If ‘Shark Tank’ rewards Al ‘Bubba’ Baker with a backer, it’ll be a win as sweet as his barbecue sauce December 04 2013
AVON, Ohio — Al Baker is a man who’s used to long shots. When he appears on ABC-TV’s prime time program “Shark Tank” at 9 p.m. Friday (on Cleveland’s WEWS-TV-5), the former Cleveland Browns player knows that his shot at a chance to get financial backing from one of the nation’s wealthiest investors could be the longest shot of all.
“I have never been so nervous in my life,” he says flatly.
Baker’s appearance on “Shark Tank” is aimed at more than just grabbing a national spotlight for his patented invention: Bubba’s Q De-Boned baby back rib steaks. His goal is to garner the attention — and financial backing — of one of the show’s deep-pocket stars. Among the show’s investor “sharks” are Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the NBA championship Dallas Mavericks; Barbara Corcharan, New York City real estate tycoon; Daymond John, founder of FUBU clothing; Kevin O’Leary, venture capitalist, and Lori Greiner, the “Queen of QVC.”
The former NFL star attributes his nerves to all the hoops he’s had to jump through in order to make it onto the popular reality show. You’d think he had already faced every possible adversary, both on the playing field and throughout a long run as a restaurant owner. Bubba’s Q’ World Famous Bar-B-Q & Catering, originally located in Cleveland’s Shaker Square before moving to Avon, turns 20 in May.
And it’s not like he hasn’t overcome plenty of other hurdles over his lifetime.
As a kid growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, eventually gaining the nickname “Bubba,” he could only dream of life as a football player. Let alone landing a career that spanned 13 seasons as a defensive lineman on National Football League teams. Let alone recognition as Defensive Rookie of the Year. Much less multiple trips to the Pro Bowl. Or an MVP award from the Detroit Lions. Or his final years on the playing field, wearing Cleveland Browns colors. Or becoming a role model and an icon.
And then a chef.
“Man, I could scarcely have dreamed all this,” says Baker, who turns 57 on Monday.
On the eve of making his network television debut — in a venue quite different from his lifelong career – Baker marvels over a life that’s is very much a tapestry of blessings and breaks.
Maybe the first break came in the form of family. Baker comes from the family that runs Jacksonville’s much-loved Jenkins Quality Barbecue, with three locations in the Bold New City of the South. Sweet, smokey hot sauce runs in his blood.
Indeed, it was a trip back to Jacksonville — to introduce his then bride-to-be, Sabrina, to his family — that took Baker on the winding road that led him to the Sony Pictures Television lot in Southern California.
In the past, Baker has obliquely referred to his boneless baby backs as a creation born of convenience. Much as people love a good slab, they don’t like to eat them in restaurants.
But this past weekend, the 6-foot-eight-inch former player came clean on how the concept really came into being.
“I took Sabrina to meet my family, at Jenkins Quality,” Baker recalls. “Well, as soon as we sat down, they started bringing food out, setting all these platters and plates in front of Sabrina.
“Well, she just sat there, looking at everything, and then she opened her mouth. ‘Oh, no, no, no — I don’t eat all this. Ribs are too, too messy.’
“And all of a sudden like, the room got REALLY quiet,” Baker recalls. Though he describes himself as a deeply religious man, he felt the buckles of his faith strain mightily.
“About 17 people stopped what they were doing and just looked at me, and stared at her, and back at me. And I sat there thinking ‘Oh, Lord, please, please, quiet this woman, right NOW.’ ”
(To this day, Baker adds, “Some of them will still ask me, ‘You still with that Sabrina girl, the one who don’t eat no ribs?”)
He is, of course. She owns Bubba’s Q, handling the business end of things while Al Baker and his daughter, Brittani Bo Baker, handle the cooking and the recently formed subsidiary food company, Queen Ann Inc., named for Baker’s mother — “she’s Ann, the queen” — and grandmother, Annabelle.
The vivid reality of how some diners view spare ribs never left Baker.
“They’re messy, they’re time-consuming, and you throw the bones away,” is how he sums up the downside,” he says. So Baker set about developing a process by which he could completely remove the bones from his delectable dry-rubbed and apple wood-smoked baby back pork ribs.
When he finally mastered the process, the challenges were only beginning. Though they became an innovative option on the Bubba’s Q’ menu, he envisioned an audience well beyond Northeast Ohio.
That’s when the long shots came like a meteor shower.
“They told me ‘you’re never going to get a patent on a food, that just doesn’t happen,’ but in 2010 I won the patent on the food product — then in 2011, on the process,” he says.
Even then, he required state or federally inspected production facilities in order to safely produce meat products. Tom and Jeff Heinen of Heinen’s Supermarkets agreed to allow him the use of their production plant — after hours and on weekends. Which meant crosstown drives from Avon to Warrensville Heights in the middle of the night to produce the smoked and fully cooked, Cryovac-wrapped, heat-and-eat rib steaks. And then leave the facilities spotless.
“In this business you have layer upon layer upon layer… and at every step you have to develop and secure customer acceptance and respect,” Baker says. “When you work with meat, you DON’T make mistakes. It’s too costly, in every respect.”
About a thousand hurdles later — product test-marketing in grocery stores, consultations with members of the business department faculty at Baldwin-Wallace University, working with idea incubator JumpStart Inc. — Baker and his daughter found themselves in a large room on the lot of Sony Pictures Television.
“At this ‘pre-pitch’ they [the 'Shark Tank' producers] told us: ‘Give yourselves a hand.’ You started out with 35,000 other small business people – then we paired it down to 12,000, and then fewer and few… and now there are 36 of you.
” ‘But Sony has us down, contracted, for 22 episodes. Meaning, about a dozen of you won’t be on the show.’
“And among the contestants it was no longer social, all of a sudden. Everybody realized that a lot of us are going home with nothing, not even an episode. And the producers are very matter of fact, telling us ‘even if we tape you, we may not air your episode; there could be some sort of news, a catastrophe, or the president may have a press conference…’
When “Shark Tank” producers notified him that they’d be visiting the Bakers at their home, their restaurant and other locations in the Avon area during early November, Bubba Baker was cautiously elated.
And when he got the call last week that his episode would indeed air — “I’m keeping my fingers crossed there’s no national emergency,” he laughs — he began to relax. Just a little.
“I AM sleeping, finally,” he says. “And whether you believe in this or not, at least in MY Bible there’s no passage where God led the Israelites to the river Jordan and said ‘OK, fellas, you’re on your own. Cross it yourself.’
“It’s not my talent. It’s not my skill level. Of course, my family and our workers have done so much. But this is called ‘Favor.’ It has nothing to do with my ability or influence. Just, after a lot of hard knocks, my God up there has said ‘I’ve brought you this far. Trust me.’ “