Dog is a man’s best friend. Or in Brandon Close’s case, the face and name of his rapidly expanding barbecue sauce company, Chipper Dog BBQ.
Named after Close’s 12-year-old English Bulldog Chipper, Chipper Dog BBQ sauce and rub has suddenly found itself in 115 stores across five states — Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina and South Carolina — in just over two years.
What started as a backyard hobby turned into an actual business venture.
“I started smoking [meats] like 15 years ago in the backyard,” said the 38-year-old Close. “I worked for John Deere [in Illinois] and on Saturdays and Sundays, I’d be spending them in the backyard with the smoker. I read an article about Carolina barbecue sauce and had never made it before. I did it for a college presentation on different barbecue sauces, actually. We were close, but we weren’t traditional Carolina barbecue sauce. It’s evolved from there a lot, obviously.”
Close moved to Charleston in 2015 and found himself working in kitchens across the city at places like Bessinger’s and Sticky Fingers, developing a tongue fit to make his own branded barbecue sauce. He “invested” in himself and incorporated Chipper Dog BBQ in April of 2020 after an infusion of startup cash from his late grandmother. Shortly afterward though, the pandemic hit. Fortunately, Close worked at Timbers on Kiawah Island as a manager out front and a cook in the kitchen. There he was able to further develop his sauce and realize its wide-scale potential.
At Timbers, Close added his barbecue and sauce to the menu. “That was kind of our proof of concept,” he said. “Because people would come down and get a barbecue sandwich as the first thing they did when they got into town.”
Between shifts at Timbers, Close spent hours on the internet researching different ways to get a product on grocery store shelves. He reached out to co-packers in the region, other barbecue sauce companies and even went on Facebook food and beverage groups to ask for advice.
“I always said, everything we’re going to do, we’re going to do it professionally, and I don’t care if it costs me more money,” he said.
By July, 2020 Close had locked in a co-packer who could bottle his sauce and left Timbers. By that September, with the product in hand, he hit the ground running.
Close started with the 40-plus Piggly Wigglys in South Carolina — all of which are independently owned. If your product is good, he said, it’s far easier to convince a Piggly Wiggly owner or manager to carry your product as opposed to big corporations like Publix or Kroger. The first location to carry Chipper Dog BBQ was the Piggly Wiggly on Skylark Drive in West Ashley.
The next stop was the Piggly Wiggly on Otranto Drive in North Charleston, where he met the district manager of Lowcountry Grocers, owner of 15 Piggly Wiggly locations across South Carolina.
From that chance meeting, Close received contacts for around 34 stores across the state. With phone numbers, names and addresses in hand, he pounded the pavement.
“I just went to every one of them,” he said. “I would start out by calling them. If I did that and talked to them beforehand, then stopped in and showed them the product, it was about a 90% chance I was gonna get in. If I just cold call and stop in, about a 30% chance.”
Chipper Dog eventually found itself in 30 Piggly Wiggly stores across South Carolina. From there, dominoes started to fall.
To land a deal with independent IGA stores, Close contacted W. Lee Flowers in Lake City, S.C., which not only owns and operates 50 IGA and KJ grocery stores in Georgia and the Carolinas, but warehouses that distribute food to them.
Close then worked out an arrangement with Perfect 10 Distribution, distributors of popular southern and Lowcountry brands like King of Pops, Red Clay Hot Sauce and Marsh Hen Mill, by applying on the website.
In just under two years, Chipper Dog BBQ Sauce was carried in over 100 grocery stores.
Close next landed a deal with Lowes grocery stores. Chipper Dog participated in the Lowes-sponsored Pinehurst Barbecue Festivals Sauce Showdown competition last Labor Day. The winner would earn a one year Lowes shelf contract. Chipper Dog didn’t win, but that didn’t stop Close from making a connection. At the festival, he simply asked Lowes team members about carrying Chipper Dog. The team gave him the name of Lowes buyer, and by 2022, Chipper Dog was in all 15 Lowes Foods in South Carolina.
Starting in August of 2021, Close added a booth at the Charleston City Market and Night Market to his growing list of locations for Chipper Dog. He had spent so much time getting into grocery stores that there wasn’t much time to set up a booth in the local market.
“I feel like there are people that make careers out of the Charleston market and people that make careers out of wholesaling,” he said. “We’re trying to do both at the same time. And it’s crazy.”
Follow @chipperdogbbq on Instagram to see pictures of Chipper himself (and sometimes Close).
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