
Everything is cooked on Eggs – there are eight in use at Chef JJ’s Back Yard and 23 at Chef JJ’s Downtown. Boston charges $60 prepaid tuition per class, and class tickets almost always sell out, often within minutes, and sometimes in a rush so great it has crashed the website. Besides individual classes, Boston sells about 200 “Season Tickets” at $500 each, entitling purchasers to four grilling classes and one special event per year, with first dibs on signups before ticket sales open to the general public.
Retail sales account for 30% of his overall business revenue, but Boston says walk-in retail foot traffic is minimal. “We are more of a destination,” he says. “But people who are there for our classes and events make a lot of impulse purchases.” According to Boston, the suburban Back Yard location “moves a ton of retail” and sells far more grills than its Downtown counterpart.
“We do a lot of convention entertaining business Downtown,” Boston says, thanks to alliances formed with the visitors’ bureau at the nearby convention center and Indianapolis football stadium. But while visiting conventioneers may not be able to carry home a grill, they do buy a lot of rubs and sauces, according to Boston. He also frequently sells bottles of spice rubs as corporate event favors, and MiniMax Eggs as team-building prizes or corporate gifts.
Boston says his business is “hospitality and food-focused,” something he calls an important distinction from most retailers. “I am not a retail expert,” he says. “We sell these products because we love and use them. Our business model is more of a restaurant and hospitality experience, with retail playing a supporting role. I am succeeding as a retailer in spite of myself.”
The enterprising Boston has supplemented his main business platform with other related ventures to create additional revenue streams. “Otherwise,” he says, “you would have to sell a lot of barbecue sauce to pay the rent.” He has created a “Mobile Bistro,” a 40-ft. trailer with 13 Eggs and a ventilation hood system that he uses to cater residential and corporate events. He regularly partners with local craft breweries and wineries on beer and wine dinners, all of which become opportunities to sell grills, accessories, seasonings, woods, and more.
The serial entrepreneur offers a turkey brining service at the holidays, charging $30, plus the cost of the bird, which customers must buy from him (he sells 3,000 lbs. of turkey every year). For those who prefer to do it themselves, Boston holds brining classes, as well as eight hands-on turkey grilling and smoking classes.
He also smokes turkeys for customers who give them as gifts, or prefer to let Chef JJ’s team do the heavy lifting on holiday dinners.The turkey cooking classes have the added bonus of generating local news coverage, and Boston is often interviewed as an expert, gaining more exposure for his business.
Boston has held an Eggfest since 2008, initially partnering with a local hardware dealer on the event before going out on his own after opening Chef JJ’s. He sells 500 tickets to attendees at $40 each, and pre-sells the 60 Eggs used by cooking teams in the May event, as well as lots of seasonings and accessories. The events are not only a celebration for died-in-the-wool Eggheads, but also are a way to welcome new owners to the family, according to Boston.
He has bought abandoned urban lots and turned them into farms to grow much of the produce he uses, and partners with local farmers to source meats. He consults on outdoor kitchen projects, lending a chef’s perspective on workstation design and which appliances and elements to include, but does not get involved in construction or even selling any of the built-in components beyond Eggs.
Though he charges for assembly and delivery, Boston and his team bend over backwards on customer support. “Our hospitality director gathers the info we need to take maximum care of our clients,” he says. “We know their names, their wives’ names, birthdates. Everyone is treated like a VIP.”
The team pays particular attention to the post-purchase experience of teaching customers how to set up the grill, light the fire, maintain the temperature, and master techniques such as direct- and indirect-grilling, smoking and more.
“We do on-site instruction when we deliver the Egg, and we offer a free ‘101 Class,’ one-on-one with a chef in the store,” he says. “We strive to provide the best personal experience. Our success relies on teaching customers professional techniques and giving them the confidence to master the Egg. If they’re satisfied, they’ll continue to spread the word.”
In the coming year, Boston hopes to focus more on growing the retail side of his business. “I’m looking for supportive vendor partners to expand the product lines I carry,” he says. “But I have to really love a product and believe in it, or I won’t sell it.
“Eggheads are more sophisticated about food and cooking, and that fits right in with our core values. At the end of the day, we’re chefs and the food must taste good.”
Sounds like a recipe for success.
Store Name: Chef JJ’s
Number of Stores: Two
Owner: Chef JJ Boston
Year Established: 2009
Web site: www.chefjjs.com
Phone: (317) 602-3828
Number of Employees: 20
Gross Annual Sales: “Well over $1 million.”