Cali fires up BBQ/media for success

Cali BBQ Media owner Shawn Walchef stands next to a BBQ smoker with a pile of ribs in front of him.

Written by James Shea

Cali BBQ Media owner Shawn Walchef knows technology and innovation are the keys to his success.

In 2008, he took over a breakfast operation in an industrial area of San Diego and converted the business into a sports bar with dinner service. He struggled to pay the bills, but a chance encounter led him to convert to BBQ.

Cali was sponsoring sporting events in San Diego and considered holding a fundraiser. Walchef talked with a few people and several suggested an amateur BBQ event. He eventually connected with a local pitmaster, and the fundraiser was a hit.

“After we put on that first event, he said, ‘You want to learn how to do BBQ? I have some smokers that I used to compete with that I will lease to you.’” Walchef said. “I said, ‘Great.’”

Over the next couple of years, Cali learned to make quality BBQ, and the business grew. But Walchef always knew he needed to be more innovative. Cali is off the beaten path, and he wanted to get the word out about the restaurant.

The business had a hard time getting the attention of local media when it publicized events at the restaurant. So, Walchef, who has an inquisitive mind, started to learn about digital media and marketing. Cali upgraded its website and started to grow a social media following. Soon Cali was becoming both a media company and a food operation.

“We weren’t the story so we figured out how to tell our own story,” Walchef said.

The key, he said, was community. He sponsored charity events and invested in relationships within his community. He made connections with local media and became a leader in the region.

The time and investment in digital technology paid off. He cited the 2015 fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao. He filled the restaurant during the fight, because Cali ranked high in search engine results for “Mayweather Pacquiao San Diego.”

That was when he knew he was headed in the right direction.

Launching the podcast

Looking to diversify the media operation. Walchef launched a podcast. He wanted to talk to other restaurants and business owners and share experiences. He had learned a lot about what he calls “digital hospitality” and felt the need to spread that knowledge.

“We learned how to do digital marketing and social media marketing by talking about ourselves and talking about our BBQ and charity events, and we asked ourselves — what else can we do?” Walchef said. “We can tell other people’s stories. That’s when we launched the podcast and started talking to other restaurants and entrepreneurs, people in digital marketing, influencers, people in sports entertainment. We sat down and talked about digital storytelling.”

He built a studio above his friend’s butchery business. Originally, the podcast focused on restaurant owners, but then it expanded. The podcast is approaching 200 episodes and has grown to become a major part of Cali’s media operation.

Podcasts are turned into social media posts, blog articles and other pieces of content. The goal is to spread the word about the benefits of using technology to grow a business and to learn more about digital marketing.

“I’ve found my playground,” Walchef said. “I have found what I love to do. What drives me is this intersection of media, marketing, BBQ, entrepreneurship and technology. It’s so much bigger than our restaurant.”

But he also realizes that he does not know everything about digital marketing and technology. He hired a team of experts who help him build and repurpose content.

“All of us collectively are technologically unsavvy,” Walchef said. “People call themselves experts in certain platforms but don’t know everything. We all have our digital playgrounds where we are comfortable. We are more comfortable on the slide or the swings. There are very few people who understand the entire ecosystem.”

Moving into ghost kitchens and delivery

The pandemic has been hard on the restaurant industry, and Cali is no different. Walchef said the day lockdown started was one of the hardest days of his life. He had to lay off his entire staff and shut down something he had spent over a decade building.

The podcast moved from in-person to Zoom, and Walchef started to rethink his operation. He converted to pickup and delivery, and kept the doors open. He thought about in-house delivery but quickly realized that was not advisable. He would not be able to make it profitable.

“I have conversations with companies that know in-house delivery, and they want to help companies do it themselves,” Walchef said, “But there is a reason why I don’t do delivery myself. I know it’s cost-prohibitive.”

He worked hard to negotiate competitive rates with the third-party delivery companies. Walchef is not willing to settle for the rate offered by the delivery companies because he knows his BBQ brings value.

“Our philosophy is to negotiate like hell to get the best rate you can, but don’t ignore third-party delivery because you have a problem with paying a fee,” Walchef said.

To expand the delivery operation, he is in the process of converting 60% to 70% of the dining area into a smokehouse. The smoked meat will be used to service a network of “friendly” ghost kitchens across the city. He recently started offering delivery from Barrio Food Hub, a ghost kitchen run by former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

Walchef’s goal is to have 10 ghost kitchen operations around San Diego. He is not going back to the days of a large in-person operation, but he knows more people will enjoy his BBQ with the model.

“We are going to be a hybrid,” Walchef said. “It will have a sit-down component. It will have a delivery component.”

He believes his model is the future of the restaurant industry. Restaurants and hospitality brands need to be having conversations about e-commerce, technology and ways to expand the reach of their businesses. A hospitality business will not be able to keep up if it does not look at new technology and the other ways to expand and innovate, Walchef said

“If you are not doing that, you are putting yourself so far behind the game,” he said.

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