Four years ago, Josh Henderson started a business on wheels -- a 1960's Airstream serving "evolved" diner food to people who want good food to go. When I interviewed Henderson a month after he launched Skillet in September 2007, he described the concept as, "We're doing simple food in the sense that it's, you know, a burger and fries -- but we're taking it to a little bit different level where we're adding bleu cheese, bacon jam, arugula, and using Kobe beef. To be able to get that on the street is, I think, somewhat unique."
Photo by Julien Perry That's a Morton Salt girl tat on Josh's arm.
No longer is getting good street food in Seattle unique thanks to Henderson himself, who was part of the beginning stages of the food-truck scene, at least in this corner of the world. In addition to Skillet, Josh now has a brick-and-mortar diner, ideas to open another concept, a book due out next fall, and a Bacon Jam empire in the making. In this week's Grillaxin, Henderson sits down with me at his commissary in Georgetown to discuss what the next four years might hold, including the future of Bacon Jam and a new beer hall.
SW: What have the last four years been like for you?
Henderson: It's been a lifetime. A lot has happened. I have a kid, I kept the fledgling street food business afloat, bacon jam now is kind of on its own and is an extremely viable part of our business, I opened the diner. The big thing for us was kind of just shifting our thinking to be either full street food or to use street food as our marketing, in a sense, and then have catering and all other aspects of the business feed off of it. Because we learned not quickly enough that street food was never going to be the foundation of at least a financial empire -- it'll be the foundation of our business and the brand and who we are as DNA, but it's never going to take us to our Bacon Jammer yacht that we have planned.
Did you realize that when you first started?
No, I didn't know really anything. I know a little bit more now, but not much. I think when we first started, the idea was to have trailers up and down the coast, but thank God we didn't do that because that would be a whole different nightmare right now. The idea initially was to do all street food, but it just became very apparent quickly, within a year or two, that this was not going to be the direction we probably should stick with. Just too many moving parts.
I think it boils down to, number one, your food. I think you've got to have a great product, great food. There's just no getting around that. You can have the nicest graphics, you can have a beautiful truck, cute girls out front, all that stuff, but if your food doesn't make people excited from a value standpoint or from just straight-up deliciousness, you're not going to go very far. I think when trucks don't make splashes it's mostly likely because their food probably needs a little work. You've got to be aggressive if you want to make a splash because right now, there's sort of a sea of [food trucks].
Tell me about Bacon Jam and selling it on QVC. How'd they find you?
I was on QVC last month. They met us at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and then asked us to tape a spot for July 4th. It was good. It was an interesting learning experience. It's a tough go to try and sell a product that looks like dog food to pretty much all women. They refer to their customers as "she." It's an amazing operation -- they sell $180 million worth of perfume a year, so if they can do that on TV, then they should be able to sell Bacon Jam. We're going to go back in about a month and then also do another one in the fall for Christmas. Bacon Jam is one of those things that will probably, in reality, be in Williams-Sonoma by the end of the year. If we can get that kind of reach around the United States and even internationally with a condiment, that just gives us the sort of foundation we could never get just by having (Skillet and Skillet Diner) in Seattle.
In '07 when you Googled "Bacon Jam," there were seven mentions of it. Now if you Google it, there are well over 100,000 mentions of it. It was honestly just something I'd use in catering and was inspired by a burger place in Santa Monica called Father's Office and that was it, and people kept asking for it, and Martha Stewart put it in her gift guide a year-and-a-half-ago, and that really blew the doors off of it.
It did OK. You know, they want to sell like $50,000 worth in six minutes -- that's their goal -- and I think we did 60 or 70 percent of that. I'm willing to sell Bacon Jam anywhere as long as what's in that jar is exactly what we want it to be and just the five ingredients that it is. As long as that stays the same, I'd sell it at 7-Eleven. As long as I'm a part of it, it's going to be something that's natural and very delicious. The problem is, once you start going down this path, you start having these conversations with manufacturers and people saying, "Well, you can sell a lot more if you put stabilizers in there." The ingredients need to be something people recognize. I'm all about selling it, but we're not going to change the product to do so. It's pretty easy to sell shit, to be honest with you, but it's really hard to sell something natural.
Bacon Jam is not organic, but there's nothing but bacon, onions, balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, salt, and pepper. The recipe hasn't changed. We're moving in the direction where I'm going to be extremely happy with how the product is. It's been OK for the last little bit because we've had to stick with a certain manufacturer, but we're looking at a different manufacturer. It's just a constant process of trying to keep quality, maintain price and always driving it down as much as possible, and at the same time, staving off any kind of unwanted ingredients or processes that would change the product because ultimately, there's going to be other people making bacon jam down the road and I just want to be sure we're making the best. It'll be interesting to see when we reach that stage of the process where we have competitors.
What's the future of Bacon Jam?
My business partner Greg Petrillo is the one who basically heads up Bacon Jam and does all the sales and the driving of that, and I show up and taste it. It's an interesting process. The part that's so difficult is just the fact that I feel like I'm holding on with my claws to what it is and I don't ever want to let go of what it is because there's so many opportunities along the way for it to become something different because someone else wants to make it cheaper, faster, better. This is the way it is and if we're going to sell it in a different way, then let's make that decision and I'll walk away if I need to. You have to make a choice about what you're standing behind.
What's this book I keep hearing about?
It's due out next spring. I think. It's the Skillet story. It'll be a photo essay and a little bit more photojournalism and story than just recipes.
I'm always nervous that no one's going to ever show up. I don't want to say I'm a pessimist, but I'm not convinced that people will always show up. I didn't think we'd be as busy as we are, but it's still kind of in the beginning stages, so I think it's going to settle down a bit and kind of settle into who we really will be as a business. I'm pleased with it. We have a great crew. It's great and the space is nice and there's some things we need to work on as far as, like with any restaurant, constantly improving things. But overall, I'm exceptionally pleased at how it turned out.
What "next concept" interests you?
What we're probably going to do next is a beer hall, in kind of our little way with maybe some charcuterie and sausages. So, we're looking around and talking and that kind of thing. It may happen soon, it may be later. I don't know. We'll see. But I think something along those lines. We'll probably never delve into any kind of fine dining - that's not my background. It's an interesting thing because you see the different sort of chefs in town and what they do and everybody kind of has their shtick, you know, and as long as what we're doing is honest and the ingredients are good and the technique is sound, then we'll keep doing it.