“It’s The Sauce” — — -> My Introduction to Bold Branding from BBQ Master Hecky Powell
This piece initially appeared in Drew Mauck’s LinkedIn newsletter, “Communication Breakdown”.
After my sophomore year of high school ended in 1994, my summer goals were about what you’d expect from a 15-year-old boy: I wanted to play soccer, chill on the beaches of Lake Michigan’s western shore, and devour bags of Doritos Cool Ranch. My mother, however, thought I should get a job. So she introduced me to one of the great early influences of my life, a man who had an incredible ability to connect and inspire: Hecky Powell, founder and owner of Hecky’s BBQ in Evanston, IL.
Upon entering the takeout-only restaurant, dishwashing was my first task, with the greasy pots and pans stacked to the ceiling. I realized later that, as I stood there surveying the industrial-sized sinks and washing tools, Hecky had presented me with my first lesson in business: you had better be primed to get your hands dirty — or in this case, greasy — if you’re planning on success.
As the days went by, and I kept waxing those piles of dirty dishes down, I was able to earn his respect and my responsibilities grew. That summer, Hecky exposed me to a variety of different aspects of his restaurant business. Beyond takeout, his food and networking acumen were good enough to land a catering contract with the Chicago Bears. For one preseason game against the Miami Dolphins, my Hecky’s crew and I were stationed in an isolated press box high above the field, and tasked with feeding the hungry Chicago media a smattering of beef hot links, fried chicken, greens, and coleslaw. It was still a raucous environment — there was so much energy, and I was in the presence of many of my favorite sportswriters of the time, including the late Chet Coppock and the Sun-Times’ Jay Mariotti (don’t hold that one against me, I was young).
That experience of feeding the reporters and watching them take in the game, furiously type up their notes, and make cracks about the Dolphins’ flimsy defense likely steered me towards a career in PR. But that’s not why I’m writing this. I’m writing because Hecky passed away a few weeks ago from complications due to COVID-19. I’ve been reflecting on his life, and I realized that — while many of you reading likely have not heard of him — he had some of the greatest charisma and branding abilities I’ve ever observed.
Out of a dutiful appreciation and respect for Hecky, I’m passing along the 3 branding takeaways I learned from my summer slinging hot links.
Find Your Influencer.
Hecky was an incredible showman, and he knew that his restaurant’s success didn’t just depend on the restaurant’s brand, but on his personal brand — the two were equally important and inextricably linked.
In the summer of 1986, I remember waiting in line for hours to briefly meet William “Refrigerator” Perry at Hecky’s, where he was signing autographs with one hand and tearing the meat off ribs with the other. For those who are not familiar, The Fridge was an iconic, and extremely large, member of the 1985 Super Bowl Champion Bears team. But it wasn’t just that he was a local celebrity — he was the perfect celebrity for the opportunity because you could see him truly enjoying the experience and his likeability was off the charts. The promotion wouldn’t have worked as well if it had been, say, the Bears’ Hall of Fame running back, Walter Payton, or their punky QB, Jim McMahon.
With our current influencer-driven culture, companies are exploring new and creative ways to get the most visible people in our society to engage with their products. But it’s worth taking the time to get the right person, especially if you can give them something they will fully appreciate in return.
Be consistent and bold in your messaging.
“It’s The Sauce!” Everyone in Evanston (and many along the north shore of Chicago) knows what that refers to. And they’ll picture it in red typeface against a yellow backdrop, and that’s because Hecky made sure his restaurant’s tagline was on everything: bottles, t-shirts, the side of the rib-delivering Hecky Mobile, and quite prominently on the awnings of the restaurant at the hyper-busy intersection of Green Bay and Emerson.
And “It’s The Sauce!” has key characteristics of a successful tagline: it’s short, fun to say, and descriptive of the brand’s philosophy. Hecky made sure that it was not just a great tagline, but inextricable from the rest of the brand.
Be a part of the solution.
If you couldn’t tell by now, Hecky was proud of where he was from, and Evanston loved him back. But this wasn’t just because he had great BBQ, or even his unique ability to connect with customers. In our social media era, everyone with access to the internet can share their opinion about what is right and wrong in the world. And while Hecky was known for his strong opinions, he went beyond talk and acted.
For example, Hecky not only employed numerous teenage boys, many from challenging home environments who weren’t interested in going the traditional four-year college route, but he also started a fund to help them become tradesmen. And it wasn’t just his employees or the kids in the neighborhood he helped. In the Chicago Tribune’s story on his impact in the community, a former Northwestern student recalled how Hecky provided him and his roommates with a full Thanksgiving dinner, fixings and all, after only a brief interaction with him. In the days following Hecky’s passing, the message boards lit up with similar stories of his generosity and community stewardship.
What does this have to do with communications or branding? Your community, online and off, is a major part of your brand identity. Wherever your community resides, you absolutely must be an active participant in helping others if your goal is to achieve respect and loyalty from your users. I think that it was Hecky’s authentic deep affection for Evanston and its youth that gave him a leg up on the competition, just as much as the award-winning sauce did. As you build your business and brand, seriously consider how you can support members of your community in a way that is meaningful to you.
Hecky wasn’t a celebrity, but he became an icon in his community by being authentic, going beyond discourse, and acting to make his town a better place. To that end, over the years, I realized his signature tagline had an additional meaning. Yes, his BBQ sauce is delicious (inspired by his grandmother’s Creole cooking), but “It’s the Sauce!” also doubles as advice. Everyone, and every company, has a “special sauce” that makes them unique — find what that sauce is for you, and don’t be afraid to be bold about it.
Thank you, Mr. Powell.
May you rest in peace.