By Van Adams, Player Engagement Insider
Known to his friends and family for his sense of humor and barbequing skills, former defensive lineman Al “Bubba” Baker was a fierce competitor on the football field chasing down quarterbacks in the 1970s and 1980s with the Detroit Lions, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, and Minnesota Vikings. The three-time Pro Bowl defensive end is proving to be just as fierce off the field serving barbecue to customers from coast to coast.
Born in Florida, Baker grew up in Newark, New Jersey under the watchful eye of a father who was a special services trainer at the Ft. Dix Army base, and an entrepreneurial mother, who was known for being as tough as they come when it came to raising Baker and his two brothers. In an effort to protect him from the social and political unrest happening in their backyard and around the country during the 1960s, and to keep him out of trouble, Baker spent school vacations and summer breaks in Jacksonville, Florida working with his uncle, Melton Jenkins Jr., known as “Daddy Jr.” a rib master and entrepreneur who owned several Jenkins Quality Barbeque locations in the Jacksonville area.
The social and political unrest in Newark during the late 1960s and early 1970s was one factor that led Baker, a four-sport athlete (baseball, basketball, shot put, and football) at Weequahic (NJ) High School, to attend college at Colorado State.
“College without question was the best time of my life. Playing football there gave me a chance to see different parts of the world,” said Baker who turned down offers from Big Ten schools, and HBCUs, where both of his brothers attended. “The climate, the mountains, and the people were very laid back. It was different than anything I had experienced. I was drawn to the vibe of the town.”
Drafted by the Detroit Lions in the second round of the 1978 NFL Draft, Baker vividly recalls one of his rookie year experiences – the boxed lunches he received when traveling to away games.
“There were two sandwiches, cold roast beef, and a cold turkey or ham sandwich, a candy bar, and an apple. Then you had a per diem for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Baker said. “I used my per diem to buy pork chops, and other ingredients to make my own meals.
“The catalyst for making barbeque for the guys was a guy from Grambling, James Hunter. He turns around on the plane one day and says, ’What’s that I smell? Give me one of them.’ I said, ‘I only have three for me and three for my roommate Dave Pureifory.’ So, Hunter says, ’I’ll pay you.’ He gave me $10 and that was the start of what I went on to do (catering) for the rest of my professional football career,” Baker said. “It eventually evolved into me bringing a big red cooler with pans of lasagna, pork chops sandwiches, and rib sandwiches with sauce made from scratch. I’d sell the guys a whole meal and made more money from the guys than I did as Rookie of the Year.”
Baker soon caught the attention of Lions personnel, who initially expressed some concerns that cooking was a distraction. Baker didn't see it that way. He saw it as a way of connecting with his teammates through food.
“Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I think coaches just wanted you to focus on football,” he said. “This barbeque thing was new to them and I was a rookie. Eventually I convinced them that this was my way of camaraderie, a way of bringing everybody together. It was a wonderful time for us to bond, the whole plane smelled like barbeque though.”
It wouldn't be long before players’ wives began reaching out to Baker with orders for their family dinners and special occasions, often tipping generously to ensure they were first in line for a smoked turkey for the holidays.
“Back then, I was known as a quarterback killer and on the other side I was the guy who cooked étouffée, gumbo, soufflés, open face tuna sandwiches and things. That was unheard of. Guys weren’t in the kitchen like that and some of their wives didn't know how to cook either. I saw that as an opportunity because I was the kid who loved to cook. The kitchen was a comfortable place for me,” said Baker who has been making barbeque since he was a child. “By my second year in the league, guys from visiting teams would come to town wanting my barbeque. Not consciously thinking like an entrepreneur, yet being entrepreneurial, I sold them coolers of barbeque.”
“Football was my job, but barbeque was my passion,” Baker said. “I loved playing in the National Football League. I looked forward to cooking all day on Tuesdays. It kept me from thinking about being hurt and other negative things. Cooking was how I found balance.”
After retiring from a 13-year career in the NFL, Baker turned his focus squarely on his barbeque business, making it a family affair with his wife, Sabrina, and two children, Brittani Bo and James, actively involved day-to-day. With that came the desire to grow the business to scale beyond the restaurant location in Ohio. Sabrina, a Detroit native and graduate of the University of Michigan, was the impetus for the Original Boneless Rib.
“I needed to figure out a way to get more people to want to eat ribs any day of the week and not just the Fourth of July or Labor Day,” Baker said. “I knew there were more people like my wife who enjoyed barbeque but found it too messy to eat and too time consuming to prepare.”
With some research and trial and error, Baker introduced the differentiator to the market – the Original Boneless Baby Back Rib. The bones are removed from the baby back rib by a special patented deboning process that Baker owns. The sauce permeates the holes where the bones once occupied, allowing the ribs to have a straight-from-the-grill taste.
“All you need to do is heat and eat,” Baker said. “People can have the southern barbeque experience any day of the week with our boneless ribs, pulled pork and brisket.”
Millions of barbecue lovers are able to do just that thanks to an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank television show that led to Baker teaming up with entrepreneur and investor Daymond John. Since then sales have spiked from $154 thousand to $16 million. Opportunities to expand the brand have also increased including the establishment of a strong ecommerce presence at bubbasbonlessribs.com, regular appearances on QVC and availability in more than 25 retail stores including Food Lion, Shoprite, and Meijer Stores.
This spring, Bubbas-Q’s Boneless Ribs became the exclusive rib supplier for the Baby Back Rib Burger available at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s locations throughout the country. More partnership opportunities are on the horizon, including one with a major restaurant chain and a new teriyaki ginger boneless baby back rib coming soon to one of the nation’s largest retailers.
Baker, who has been in the business more than 30 years, cautions that success doesn't happen overnight and that there will be challenges along the way.
“What I do now is tougher than playing football,” Baker said “Retail shelf space is at a premium, and it’s very competitive to get into stores. The NFL taught me how to prepare for challenges by studying. I hold myself accountable, I show up and I do my homework. My story is different than some. I grew up in the business, I cook and I take business meetings. That’s something that still surprises people. They are not use to seeing (the athlete) in a business meeting as the entrepreneur and also leading the charge. In the beginning I use to hear, ’This is not football, things are different in this business.’ Now I hear, ‘Tell us how you’re going to help us get this sold.’””
Van Adams is an award-winning entrepreneur and small business owner with expertise in sports business and business development. Over the last decade, she has represented a number of iconic sports celebrities and executed marketing campaigns for their personal celebrity and/or business ventures. An advocate for women in business, Van is the creator and producer of Gathering on the Greens, a women’s golf initiative, and serves as President of the Board of Directors for the NYC Metro Chapter of Women in Sports and Events where she oversees programming and strategy. Van is an adjunct professor and often conducts workshops for the small business & sports business communities. She spends her spare time in a test kitchen baking or on a golf course working on her short game.