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Marketing lessons from Dixie’s BBQ

By April 14, 20082 Comments

One of my favorite quotes of late is “Advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable,” credited to Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad at the Ad Age Idea Conference.

I doubt Gene Porter from Dixie’s BBQ in Bellevue, WA has an advertising budget, nor does he need one.

A few Outsource Marketing team members at Dixie’s. Founder Gene Porter is in the middle.

Dixie’s is Seth Godin’s Purple Cow. It’s the company Andy Sernovitz challenges every organization to become in his book, Word of Mouth Marketing.

But Porter didn’t need a marketing consultant to teach him how to create one of the most talked about lunch places around.

How it started

Originally an auto repair shop, rumor has it Porter started doing New Orleans style BBQ for the men and women building the 520 bridge. He realized he was on to something and quit fixing cars and started doing BBQ full-time. My CPA remembers it well. He showed up with his Honda for service and discovered he could buy a great BBQ sandwich, but he couldn’t get his car fixed.

The old shop is still the main location for Dixie’s, and the line begins to form at about 11:15. The wait can be long, but it’s usually pretty entertaining. Porter is a charismatic man, to say the least. He can be the sweetest guy you’ve ever met, or can scare the hell out of you. He poses for pictures with patrons and has a, dare I say, charming side. He’ll also pull you out of line and force you to put a pin on one of the many maps indicating where you are from. Cut in line, even if you are meeting a friend, and he’ll throw you out. Park your car wrong in Dixie’s tiny lot, he’ll cuss you out, take your keys, and move it himself.

People come from all over to "Meet the Man."
People come from all over to experience Dixie’s.

And I mean ALL over.
And I mean ALL over.

People in line all buzz about the place, but most are nervously trying to determine their order before it’s their turn in line. The Soup Nazi has absolutely nothing on the staff at Dixie’s. Bumble through your order and you’ll be ripped a new one. They’ve softened up a bit, but regulars know to get their order straight before their turn.

Have you met “The Man?”

It’s the question Dixie’s regulars ask the uninitiated before they tell them about Dixie’s. Given the force of Porter’s personality, you’d think he was the star of the show. He’s a supporting actor. “The Man” isn’t a person. It’s the unbelievably hot “Man Sauce” that Porter carries around in a crusty pot that looks like its been brewing on the stove for a decade. Only the Good Lord knows what he has in there.

This is "The Man."
This is “The Man.”

Porter will take the tip of toothpick or fork and get a tiny amount of the sauce, then apply it to your BBQ sandwich. “The Man” is so potent, so incredibly strong, that the tiniest amount is more than enough for people who love their food hot. A little too much, and grown men won’t be able to finish their sandwich. The heat comes on strong and keeps on coming. The only thing that seems to cool it off are the free peanuts dotted around the restaurant.

You think you know hot?

On one occasion, I saw a man challenge Porter on the heat of “The Man.” He was an out-of-towner that “knew BBQ” and “knew hot.” You could have heard a pin drop. Everyone knew a smackdown of epic proportions was coming. And come it did. Porter destroyed him verbally, gave him just a little extra of “The Man,” and then have him take a big bite. The poor S.O.B. picked the wrong person to challenge. His face turned beet red, his eyes watered, and he left with his friends in a big hurry, I assume to the E.R.

Honestly, I think they should have everyone sign a waiver. Seriously.

Built for word of mouth

Dixie’s walls are covered with the aforementioned U.S. and World Maps. One fills up, they get a new one. They’ve had to retire maps when the concentration of the pins was so dense you couldn’t add another. They are also covered with pictures of people who have visited and taken pictures from their experience. Take a picture with Porter and he’ll remind you to bring a copy and hang it up. Two or three times.

Photos, photos everywhere.

He’s a natural marketer, and I’ve often wondered how much of his bluster is real or if he realizes he’s really in show business. I certainly don’t have the nerve to ask him myself.

I do know this much: Dixie’s doesn’t have the pay a tax for being unremarkable.

Do you know a remarkable company? A company that you just can’t not talk about? I’d love to hear about it.

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