(Photo: ABC Kelsey McNeal)
Dave Alwan took his spot in the very long line. The owner and founder of Echo Valley Meats in Bartonville, Ill., estimates there were about 5,000 people in front of him.
It was a Friday night in May 2012 in Culver City, Calif., near Los Angeles. The people were lining up outside a Holiday Inn, having traveled there from around the country to audition the following day for the fourth season of the ABC reality television show “Shark Tank.” Some had cots, chairs and even mattresses to sleep on.
“It was like Woodstock,” Alwan recalls.
Alwan, a diehard fan of “Shark Tank,” flew from Chicago to Los Angeles earlier that day to take a shot at appearing on the show. While all the people in line were from different walks of life, they had one thing in common: They knew that getting on “Shark Tank,” where entrepreneurs try to convince five wealthy tycoons to invest money in their business ideas, could change their lives and businesses forever.
Alwan waited… and waited…and waited in line. By morning, there were about 10,000 people, he estimates. After 17 hours of waiting, Alwan finally got his chance to make a short pitch to the show’s producers.
His pitch drew some interest. Alwan was asked to make a 20-minute video about Echo Valley Meats’ day-to-day operations and send it to producers. They told Alwan they would be in touch if there was further interest.
He would have to wait once again – and this time with great anticipation.
Building the business
The 46-year-old Alwan began Echo Valley Meats, which processes and sells specialty products such as hickory-smoked hams, summer sausage, steaks and smoked brisket and other items, in 1998 after branching off from his family’s multi-generational business, Alwan & Sons Meat Co., in Peoria, Ill. Alwan is a third-generation farmer, cattleman and meat processor who learned much of the business from his grandfather, Mason, who began the family company with his brother in the 1940s after emigrating from Lebanon.
“I know the business from conception to consumption,” Alwan says.
Alwan purchased a retail facility from his family’s business to get started. In 2000, he upgraded the facility with technology-rich processing equipment while converting to federal inspection. Within the first year of business, Alwan scored a large contract with Swiss Colony, a mail-order retail company, to process 150,000 summer sausages.
Business was decent, with sales increasing annually. In 2008, Alwan added an online mail-order component to help expand the company. In 2010, at the advice of his peer Wally Mulica, the owner of Belmont Sausage in Chicago, Alwan decided to forego USDA inspection and co-pack his products to be shipped over state lines. Mulica told Alwan that he should find the best processors to make Echo Valley’s products and that Alwan should concentrate on his strongpoints – sales and marketing.
“He’s very likeable and a great salesperson,” Mulica says of Alwan.
Soon after, Alwan teamed with Klement’s Sausage Co. in Milwaukee to process his summer sausage, Belmont to produce his spiral-sliced hams and UW Provision in Middleton, Wis., for steak cutting. Alwan took his colleague’s advice and focused on selling and promoting.
Echo Valley Meats also still makes its own products, which the company sells from its small retail shop in front of its 12,000-sq.-ft. plant. The company also does a solid catering business. With annual sales of about $1.25 million at the time of his “Shark Tank” audition, Alwan saw an opportunity to improve the company’s online mail-order sales of $180,000. If he could get on “Shark Tank,” tout his products and maybe even get one of the show’s rich titans to invest in his business, Alwan knew his online sales would soar.
|||Read more: Swimming with sharks|||
Swimming with sharks
A few weeks after sending in the video, Alwan was ecstatic to hear that the show’s producers wanted to discuss the possibility of putting him in front of the sharks. The news got even better later. In the fall of 2012, Alwan was invited to Los Angeles to be filmed at the show’s studio pitching the sharks, including Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks; Lori Greiner, a retail product inventor; Robert Herjavec, a technology company owner; Daymond John, a clothing entrepreneur; and Kevin O’Leary, a software company executive. Alwan learned that although many entrepreneurs are invited to have their pitches recorded, most never make it to broadcast. He was also told that he would receive a message two weeks before an airing if his pitch would be televised.
On March 20, 2013, nearly 10 months after the initial audition, Alwan received word from “Shark Tank” that his upcoming appearance would air on April 6. Alwan and Echo Valley Meats were about to be introduced to millions of people. “I knew if I was lucky enough to make it to television, it would be good for the business – no matter what,” he says.
When Alwan was introduced on the show, he explained who he was and told the sharks, “Now it’s time for a feeding frenzy.” Alwan then passed out samples of Echo Valley Meats’ brisket, summer sausage and other products.
“Wow!” Herjavec said after tasting the beef tenderloin.
“Outstanding!” O’Leary said of the smoked brisket.
But while the sharks were impressed with Echo Valley Meats’ products, they were not impressed with Alwan’s pitch, which was to obtain $300,000 for 20 percent equity in the company. Alwan wanted to invest the money to upgrade the software in the company’s mail-order business.
“You’re coming in unprepared; that doesn’t cut it,” Cuban said, noting Alwan did not know enough about his customer acquisition costs.
“I can’t call your business plan bad because there isn’t [a business plan],” O’Leary said. “But your product is absolutely spectacular.”
While Alwan didn’t get a deal, people watching on TV were impressed with the sharks “oohing” and “aahing” about his product.
During the show, the company’s website traffic skyrocketed, as about 90,000 people visited the site and checked out the company’s products. Almost 7,000 people opened shopping baskets.
Once Alwan was on the show, the phones at Echo Valley Meats didn’t stop ringing for weeks. Investors from all over the country, including four Hollywood celebrities that Alwan wouldn’t name, were calling and offering money for a stake in the business.
“One guy said he would give me $1 million for a 10 percent stake in the company,” Alwan says. “Another guy from Texas, who was in the oil business, called and said he’d send me a check for $3 million just to use the trademark and the brand.”
Alwan also received about 4,000 emails in 72 hours, mainly from people wanting to invest, but he turned down every offer.
“I know how to make money, and I have no problem doing it,” Alwan says.
The company was inundated with so many product orders after the show that Alwan had to extend product shipping to 21 to 28 days; it’s normally three to five days.
“We broke a million hits on the website in a week,” he says.
|||Read more: Going back into the water|||
Going back in the water
In the fall of 2014, Shark Tank producers visited Echo Valley Meats to film an update on the business. In the segment, Alwan explained how his appearance on the show had transformed the business. He also said he had taken the sharks’ advice and revamped his business plan and learned his customer acquisition costs.
The show’s producers or the sharks must have caught wind of what Alwan said because they invited him back to make a second appearance on the show. Prior to Alwan’s being asked back, only one other entrepreneur had ever been invited back to appear on the show with the same product pitch.
“I never dreamed of going back on a second time – it’s truly a once-in-a lifetime opportunity,” Alwan says.
Alwan returned to Los Angeles in 2014 to tape the segment. This time he went in with a better business plan, vowing to “blow the sharks out of the water.” When he walked out to make his pitch, Cuban said with a smile, “He’s baaaaack.” Alwan told the sharks how his business exploded after his first appearance and that he split the mail-order business to a separate entity, accruing $1.4 million in sales since the airing of his first appearance on the show. He asked the sharks for $150,000 to invest in the mail-order business for software upgrades and marketing.
Alwan’s second appearance on the show aired in March, and this time he received three offers from the sharks. He accepted Cuban’s offer of $150,000 and a 25 percent stake in the mail-order division with an option to make the same deal in the retail division.
“He was focused, and he had learned quite a bit about what the key growth elements of his business are [compared to] his first visit,” Cuban says.
Like before, Echo Valley Meats’ website was inundated with orders and, just as before, Alwan received phone calls from people wanting to invest. But with Cuban on board, Alwan knew he had secured the perfect business partner.
“Mark is a great guy and is very down to earth,” Alwan says. “He wants to see us grow and succeed.”
The power of ‘Shark Tank’
Thanks to Cuban’s investment and increased sales, Alwan has been able to upgrade Echo Valley’s mail-order business with new systems, procedures and integration software. Alwan feels there is more than enough room for growth in the mail-order segment of the meat industry for his products to compete on a high level with other companies.
Alwan has also expanded Echo Valley’s business into corporate rewards and incentive programs, which he believes will solidify the company’s growth. In addition, he accepted an offer from NASCAR to co-sponsor a car during a recent Sprint Cup Series race in Bristol, Tenn. “The sponsorship with NASCAR could open up several new marketing opportunities for the business,” he states.
Alwan has other irons in the fire. This fall, Neiman Marcus will feature a gift box of three of Echo Valley’s products in its upcoming holiday catalog. Alwan is also scheduled to appear on QVC later this year to sell his award-winning summer sausage and cheese gift boxes.
In 2015, Alwan expects online mail-order sales to hit $2 million and exceed double-digit growth in 2016 and beyond. He expects overall sales to exceed $3 million in 2015, an increase of nearly $2 million before his “Shark Tank” appearance.
Cuban says he has advised Alwan to “learn from what works and do more of it,” and to “treat his customers like gold.”
“But when you have a great product like he does, [business] can be really simple and [just] about execution,” Cuban adds.
Incidentally, Cuban and his family are consumers of Echo Valley Meat’s products.
“Let’s just say it’s all we serve at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he says. “So I’m a true believer.”
Alwan had no idea of the success he would realize after his appearances on “Shark Tank.” He has nothing but good things to say about his experience on the show, noting he was treated by everyone with the utmost respect.
Looking back, waiting in line for 17 hours to get a shot to appear on the show was time very well spent.
“It was worth it, absolutely,” Alwan says, still beaming. “The power of Shark Tank is crazy.”