Innovation Destination Website Curator Nan Price sat down with Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ Co-Founder Jamie “The Bear” McDonald to talk about entrepreneurship, small business ownership, and what it takes to make authentic Kansas City-style BBQ. (Rumor has it, Price stayed for lunch—and didn’t bring home any leftovers.)
The fast-growing restaurant chain, which McDonald co-founded with his wife, Cheryl, has been expanding since 2013 and currently has three locations: Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ in Hartford and Windsor and Bear’s Express in South Windsor.
Construction is currently underway for a Front Street relocation, since the Hartford restaurant has outgrown its Arch Street location. McDonald also signed a lease for a space at Hartford’s Union Station. What’s more, McDonald will be teaming up with Millwright’s chef-owner Tyler Anderson to open a new restaurant, Cook and the Bear, which will be located in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square.
PRICE: In addition to being a competitive eater, have you always had an entrepreneurial side?
McDONALD: I’ve always wanted to own my own business. With starting the restaurants, everything kind of aligned, which allowed the opportunity. It’s going on almost three years now.
PRICE: Right, you launched in 2013.
McDONALD: We started in Windsor at Bart’s Drive-In Restaurant. They allowed us to lease a small area and with very little capital we were able to open the doors. Since day one, it’s just been crazy. We saved every penny we’ve made and used it to finance the buildout for the Arch Street location in Hartford. Then, once these doors were open, we used all the profits to build out the new Windsor spot. We keep continuing that cycle, so at the end of the day, we’re still pretty damn broke! We don’t take home anything. It’s all just reinvested.
PRICE: What kind of work did you do prior to Bear’s?
McDONALD: I worked for United Technologies, mostly in customer service on their aerospace side. The job was technical, so going from that to business ownership is a big difference, but you use all the same principles as any other business. Restaurants just have their own kind of unique spin.
PRICE: Back in 2015, when you received a Business Champions Award for best startup, you mentioned working long hours, seven days a week. Is that still your routine? Has it eased up at all?
McDONALD: No, I’d say it’s probably even more. The workload has changed from just making sure daily operations are happening. Now we have four different spots that are in some phase of construction. That alone keeps me up at night.
PRICE: And you have plans for a food truck too, right?
PRICE: So this is all ramping up for you at the same time.
McDONALD: Yes. It’s all hitting right now through June. We kicked off a lot of stuff by sponsoring the Hartford Yard Goats at the new baseball stadium in Hartford. Left field is ours.
PRICE: So two questions: Will you continue to expand? And, will you always stay in Connecticut?
McDONALD: Yes, as far as expansion goes. Our big push right now is to solidify everything so far and start looking outside of Connecticut in the fall. We’re thinking maybe Boston or Philadelphia—starting to branch out a little and reach bigger markets.
PRICE: Why was it important for you to have a presence in Hartford?
McDONALD: Because Hartford is expanding. Cheryl worked for a Hartford school district, so she used to drive by Arch Street all the time. She knew that the UConn campus was coming to downtown Hartford, and it just seemed like a good opportunity.
I would’ve never thought when we signed this lease about two years ago that two years later we’d be moving out to a larger space.
PRICE: Speaking of Hartford, you’re involved a lot throughout the community.
McDONALD: I think that is part of how we’ve grown so fast. With the product, you have to have the basics down, but I’ve always believed in corporate responsibility. At the end of the day, the community should benefit just as much from having your business be a part of the community as you do from being there.
It’s all about supporting various charities—especially the local charities—and giving back in that way. For example, we support Open Hearth, a housing and homeless shelter in Hartford, we do a lot of work with them, helping transition folks out of the halfway house. It keeps us busy.
PRICE: You’re also very involved with supporting veterans.
McDONALD: Yes. I served in the Navy, so that’s an important cause for me. Last year we worked to raise money for K9s For Warriors, which provides service dogs for veterans suffering from post 9-11 Post-traumatic Stress Disability or traumatic brain injury.
This year, we are proudly sponsoring free admission for all U.S. veterans and their families for the Travelers Championship.
PRICE: Bear’s Smokehouse posts some mouth-watering photos on Facebook and Instagram. In terms of marketing, does social media play a key role?
McDONALD: As far as marketing efforts, we don’t really do any traditional print marketing.
I think small businesses—really any type of business—should be taking full advantage of social media. Facebook isn’t really free anymore; you have to pay to get people to see your posts, but it’s a great tool.
PRICE: Let’s talk about supply and demand. You’re well beyond your original five-year plan. When you don’t plan for that growth rate, how do you meet the demand?
McDONALD: You don’t!
And that’s what people start to figure out. We want to run out of food every day. Some days we’re so busy. It just kind it is what it is. It’s not like a normal restaurant where you can make some more sandwiches or throw another hamburger on, with barbecue everything is paced. We load the smokers at four o’clock in the afternoon, the process is about 24-hours.
PRICE: And it started from your love of genuine Kansas-style barbecue?
McDONALD: My love of food and I like feeding people.
PRICE: Can you discuss any entrepreneurial challenges?
McDONALD: It’s really about finding a good team. Our employees represent the business when I’m not here. If they’re not doing a good job, it doesn’t matter how good the food is, people don’t want bad service.
If you’re going to be an entrepreneur it’s not easy, it’s a sacrifice. You have to be willing to put everything on the line for it.
Even with how busy we are, because we have so much going on with construction and everything else, we’ve cashed in all of our life savings, our 401(k)s, everything to keep the business going. There are times when it was sketchy, but you have to make it over that hump and keep pushing through. That’s the point where I think a lot of businesses fail, they give up too soon.
As far as food, in the restaurant business it’s all about diversifying and being involved a lot. We are out at stadiums and different events. We’ll be out in the food truck. We’re catering. You have to take advantage of any way you can get your food out, you can’t rely on walk-in sales.
Some days it’s slow for no reason, it could be a beautiful day out and it’s just slow. The first thing that crosses your mind then as a business owner is: Oh my God everybody hates us! Or we could have a random day where it’s just slammed. There’s really no rhyme or reason.
PRICE: Any other words of wisdom?
McDONALD: The only other advice I can say is, if you see an opportunity you’ve got to jump on it. You can’t wait until you think the time is perfect. It’s never going to be perfect. All your ducks are never going to be in a row.
Union Station is a good example. They put the space up for bid for proposals and I found out about it the day before proposals were due. I looked at it, did some brainstorming, and said: You know what? Let’s do it. We jumped on it, and now the space is ours. Now I’ve just got to get it working!
PRICE: You seem like the type of person who thrives on simultaneously juggling projects.
McDONALD: Yes. That’s where Cheryl and I really do well together. She’s very detail orientated whereas I am not at all. I like to just keep going, going, going. You have to have a balance like that. It’s going really well.
To learn more about Bear’s Smokehouse, visit bearsbbq.com.