Mayonnaise Wrestling, Flavor Fanaticism, and Social Media on Steroids: The Bacon Salt Story

11/20/08Follow @gthuang

Sometimes the best stories are the hardest to tell. This isn’t one of them. I’m not quite sure where to begin, but here goes. There is a startup in South Seattle called Bacon Salt. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t. But the name says it all: Bacon Salt is a zero-calorie, vegetarian, kosher seasoning that makes everything taste like bacon.

Why is Xconomy writing about this? OK, a crucial aspect is how the company’s founders have used social media and the Internet to promote their product and grow their business. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Mostly it’s just a good tale of entrepreneurship. And the company has just released an interesting new product, which I’ll get to shortly.

The story goes back to January 2007, when Dave Lefkow and Justin Esch were working at Jobster.com, the Seattle-based office networking firm. A company speaking tour took them to Miami Beach, Florida. Late one night, at 1 or 2 a.m., they were having drinks at Wet Willie’s on Ocean Drive. Esch brought up the concept of Bacon Salt, which had occurred to him while he was attending a kosher wedding. Lefkow thought the product had to exist already. They Googled around on a BlackBerry and found nothing. So they bought the domain name right there and then.

For the next few months, they met after work to kick around ideas for getting the business started. They had to learn everything about “how to take a food product to market,” says Lefkow. How to get manufactured, how much material you need, how to package it, how to label it, how to get a product code, and so forth. At a wine and food expo, they met a shadowy advisor (who shall remain anonymous) who walked them through the ins and outs of the food industry. What they still needed was money to get started.

In May 2007, Lefkow won $5,000 from America’s Funniest Home Videos, thanks to his 3-year-old son hitting him in the face with a T-ball. That was their seed funding round. “A pretty standard formula. That’s Harvard Business School stuff there,” says Esch. At around the same time, Lefkow and Esch both left Jobster to focus on their new venture. They began trying to make Bacon Salt themselves, by pouring bacon fat over salt crystals. “It was totally disgusting,” says Esch.

So, with help from friends and family, they hooked up with food scientists and chefs and developed the taste profile they wanted to synthesize. It was more art than science. “The primary thing was taste,” says Lefkow. “We wanted the most delicious product possible.” (You might wonder why anyone would want to make everything taste like bacon, but that’s beside the point, as you’ll soon see.)

Lefkow and Esch launched Bacon Salt in July 2007, and with their Web expertise, immediately tapped into the social networking space to promote their product. They put up profiles on MySpace and Facebook, set up discussion groups, and friended all the people who said “I love bacon” on their own profiles—an astounding 37,000 on MySpace alone. They reached out to bacon bloggers and sent them samples of Bacon Salt to help spread the buzz. They’ve since gone on Twitter. “There’s a huge bacon subculture,” says Esch. “There’s love, and there’s fanaticism.”

And their product started selling. At last count, they’ve sold 600,000 jars of Bacon Salt to people in 50 countries and all 50 states. It is in 8,000 grocery stores across the U.S. They’ve done national TV and radio interviews, and they’re in the December issue of Maxim. Their 2007 revenue was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it’s going up. This year, they also attracted an undisclosed amount of funding from an “all-star investor base,” says Nikesh Parekh, an entrepreneur and investor who has spent time at the Seattle-area firms Second Avenue Partners, Madrona Venture Group, and HouseValues. Parekh is on the board of advisors at Bacon Salt.

So, what are the broader business lessons here? “Let’s say you make brown shoes with red buckles,” says Esch. “Odds are, there’s a group of people, that’s what they love. You have to identify who those people are, and communicate what you want to them, engage them. Figure out who runs BrownShoesWithRedBuckles.com, offer to send them a pair, and build a discussion. In the social media space, having advocates of your brand, evangelists, is the most powerful thing you can do. Do you trust someone marketing to you, or do you trust a friend’s referral?”

“Be genuine,” Esch continues. “It’s OK to put your message out there, but be honest about who you are and what your intention is. Offer to give it to them, but don’t falsely review yourself or your product. Don’t try to control it too much.” (More Bacon Salt lessons here, on Parekh’s blog.)

As for the mechanics of using social media, Esch and Lefkow advise making sure there’s lots of fresh content on the websites, and encouraging the most rabid fans to add their own content like photos, videos, and stories to help promote the brand. “We respond to everyone who e-mails us,” says Esch. “All the e-mails we get are hilarious. How it changed someone’s life, or how they gave it to all the groomsmen at their wedding. Those are the people who talk the most about your brand, and when we go to places now, we meet them.” The Bacon Salt guys have been known to show up at football stadiums dressed in giant foam bacon suits. (They were at the Seahawks-Packers game in Seattle a few weeks ago.)

Which brings us to their newest product: Baconnaise, launched last month. You know what it is already, just from the name. It’s a spread that tastes like bacon. But the best part of the story is how they promoted it.

On the evening of October 30, Bacon Salt rented out Heaven Nightclub in Pioneer Square, set up a wrestling ring, and dumped in hundreds of gallons of mayonnaise (well, a mayo-like substance without the vinegar). They printed up fight-bill flyers and promoted the event as “mayonnaise wrestling” on Yelp and Twitter. The main event involved two combatants dressed up as a slab of bacon and a mayonnaise jar. The undercard featured a Bacon Salt intern clad in a Zorro mask, a jockstrap, and a cape, taking on three women from the Emerald City Mudhens rugby team. It was the intern’s punishment for having crashed Lefkow’s car. “It was the greatest product launch of all time,” says Parekh.

Unfortunately, Esch and Lefkow did not get in the ring themselves. But they’re busy enough planning the next phase of Bacon Salt. “We’re still waiting to see about the economic climate,” says Esch. “But it’s going well, we’re still on the rise.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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