The Record, June 2011 -- IF FOLKS IN NORTH CAROLINA are not born knowing it, they soon learn that there are only two kinds of “real” barbecue, and that they must choose one over the other.
This rivalry is what gave Ryan Pitz ’00 (on the right in photo) and his business partner Rick Scott the idea for The North Carolina Barbecue Company, a mail-order business that lets barbecue lovers from around the world publicly declare their allegiance to their favorite style of this Southern tradition.
So, why barbecue?
“In North Carolina, barbecue has a cult-like following; it’s a big deal. North Carolina claims to be the cradle of barbecue. My buddy and business partner [Scott] also sells furniture, so he travels all over the state eating barbecue at the local joints. He is very passionate about it and loves to talk to anybody about their favorite barbecue. I took my knowledge of marketing and direct response and applied it to his passion.”
They scoured the Internet and found successful mail-order barbecue businesses in Memphis, Kansas City, and Texas, but not in North Carolina. They knew the model would work; all they needed was a product.
“In North Carolina, there is a civil disagreement. People in the east and people in the west, more specifically the Piedmont region, don’t agree on what’s good barbecue.” Pitz and Scott decided to let everyone get in on the debate.
The North Carolina Barbecue Company offers customers Piedmont style and Eastern style barbecue. The two styles use different parts of the hog, different kinds of cole slaw, and different sauces, though they are both vinegar based. (This is North Carolina, after all.) You can pick your favorite or have them both in the “Battle Box.”
After finding a wholesaler who was willing to produce the high-quality barbecue they wanted to sell, and finding a distributor, Pitz and his partner went to work building the brand and marketing to customers. In October 2010, after a year of preparation, they shipped their first box of barbecue.
The North Carolina Barbecue Company got some early support from local media, which gave it an initial bump in sales. Since then, the marketing machine has moved into high gear, including a partnership with the Greensboro Grasshoppers, the local Minor League Baseball team.
“We want to be the Omaha Steaks of barbecue,” says Pitz. “When people think about sending a gift to a friend, a business client, family members, we want them to consider sending a North Carolina product.”
Pitz is a transplant to North Carolina. Originally from Orange, Virginia, he moved to Greensboro after graduating from Hampden-Sydney. He started working for Bill Brooks, the father of his college roommate Will Brooks ’00, and learned all about marketing and lead generation. “Bill was a real bootstrap entrepreneur and a great mentor. I learned a lot about business from him, but he also taught me a lot about developing a business and having the drive and ambition to succeed.”
During that time, Pitz learned about generating sales leads, on-line marketing, and evaluating business-customer interactions. After a few years, he decided to venture out on his own and to create New Call Solutions, which lets businesses measure the effectiveness of their advertising and marketing tactics through call tracking. This was his first entrepreneurial step. He was never the kid on the block selling lemonade.
“I was always a little wild, a little misfit, kinda out there doing my own thing, very independent, which is one of the reasons I think Hampden-Sydney was the perfect fit for me. From a business standpoint, I was just driven to be in control of my own destiny. The money is one thing, and my goal is to make money, but having independence and developing a lifestyle was more important to me than anything else.”
Pitz’s parents both work in the public school system, not business. He says they focused more on saving the money they made rather than finding creative ways to build wealth. However, his parents may have put him on the path to entrepreneurship without realizing it. His father, a guidance counselor (and occasional Thomas Jefferson impersonator), told Pitz that he had to either get a job or play sports. Pitz chose football, something he enjoyed and wanted to keep playing in college. A small Division III school like Hampden-Sydney College seemed a good opportunity for Pitz; when then-Assistant Coach Bill Tornabene talked to Pitz about playing football in Death Valley and being a student on The Hill, it made a big impression on him.
“I really enjoyed being a student at Hampden-Sydney,” says Pitz, who majored in religion. “I took a class called Good and Evil, and I loved it. As I am today, I was a fairly opinionated student. I liked philosophy; I liked classics. I liked the religion classes where it was open-ended. You could read books and write papers while you explored ethics and morals.”
Like many students, his transition to college life had its ups and downs. “When I first got to Hampden-Sydney, I struggled a lot, both academically and socially. I went to a small, rural public school. A lot of the guys I met at Hampden-Sydney had gone to private schools or they had gone to some of the larger public schools. It was a real culture shock for me.”
In the end, he found success on the field (though the team struggled) and in the classroom. He made good friends and used the relationships forged as a student to land his first job.
Like his academic career, Pitz’s professional career has seen some bumps along the way. Circumstances have changed and partnerships have failed, but Pitz has used those occasions to learn and to move forward personally and professionally. “When I look back on those obstacles, I recognize that there is an opportunity in them and I have to take responsibility for them. If I am willing to take full responsibility for something, I can control the outcome.”
Now that outcome is sending North Carolina barbecue—both kinds—to food lovers across the country. As far as declaring his favorite, Pitz prefers to remain neutral. However, he hopes others will place an order, host a barbecue party, and choose their own side in this Tar Heel culinary debate.