BTC Podcast Ep 8: Sterling Ball, Radical Innovation & Leaving a Legacy | Hathway

BTC Podcast Ep 8: Sterling Ball, Radical Innovation & Leaving a Legacy

Published by Kevin Rice, CMO
September 14, 2020

Sterling Ball, Radical Innovation & Leaving a Legacy

Sterling Ball is a man of many talents, interests and roles. He is a world champion pitmaster, founder of Big Poppa Smokers, president of Ernie Ball Music Man and menu consultant to brands like BJ’s Restaurants, Tabasco and Tyson Foods. Sterling brings his unique culinary perspective to the show sharing lessons larger chains could (and should) learn from the smaller, independent restaurants, what the younger generation of food buyers is looking for and why an innovative menu is more important than ever.

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Video Transcription

Jesse:

Hello. I’m Jesse CEO and co-founder at Hathway, and I’m here with my co-founder, Kevin Rice. This is another episode of Beyond the Counter, where we interview some of the coolest people in the restaurant, retail and CPG space and today we’ve got maybe one of the coolest attendees to have, ever on the show.

Kevin:

Today we’ve got Sterling Ball, a man that wears many hats. A lot of people know him for his role in the music industry as the, I think, the former CEO of Ernie Ball guitar strings and Music Man Guitars. Sterling also leads one of the top competitive barbecuing teams on the circuit. He owns Big Poppa Smokers where you can get some of the best smokers and grills in the world, and even consults on menu and culinary design for some of the world’s leading restaurant and food brands. So I’m really excited to have Sterling on. Let’s just jump into it.

Alright, well, welcome everybody to another episode of Beyond the Counter a podcast where we talk about everything that goes on in the restaurant industry behind the scenes to put your favorite food on your plate. In the last couple of weeks we’ve talked to some CMOs and CIO’s of the restaurant industry, today, we have a very special guest, someone that I’ve been fortunate to call a friend for nearly 10 years now and a former client, Sterling, welcome to the podcast, thanks for joining us today.

Sterling:

Hey, welcome. I love being here. I like talking to you young guys.

Sterling:

It’s such an exciting time because there’s so much going on. I mean, it’s changing every week, I mean, loyalty is great, but I think that you can’t count on loyalty for your brand. You have to keep investing in your brand. And I discussed this, it’s a concept of brand equity and whether you’re building it or whether you’re consuming it. You can be going along fine, but you’re actually consuming the brand equity. Nobody ever knows what the straw that broke the camel’s back looks like and nobody knows what the last bite of brand equity tasted like, all they know is everything was over all of a sudden. There are certain premises, whether you’re in a pandemic or not you always gotta be wondering if you’re, if you’re building your brand, if you’re building equity in the brand and if the things you’re doing to survive are actually enabling you to have the possibility or survival.

Kevin:

Loyalty is an interesting and somewhat loaded term in the restaurant industry, right? It’s often confused with rewards, like spend base rewards, discount programs versus, real customer loyalty. What we do know is loyalty is often how somebody perceives your brand and how they associate it with their own kind of personal persona that they’re trying to create. Really good example of that was back when Mac did the “I’m a Mac” campaign and you remember like Justin Long was on TV and he was the young cool hip guy. And then they have the kind of nerdy PC guy. I mean, nobody wanted to be associated with the PC guy. so you, you had this brand campaign that created and instilled a tremendous amount of loyalty among Apple customers. And there was no discounts, right? Apple doesn’t discount.

Jesse:

They do the opposite of discounts.

Sterling:

Well, Tesla. I mean, this man’s been this man hasn’t spent a dollar in any kind of traceable, traditional marketing. I mean, and by the way, here’s a company, here’s a guy who’s been buried by the auto parts lobby, the auto dealer lobby, the finance lobby the oil companies and now he’s the most valuable car company in the world, half a million vehicles. Toyota’s made 19 million. Something’s wrong with that valuation though, I mean, it’s, this pendulum keeps going too far. I mean I’m a car collector and all I drive is my model 3. He went against every, he had more, more obstacles than anybody. And I think, , you replaced the dealer network. He did a lot of great things.

Kevin:

Yeah, so that’s also an interesting parallel, right? Tesla essentially disintermediated the dealership network, the traditional model, whereas in the restaurant industry and a lot of industries you’re having intermediation happen, Amazon becoming an intermediary, all the third party delivery networks, intermediating that obstructs the relationship and Tesla is a different industry, , where he just basically went straight to the consumer.

Sterling:

Yeah. I get my messages on my phone. I hear from them. I think, I think it’s brilliant, this didn’t just happen. This guy understood that he’s thinking in the future. And one of the things I’d say about leadership, maybe I shouldn’t be talking about leadership, but actually I do have a unique way, but I mean, if you’re a CEO and you’re working on a problem today and you find yourself working on today’s problems, you’re a pretty poor CEO. You really gotta be thinking, you gotta be working, in March right now, I mean I’m writing a plan for Tyson right now about what our activations look like next year. And I actually think that I gotta write a plan where there’s no activations next year. We’ve got to figure out how to do it and this is a $40 billion company.

Kevin:

So you’re working with Tyson foods, now you’re working with Tabasco’s. You do a little bit of work with BJ’s let’s take a step back. I’d love for you to just share a little bit about your history and now consulting with some of these incredible food brands,

Sterling:

I’ve always cooked, cooking is when you want to please people, when you cook, it’s a creative outlet. I bought a smoker for my son, Scotty, and I bought two one for me and one for him. And I realized with these smokers that I could, that there was no indirect fire, so you couldn’t burn the food. Now, the worst thing that would happen to me is I’d be invited over to somebody’s house and they’d hand me the tongs and I’d have to cook on this horrible gas grill, where one quarters, 3-mile Island or the other one’s Death Valley you know, then they got frozen chicken packs, “Oh, Sterling’s the good cook”. Well, my second worst fear was that they wouldn’t hand me the tongs. So I had this smoking system and actually was a Traeger pellet grill when they first came out and the Skullcandy people have bought that since and done a tremendous marketing job. But I said, I can teach men how to cook. I would ask all the wives, how good does your husband cook? Are you going to tell them what I said? But it’s a macho thing. So I figured that I could teach men how to cook. And so I started buying these barbecues, started doing these videos and the people that were working for Ernie Ball were bringing the barbecues over, came up to me one day and said, “Hey, we’re going to start a competition team.” I said that’s the absolute dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. This is stupid. There’s no reason to do that. It’s subjective all that and they went out and came in 2nd place ribs their first time. I started coaching them and then one by one, they quit. I took the head seat and I’ve cooked 239 contests. And I’m pretty proud that I’ve got, I think one of the highest winning percentages in competition barbecue. I’ve won or come in second 34% of the time. I’ve been the national pork champion and I won 1st California in the Winter World Championship at the American Royal.

Kevin:

You know, one of the things I wanted to ask you about, we’ve had some good dialogue about where the most innovation is happening in the restaurant industry and I don’t necessarily think it’s happening at the large chain restaurant level when it comes to menu innovation. But we’d love to hear your thoughts on kind of where you’re seeing innovation coming from in the restaurant industry,

Sterling:

Where the innovation is happening is usually where you can identify it, because it’s what inspires you as a customer and to me, I thought the food truck guys were great, the first ones, but I knew they couldn’t make a living. So that was the real problem. Here they are with this dream and they never figured out that they can only sell food for two hours a day. And so from there, they went to strip malls and I think the strip malls right now, especially in Southern California. I mean, if you guys come down here, I’ll blow your mind I promise you with just crazy good flavors, crazy good execution, but amazing customer service and personalized service, which are things that is very much harder for a big operator to be able to deliver, when the owner or the owner’s son or daughter is dealing with you compared to somebody who’s working the summer gig, it’s hard, but they check all those boxes. Cause I don’t care now about whether there’s a boat over my head or any of that I want really good service, but I want really good, really good, innovative and fresh flavors and I think that’s one of the things that immigration has added to America on such a beautiful level is arts and music, but also food.

Sterling:

I mean the hybrids, I hate the word fusion, but it is the fusion. There’s a place in Fountain Valley called Box Kitchen and there they do a hybrid between sort of Korean, Vietnam and Peru. And if you look them up, they really have a great review. I think Yelp has been incredibly helpful. And I think that most people love to hate Yelp. I use Yelp. There’s certain cities that are Yelp elevated. I’ll tell you here in Orange County where I am right now, the closer to the ocean, the worse, the food. The reason why I can see that is close to the ocean, the higher, the rent! I’m over it, and the expectation to what you want to buy. In a lot of these strip malls, you’re eating a lot of vegan and vegetarian stuff that you wouldn’t normally, you’re eating more chicken thighs and maybe even boneless legs as opposed to breast and you’re not maybe getting a tender loin, you’re getting a hanger steak or a flat iron, or something. But I think it’s exciting and interesting, but I also think it plays to the younger consumers in that they, I mean generally, your grandparents didn’t eat very spicy food at all. Your parents might’ve eaten a little bit. For me, my generation started to eat spicy, but each generation you go down and ten-year-olds can wolf Sriracha like it’s their go to thing on any of that stuff. So I think a lot of people in the bigger restaurants are looking at it from their palette instead of the palette of the younger consumer. There’s no science to say this, but I believe that a younger consumer is more willing to try different things and probably has a wider, wider things they’ll eat.

Kevin:

Flavor innovation from larger chain restaurant groups, is it just cause they’re trying to dumb down the recipe for the most common denominator? Is it just, they’re more risk averse?

Sterling:

Well, I’m fortunate to work with with a really bold chain in BJ’s Brewhouse. They, I think that they, they came from the beach in , the beach is a different mindset. You grow up here. A lot of the innovation in California came with, kind of a gene crash here and then you have an attitude of the beach and a lifestyl that’s a lot more, it’s wider, it’s more relaxed and BJ’s came from that. I think that the CEO, Greg Trojan at BJ’s, is fearless when it comes to food. I think he’s an incredible CEO, he’s my friend. But I think he, and his team there is, I’m not just saying this, but the team’s spectacular. The person I’m fortunate to work with in culinary development, Scott Rodriguez, he’s just a great chef, he’s a great guy that gives you an environment to create, and a license and he doesn’t let his ego get in the way of what we’re trying to do.

Sterling:

And so I think he’s one of in my life, Scott is one of the most impressive guys I’ve worked with. So it sounds really funny, but I don’t have to do this. I do this cause I love it. I mean, I love the people that I work with at BJ’s but I also love that if you come up with an idea for a soba noodle, with a wasabi guacamole and poké three years ago that it’s on the menu in two months, whereas that was probably not something you’d expect at a BJ’s. I want to make sure that everybody knows the BJ’s is a collaboration. BJ’s is a team, BJ’s is a place I’m just lucky to be part of, and this has been a crazy thing where a CEO had the courage to bring this wildcat in and I think has been beneficial for everybody.

Kevin:

So in contrast to BJ’s, I mean, you mentioned a lot of this innovation in terms of flavor and menu is coming from strip malls and those are presumably independent restaurant chains?

Sterling:

The ethnic food, that happens to be in strip malls more often than not.

Kevin:

Okay. Sure. Well strip malls are great location, right? It’s usually convenient, great parking. Like it makes sense, right? We’re seeing data that says like 30% of these independent restaurants are going to be out of business this year, if not already out of business. So we could be in a situation where a lot of those restaurants that we love, are just not going to be around in a few years,

Sterling:

It’s tragic. I mean, it is a tragedy, but the sad part is watching for the first time I had said to you in another conversation that I’d never seen a really great restaurant with really great service and great food and decent prices go broke. And in this pandemic, there are victims and I thought about that comment I made and there are victims and that’s really, really sad. I mean, the biggest challenge you look at worker’s comp from a restaurant standpoint, look at the rent in the big malls and downtowns and prime corners, it doesn’t add up. I think one of the things at Ernie Ball I used to do is that we’d get in a situation where we have certain expectations towards employees, and this is back when we actually printed a paycheck can you imagine that?! There were days where you actually got a paycheck! And I would grab the paychecks and I’d have meetings and say ‘Guys open that paycheck and see what this person, here’s their job responsibility, here’s what they take home and you tell me if you think we’re setting an appropriate level of expectation” and we weren’t. So I look at every check the same way. When I get a check at a restaurant, I say, how can an average family do this twice a month? You better be really good. I mean, you’ve got to innovate, you’ve got to try harder than ever being clean, at being welcoming and delivering great service, you have to spend a lot of time with technology and I’m not just saying that cause I’m on with you guys. But I mean, if you didn’t have the things you did, I think that there’d be a lot more restaurants that went broke, or your industry not necessarily saying you didn’t share the common pool, but I think you’ve enabled a lot of your clients to show growth that they weren’t, that they were desperate for or to pick up some sales that were hopefully compensating for what they couldn’t do inside,

Jesse:

Right. Or at least defend against the marketplaces as well.

Sterling:

The problem is when you get in this deal where it’s just margin, eventually you die, that’s not a battle you should ever really play. And I know big restaurants play with pricing and stuff, but they understand margin and the hardest thing and the thing that’s never taught to an entrepreneur and they always learn the hard part is that is, that margin is key I mean, when you go into a project, somebody gives you a bid. You always think that that bid is going to be the number you end up paying. And that, that timeline is! After I add to everything, both in time and money.

Jesse:

Speaking of margin, I mean the challenging thing we’re seeing in a lot of industries right now, but restaurants in particular is that they actually were doing fine when they were more or less, totally shut down, because they’re keeping their costs in line with their decrease in revenue. But now they’re kind of opening up, maybe shutting down again, trying to explore, like in San Luis Obispo, they’ve got parklets and everybody’s trying to nail outdoor dining and their margins are just getting destroyed and they’re actually being harmed now. And so almost would have been better, I know somebody in in the fitness industry who made a decision just to shut their studios and just said, we’re not even going to try because we’re just going to be draining money. We’ll just basically go and hibernate until this is all over,

Sterling:

You know, an interesting thing is that I’m watching us print trillions of dollars and doing all this. I almost think, what would happen if they just stopped the clock for 90 days?

Jesse:

Yeah. It wouldn’t even take 90, it would only take like 14 days or something. This is something I actually want to bounce off of you. I was thinking if the government could actually just give everybody 14 days worth of MRAs and just say, you’re not allowed to leave we’re just gonna wait one whole infection cycle, it could have been killed, it could have been killed in April, but that would be like the most extreme solution and all of the kind of half-ass solutions have ended up just stretching out and making it way worse.

Sterling:

Well hopefully they’ll watch us after the pandemic and then hopefully that will be a post pandemic. But I mean, the truth on the mask thing, it’s such a political issue. I mean, we’re selling masks at Ernie Ball and the hardest marketing conversation we have is ‘what’s our tagline on a mask’ because half the people think it’s good and half the people think it’s a conspiracy. So we can’t say do your part, cause we’re going to piss half the people off. So we ended up with something that’s basically says, “Hey, if you need a mask, we got a great one”. So you’re forced into these different positions.

Kevin:

Yeah. I mean, we’ve been talking a lot with our clients about if there is a silver lining here, one of the things that restaurants have been trying to do is make this shift towards digital so they can have more data about their customers, understand their customers better and serve their customers better. And that’s certainly one thing that has happened here is we’ve had this tremendous shift towards digital, which has been desirable by brands for a long time. The other is, we’ve just seen so much innovation. We’ve seen probably more investment in technology in the past six months than the past, four or five years combined. So, it’s tragic, everything that’s happened but if we try and look for some of the silver linings there are certainly some positives coming out of it,

Sterling:

You know, in dealing with big companies, I dealt with two years ago, I was the primary Tabasco guy. I did I dunno, 37 videos for them and created a whole bunch of things. And I didn’t get renewed cause I was too old and they came back with the guys with the BBQ on the knuckles and the beard and the flannel and they’re pouring Tabasco on burgers, on a grill. And you know what? I love Tabasco, I love the product. I’m really glad they didn’t renew me too because it wasn’t me. I don’t do a good corporate monkey boy and that was a hard one for me and so now you’re watching how these different brands are using ambassadors and I’m an ambassador for quite a few companies qnd as each day goes by, I want to have fewer companies. And I say, no, because the credibility is gone. I have people that every week say ‘there’s a new product’, that their touting and they’ve lost their credibility. Cause they’re so so busy trying to figure out how to make a living out of food. The shelf life of an ambassador or an influencer.

Kevin:

Yeah. I mean the shelf life of the entire industry of influencers is probably coming to a close soon. Cause, we, as marketers know how to mess a good thing I have real quick.

Sterling:

Well, and the thing is it becomes credibility, we have ambassadors, we used in the music business and if they get to a few million, they’re usually neurotic. Cause they live and die by how many followers they gained or lost the next day. And they have to keep getting more extreme to try and grow their thing and pretty soon they’re not relevant. I mean, unfortunately there is a life cycle on those people and I think a lot of it has to do with when, and this is just my view, when I started working for companies, all they cared about were hashtags, okay. And so they’d get a guy, and one guy would be getting paid a hundred grand for one hashtag, and then he’d be getting a box of foil and some donuts for the next hashtag.

Sterling:

And he didn’t realize all hashtags weigh the same. But the other thing is how many times seriously do you guys search hashtags?

Jesse:

Never.

Kevin:

Never.

Sterling:

Unless your ego surfing, okay! Or if you’re doing one of your clients or something. So everything was based on the hashtag, now in the Instagram world, it’s likes. Well, for example, I have Willow Smith that plays one of my guitars in St. Vincent and I probably got 5 million likes with Willow Smith. Now that would be a marketing home run lottery winning, right. You got 5 million likes, but they’re not guitar players and that are not guitar buyers, they’re fans a Willow Smith. Right? So the metrics and the things that big companies use, and I’m talking about really big companies, are kind of funny to me because, I mean, you can’t just go buy likes and he can’t just go by hashtag.

Kevin:

There were some rumors at a point where that Instagram was going to completely get rid of likes altogether. And that single handedly would crash the influencer industry.

Jesse:

I think they have partially gotten, they don’t show them all the time right away. They show like views instead of likes and stuff like that. So it’s, yeah. There’s some interesting stuff.

Sterling:

Well, listen, it’s hard in the guitar business, I was talking about the back of my sets, I’m going to read this. The first one, legendary, total legendary player, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Slouch, Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Buddy Guy, Angus Young, John Petrucci, Robert Plant, John Mayer. And I only got to the third line here, most impressive artist roster ever. And I can tell you each one of those plays, they’re like family, they’re people we value a ton, we also know that out of that, maybe a hundred names on the back, there’s only really three or four that actually sell product. And I won’t name the names, well Slash I will, Slash sells product still does. There’s something about him that sells, but some of the big names, they don’t sell products, but we’re tremendously honored to be part of their sound and part of their rig and ought to be a partner with them.

Kevin:

Well, that was an awesome episode. I’m super excited that we were able to get Serling on the show. Sterling has been a close friend and colleague and client of Hathway’s for a long time. He’s been a big champion and supporter. So really excited we were able to chat with him. Sterling comes with such an interesting perspective being a leading competitive barbecuer, to working with some of the top brands in the industry to help them innovate on their menus. Just such a cool conversation, a treat for us to be able to have him on the show.

Jesse:

Absolutely and interesting to hear the perspective of somebody who’s involved in the culinary side. I mean, we’ve spoken to a lot of folks in IT and marketing and data surrounding the restaurant and retail space, but somebody who’s actually involved in creating the food. You know, one of the takeaways from Sterling as a consulting chef is just as a belief in the authenticity of food and especially with a younger generation of food buyers now, for them things like food trucks, things like, smaller operations running out of strip malls actually appeal more to their palette. And I think there’s a lesson to be learned for larger chains out there of what can you do to kind of gain or maintain that sense of authenticity and differentiation in the space.

Kevin:

Yeah. I mean, if you think about it as more and more of the actual experience comes off or online and out of the four walls, really, it’s going to come down to the menu as a core way to differentiate. And ultimately if you’re innovating and you’re bringing new, innovative flavors to your menu, that’s going to be critical.

Jesse:

Kevin, I think what you’re getting at is that if you lose the onsite experience, the sights, the smells, the ambiance, the music, the lighting, all of that the personality of the server, the people at the counter etc, it comes down to the food which has always been a big component to it. But now when you’re looking at off-premise, it’s gonna come down to the packaging, it’s going to come down to elements of the presentation, but presentation in a way that’s going to travel well, right? Like the little flourish on a plate doesn’t travel very well. But then also how do you maintain that personality and that brand ambassadorship, when the person doing the last mile delivery is a contractor working for a delivery service provider in marketplace, or maybe in California, they’re an employee of, of that marketplace, but either way, they’re not your employee.

Kevin:

Thanks for tuning in everyone. We had a great discussion with Sterling about all things, food, innovation, flavors, trends in the industry. If you enjoyed today’s discussion, join us in a couple of weeks. We’ve got another great episode coming of Beyond the Counter. Feel free to share the episode with your coworkers or colleagues who might enjoy it as well. Also as always this episode and all of our other episodes can be found on our blog at wearehathway.com as well as all major podcast networks. Thanks guys for listening. We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s show.

Producer:

Hey everyone. Thank you again so much for tuning in today. Before we go, we just wanted to quickly remind all our wonderful listeners out there about our partnership with the amazing folks over at No Kid Hungry. The work that the team is doing over there is essential to help combat the huge effect that the shutdown of schools has had on children’s ability to rely on daily meals. Every podcast Hathway is contributing $500 in our guest’s name to No Kid Hungry. And through this effort, we plan to donate $10,000 to assist the team and the incredible work they’re doing that by the end of the year. Sterling, thank you so much for being a rad guest to have on today’s podcast. Guys, we hope you enjoyed the episode and for more info on Hathway and Beyond the Counter, please visit us at, wearehathway.com. Thanks again for listening. Everyone stay safe and we’ll catch you on the next, Beyond the Counter.