New owner chaperones VooDoo BBQ beyond its youthful roots
Can Voodoo BBQ break through the barrier that keeps most barbecue chains regional? They’re going to try, with a seasoned exec at the helm. The founders vow never to abandon their party-hearty roots.
VooDoo BBQ started in 2002 on Mardi Gras in New Orleans—serving delicious smoked ribs to lines down the block, in a city that parties hard on the day of indulgence before Lenten sobriety kicks in.
“It was chaos,” recalls Tony Avila, CEO of the chain and one of its founders.
Glen Helton, left, bought a minority stake in VooDoo BBQ earlier this year and is leading expansion efforts. ”There’s an enormous sense of pride,” says Tony Avila, co-founder and CEO.
This year, cooler heads prevail. On a visit to that first store in the Garden District during Carnival in February, the team was set to open a new store featuring their open-style kitchen and a tweaked menu. But this time they were waiting until one week after Fat Tuesday.
“You can’t do crazy twice,” says Glen Helton, the company’s new president and minority owner, who joined in January.
Helton is the seasoned executive who’s adding gravitas to VooDoo BBQ’s plans, putting systems and supply chains in place to support a bigger vision than Avila and his co-founder, Dino Arvanetes, cooked up a few years after college.
The growth plans are beefing up, as well, from a modest idea for perhaps 50 stores in five years to as many as 350—although only 17 locations are open now, 14 of them franchised. “As Donald Trump says, it doesn’t take any more effort to go big,” Helton allows.
Helton was a VP with Popeyes, overseeing operations for the chain in New Orleans, when VooDoo BBQ first came to his attention—and not in a good way. “We had a location a block away and we were down in sales. I didn’t know why. And someone came in and said, ‘I know why. It’s VooDoo BBQ,’” Helton recalls.
He walked over—the fantastic smell was impossible to miss—and found a glorious mess. “It’s a neat part of the story but on that day it wasn’t so neat. There were no tables and chairs. On Mardi Gras people are looking to use the restrooms,” Helton says. “This is the lore of VooDoo.”
Helton is determined to put in place a robust operation to support a larger enterprise, and he’s using his background and connections to do so. He was a top-three franchisee for Burger King, with 281 stores, and then was hired by 3G Capital after it bought the franchisor, along with Steve Wiborg, another big franchisee who was named head of North American operations.
Helton’s job was to turn around the company-owned Burger Kings and sell them, and after he was finished he headed to Florida for some R&R. There he got a call from Avila and his partner, who were building Voodoo BBQ stores in Miami. He paid them a visit, fell in love with the food all over again, and after a time decided to invest and help it grow.
One problem for barbecue chains that aspire to go national is barbecue fans are rabid loyalists—to their own local specialty. “How do you break through in barbecue” beyond one region, is how Helton puts the question. Another is frequency: Few eat barbecue more than once a week, but they might hit a sandwich shop or a burger place more often.
VooDoo BBQ is banking on New Orleans specialties in general and its sides in particular to address both puzzles. “You can’t get this anywhere else,” he says, serving up sweet potato soufflé, red beans with smoked sausage, barbecue shrimp, corn pudding and gris gris—all completely delicious and a carb-o-phobe’s nightmare.
The menu is being further re-engineered this year, both to make the restaurants more profitable and also to test beignets, crawfish, hot chips and other items hard to find beyond New Orleans. The new prototype location will feature an open kitchen to serve as a “stage,” another idea of Helton’s to follow fast-casual trends.
An early start
A third piece of the strategy involves the supply chain. “Everyone asks, ‘It’s such a small company. How do you double in size each year?’” Helton acknowledges. “So we put together a strategic list of resources and said we wanted to be partners.” Because of Helton’s past, many large vendors that don’t normally work with tiny chains agreed to do so.
One such vendor is NCR, the point-of-sale system giant, which is planning to test a new tablet ordering system called SilverPro with VooDoo BBQ. “What used to cost me $20,000 for a POS, it’s under $5,000 now,” Helton says.
Avila says these larger firms are signing on because there’s “intrigue about our concept,” but also they believe in Helton. “He’s been a part of bringing them big brands in the past” as customers. “There’s credibility there.”
Helton goes way back in the franchise business. “I got my first paying job on my 15th birthday,” he recalls—at a Burger King, after his mother shooed him out the door saying it was time to get work. “It was her and six kids. I was the oldest.”
The manager at the Burger King, one mile from his house, said he wasn’t hiring. But Helton said, “You don’t understand.” His mother insisted he get a job, “and I can’t walk two miles to work at the McDonald’s.” Told to go home, get a haircut, find some black pants and return that same day, Helton got the job.
Helton gives the co-founders of VooDoo BBQ props for having “the courage to start a brand in New Orleans from scratch,” on Mardi Gras, no less. “To be here 12 years later, to be poised for growth—this is fun, just fun.”
A New Orleans native, Avila hopes for the day when VooDoo BBQ is known around the country. “There is an enormous sense of pride, when your guests immediately know where you’re from,” he says.