September 9, 2015
Doug and Hiedi Nicol of HQ Southern BBQ in Evansville had only been in business a short two years when nine other restaurants, one of which was a BBQ chain and clear competitor, opened within a 1.5 mile radius. Nicol, who came into his own business with almost two decades of experience in the food and beverage industry managing day-to-day restaurant operations, knew the danger of supply and demand.
"When I realized nine other new restaurants, not counting old ones, were going to open, I was inspired rather than intimidated," Nicol said. "We fought through that and a lot of people counted us out and it's hard to blame them, nine restaurants with one being a major BBQ chain, but it just made me go back to the drawing board and make sure we were getting it right every day."
How does one compete with the restaurant-on-every-corner that is the junction of Casper, Evansville and I-25? Social media, a stellar staff, consistency and above all else: great food.
The Nicols aren't tied to large quantities of pre-cooked food warmed in the back of a restaurant or frozen beef products. On the contrary, they smoke their smaller cuts of meat daily, cut the meat when you order it, and serve your meal with free cornbread. In fact, 80 percent of the food served at HQ BBQ is made from scratch. Instead of going fancy and over the top, the Nicol's decided to stick with comfort food, simple but well made.
"I grew up in Tennessee where Southern BBQ is a mainstay," said Doug. "When I moved out west and started a family it was the part of Tennessee I wanted to bring with me." Previously Nicol managed a BBQ joint in Charleston, S.C., for four years and really developed a passion for the finer points of good BBQ. He combined that with ten years managing an Outback Steakhouse to create a unique combination he calls his own.
"Our Epic Mac and Cheese was the first thing we were popular for, and I was bummed for a minute. I wanted to be known for my BBQ, but it only lasted a minute," Nicol said. "Most places don't have mac and cheese due to cost, but we embraced it with a three-cheese and cream combo that the millennial crowd loves."
The Nicols chose to partner with the SBA and Jonah Bank and secured a small business guaranty loan. Working through the SBA can be a lengthy process, due mostly to government restrictions, and it takes a certain amount of fortitude to be in business for oneself and navigate the waters of the lending industry.
"We worked with Dustin Porter for a guaranteed small business loan," Nicol said. "It was really important to my wife and me that we work with a lender that wouldn't pull the rug out from under us at the first sign of trouble. I literally had nightmares that it would be all over at the first red dollar."
When construction took longer than expected and cost more than estimated, Jonah Bank stayed on board and provided the funding needed to stay the course. "We really have to credit Jonah Bank for standing with us," Doug said. "They believed in me and my product and they stuck with us when we needed them the most. We were both committed and we are here to stay."
HQ Southern BBQ was nominated for the 2015 Wyoming Small Business of the Year award by Dustin Porter of Jonah Bank, who said, in part, "Doug's spark of entrepreneurism has grown into a strong flame with the collaboration of SBA's loan program and our bank. As you will see in the nomination package, HQ's progress has far exceeded the original projections."
"I am one man," Nicol said. "Many of our staff members have been here since we opened and I give them all the credit I possibly can."
In fact, the staff has been racking up their own credit via social media. On a blog "The Good Hearted Woman" a couple from the Pacific Northwest wrote, "Collin's customer service was outstanding, out-shined only by his enthusiasm for his work."
On Yelp, another free avenue of publicity, John S. of Nevada wrote, "If it were not for the reviews we would not have stopped. They are located in an old gas station that still looks somewhat abandoned but it all adds to the charm and experience. The food was great and our server Jacob did an excellent job of taking care of us." Also on Yelp, Don S. from California was passing through and even though he normally does not leave Yelp reviews, he took the time to say that the food was the best BBQ they have had in a long time.
HQ, which stands for Wyoming's Headquarters for Southern BBQ, is working the Facebook angle, with more than 325 actual written reviews, upwards of 3,000 likes and 2,456 people who have "checked in" at HQ.
"I almost feel like I'm giving away a secret, but it's a resource we've had a lot of success with. Most of it is free and we make sure we pay attention to it daily," Nicol said. "It's really my wife, Hiedi, that does the social media and makes it shine."
Yes, Casper, the Nicols do have some plans fermenting in their heads for expansion. Nicol said it was much too early to elaborate but he has his customers in mind and he wants to continue to grow his business in Casper. Good news for BBQ lovers in Natrona County.
They Wyoming District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration is located in Casper and offers assistance and resources to all Wyoming small businesses. Examples include access to capital, business counseling, government contracting and disaster assistance. MaryAnna Clemons is the Public Affairs Specialist for the district and if you have your own SBA Success Story you'd like to share, she can be reached at email@example.com.