Chef Calvin Woods of Calvin's BBQ
SEEING STARS. I think I’m pretty damn good at spotting talent (and potential stars), especially in food & music. With Calvin, it did take me a little longer than usual; maybe because he was busy laying into me (testing me?), seeing how I would react to his natural street-level banter. For the record, anyone who knows him would never call him g-rated or politically correct; which I find very liberating, refreshing & entertaining (drop the mask - let's see the real you!). The first time I met him, I was trying to recruit him for some culinary event or another, and he wasn’t having it (I'd hate to be some grind-it-out salesman calling on him - you'd have to REALLY want that sale bad to put up with all the razzing). Although I’ve been working on convincing him about the importance of PR & media stuff, for all his in-person bluster and show, he’s not a real spotlight hog, and it’s not easy to get him to do onstage stuff. That said, his star quality really came out after Leigh Hanlon and I shot some photos of him and his food a couple of year ago (on spec, i.e. free). At that point, it became obvious: He’s a culinary star. Leigh even commented that he had a "Hemmingway" look going. Whatever it is, in the short time I've known him, many things have happened to confirm the “food star” title for Calvin Woods.
SMOKIN’ WOODY'S. A few years before I met him, Calvin took over Smokin' Woody's, an existing business on
THE MAGIC TOUCH. Quietly, Calvin took over this crippled business, being forced to keep the name as part of the deal. And what he did with there, almost completely on the strength of his personality and charisma, has since convinced me even more that he’s a star. Knowing how hard it is to make a new restaurant successful (the majority of them fail, within the first 16 months), imagine embracing a business with a negative perception, and turning it around. And oh, by the way… with no marketing dollars to really splash the “new ownership” fact. To me, that’s a hard, hard challenge, nearly a miracle. But Calvin did it.
STREET SMARTS. If you've ever hung out on at a sidewalk table outside Smokin' Woody's and watched Calvin do his "show," you'll get what I believe is a snapshot of how & why he turned that place around. He's like a carnival barker, jiving with the folks passing by. FYI, that place gets my vote for one of the best sidewalk dining settings in the city. Right on
CALVIN’S BBQ & TED. Regardless of Calvin's name & face on the door, you can't credit his success without mentioning Calvin's partner at the new place, Ted (?). I'm sorry to say I don't know Ted's last name, but he's a key component there. Ted (an equally large fellow, called "linebacker big" in one of their many print articles) is a good guy, and a lot of fun. I think he told me his background was (and is) a contractor; he spent a lot of time getting the restaurant ready to open. Although less visible to some, Ted is around the place a lot with the day-to-day.
Ted & Calvin met each other at Smokin' Woody's, obviously hitting it off. I think I heard something about some high-end tequila being involved (Patron) when the decision was made to partner, but I could be wrong...
LUCK OR TALENT? For a big guy, Calvin has amazing reflexes, which I’ve witnessed. Case in point: Calvin, myself and Ted (his partner at Calvin’s BBQ) were driving back from a morning cooking & music segment we did last summer on NBC Channel 5, promoting Ribfest Chicago. We were close to his Smokin Woody’s restaurant, cruising up a side street, when some no-look dumbass yuppie in a real expensive ride pulls out fast from the alley, not even bothering to look our way. Ted & I would have bet any amount of money there would be some kind of crash - but no. Quick as a cat, Calvin yanks the wheel hard left, avoiding this car. How he missed both the moving car on the right, and the parked cars on the left, was incredible. Even though there was literally about an inch to spare, we still got through clean. Don't know about you, but I'd rather be lucky than talented. Perhaps Calvin has equal doses of both...
SUCCESS. There aren’t many restaurants (or any kind of new businesses) I’m aware of that can claim the same kind of instant success as Calvin’s BBQ. It’s truly unusual. He's been busy since his first day, and it hasn’t let up yet. As far as I know, he hasn’t spent much (or anything) on advertising; he’s gotten amazing reviews in
MARKETING AFFIRMATION. In the bigger picture, I completely believe Calvin's new venture (I think he opened in July 2005?) is an example of everything lining up perfectly. Business name, website, owner (look and personality), logo, format, location, timing. Green lights, right down the pike. Like all the tumblers for a lock lining up at once, and the vault opens wide. To be certain, you can't ignore other key elements for this success: past experience (and failure), successes, street savvy and current culture.
HUMBLE? For all the outward signs of him being an extrovert, I practically had to beg Calvin to sign off on the “Calvin’s BBQ” name and logo. (he wanted to call it “Woody’s”). FYI, he also fought me on adding his photo to his logo, one of my designs. At first glance, Woody's makes perfect sense, considering his last name. However, as the owner a few registered trademarks, and having been forced to become VERY familiar with the related legal workings (I've had run-ins with TV Food Network and Chipotle Mexican Grill), I know that using that name would have been a very, VERY bad idea. Why?
TRADEMARK TROUBLE. Had he gone with that name, he would have gotten his ass kicked down the road by the registered trademark owner of that name, a BBQ chain called Woodys Bar B Q, which owns close to forty units in the Southeast Unites States. NOTE: I own a few marks, and have some firsthand legal experiences I'll share at another time. Specifically, as the owner of a trademark, that chain is legally compelled to cease & desist any other business using the same name. Result: Calvin would have been forced to change not just his name (a killer), but also his signage (outdoor sign, vehicles), menus, t-shirts, hats, website, etc. A very serious expense, enough to kill a lot of small business owners. He also told me he “wasn’t feeling it” with using his photo on the logo. But I have a completely different perspective on that.
AUTHENTICITY! To me, what can really help create customer loyalty for a brand, band, business, restaurant, etc. is being authentic. Not an act; someone who lives & dies it, every day. What you see is what you get - powerful and effective. I’m thrilled when I go into a bar for the first time, and there really is a Johnny, or Sue, or Buster (or whatever person's name the place is called). I want to meet THE man (woman). On a bigger level, there was Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Paul Newman, The Frugal Gourmet (before his past caught up with him), Paul Prudhomme, etc. All examples of a real person driving a brand.
Finally, Calvin is now telling me he's about ready to launch his own brand of BBQ sauce - we've been talking about that for a couple of years now; his logo was also done specifically with an eye on that very thing. Based on Calvin's luck & talent, his merchandise might be more successful than his restaurants - you never know...
PHOTOS: Leigh Hanlon for Pens & Lens.
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