FARGO — North Dakota State offensive lineman Zach Willis was gearing up for finals, and his dad, Tyson, was working as usual when the family decided to launch a sauce business on a whim.
Tyson, the man behind the sauces, had about 20 or so bottles of hot sauce made when they first started selling the Big Deck Barbecue Co. products to friends and family a couple weeks ago. The Willises didn’t expect to sell more than that.
The next thing Tyson and Zach knew, they had about 175 bottles requested. Selling out of the initial batch, the impromptu roll out turned into an unplanned business venture.
“It shouldn't work as well as it did, but leave it to us knuckleheads to choose the worst time of all time to start a business,” said Zach, a 2017 West Fargo High School graduate. “It just happened pretty organically and we've been running with it now.”
The first run was basically for friends and family, but word about the unique sauces spread quickly. Heaps of orders from the general public piled in.
“Everything was so spur of the moment we couldn’t have ever prepared for this kind of response to it,” Zach said.
Big Deck Barbecue didn’t have any infrastructure for a website or social media when demand immediately skyrocketed.
“It's kind of funny because I'm actually taking a master’s course in project management and we're doing everything completely backwards from the way we're supposed to be doing it,” Tyson said. “This was completely unplanned, but sometimes they end up with the best results.”
The Willis family called the deck on their old house the “big deck” because they had added onto it a couple times. They always liked to barbecue there, and were hanging out one day when they said, “Hey, Big Deck Barbecue, that sounds pretty cool.” The family then started messing around, creating logos.
The Willises were sitting around with a bunch of Tyson’s hot sauce on hand a little over two weeks ago when he said, “You know what, let’s sell this stuff.”
“It’s humbling to see all these people around here in the midst of everything that’s going on, to have them take a little bit out of their lives and work with us, we can’t thank them enough,” Tyson said.
The initial launch was a batch of four hot sauces they had on hand, but a line of products geared more toward the grilling season is coming out soon, Tyson said. Big Deck Barbecue also has mustard and three barbecue sauces, including one with chipotle peppers and southwest seasonings, and one with peanut butter, out right now.
The first slew of customers nabbed the products from Big Deck Barbecue’s first pickup spot, the family's driveway. The entire Willis clan is involved in some way, including Zach’s little sisters, who label the bottles and pack them for pick up.
Now, customers will be directed to Square One Rental Kitchen for pickups, as Big Deck Barbecue is moving from the family’s home to a commercial kitchen.
“I’m overwhelmed and incredibly humbled by it,” Tyson said. “You put yourself out there sometimes, you roll the dice on yourself and you think you have a quality product, but you don't know how people are going to react to it. We've had very positive feedback toward it right now.”
Some of that feedback has come from Zach’s teammates.
“Being from Fargo and all the other kids that are from out of state, we always try to open our house up as a haven for people if they want a home cooked meal,” Zach said. “They can come by and get that whenever they want. Everybody who's ever tried (the sauce) knows it's the real deal.”
Zach, a marketing major entering his fourth year at NDSU this fall, has done all the legwork in getting the name out there and developing the website.
“That might've been a hang up before, I really had no way of doing this stuff,” Tyson said. “Zach has just been my life preserver for right now.”
Zach, who also competed in track and field for the Packers, discovered what good food was when he first came to NDSU and had to learn how to gain weight, he said.
“You try everything. It sounds kind of funny, but I tried my dad's product and was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is the best stuff that I've tried,’” Zach said.
But Zach, whose favorite sauce is the pineapple jalapeño, leaves the taste-testing for the blazing hot sauces to friends and family.
“It sounds kind of funny because I'm running a hot sauce company, but jalapeño is about as hot as I like to go,” Zach said.