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Barbecuing Buddies Find Fast Success
When his best friend started a crowdfunding campaign to start a barbeque catering company, Smokey Treats BBQ, Tim Hoel gave a small donation. He didn’t anticipate that the company would be winning awards and competing at the World Food Championships just over a year later. And he definitely didn’t expect to be half of the team that made it happen.
Hoel, a talent acquisition program manager at American Family Insurance, understood that Matt Beranek knew his way around food — he’d made that evident from the very beginning of their friendship, which started in 2001 at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
“When we were in college, we’d be going over to grill at somebody’s house. I’m bringing bratwurst and he’s talking about barbecuing as an art form,” Hoel says, in-between laughs. “He’s the guy who had his meat marinating two days prior and I’m eating this burnt bratwurst while he’s got this chicken that’s stuffed and bacon-wrapped.”
Let’s go back to 2016 and the crowdfunding campaign — Tim checked in with Matt to see how much he’d raised. When Matt told him that he was still quite a long way from his goal, Tim took an idea to his wife, Brooke: they’d become silent investors with no input on the function of the business.
But Brooke urged caution. As the daughter of small business owners, she knew the strain that running a company can put on friends working as business partners.
“She told me how she saw Matt and I had such a great friendship and that she’d hate to see it ruined,” Tim says. “But I thought, ‘how awesome would it be to invest in something that I think has a lot of potential, but also help out a friend?’”
Tim jumped in. And it didn’t take long for that silent investment to transform into an active partnership in a feverish business boom.
Working local festivals and events got Smokey Treats name into plenty of northwestern Wisconsin residents’ minds, sure — but then they started winning awards. They took home the 2016 and 2017 (and eventually 2018) Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival’s People’s Choice Best Dish for their ABT (short for “A Beautiful Thing”): a fresh jalapeño stuffed with cheese curds and chorizo, wrapped in bacon, smoked over applewood and glazed with a blueberry barbeque sauce courtesy of Croix Valley Foods. Business exploded.
So they hired more staff, started entering their dishes in more events and worked on cultivating even more partnerships. Instead of expanding their menu, they cut back and focused on fine-tuning the items that their loyal following couldn’t get enough of.
Then came an invite to the Bacon Bash, a World Food Championship qualifying event in River Falls, Wisc. The exposure of being at such a large-scale festival would’ve been enough for them, Tim says, but they wound up winning the award for best dish and qualifying for the World Food Championships in the process.
Competing in the bacon category at the WFC in Orange Beach, Ala., Smokey Treats prepared two dishes: their take on Quiche Lorraine, a jalapeño and bacon quiche with gruyere cheese, bacon-infused cream cheese and a jalapeño, garlic and onion purée, and the dish that got them to the WFC in the first place — the ABT. Smokey Treats ended up claiming the 15th best bacon dish in the world.
“We fell into a couple of these competitions, and it was by happenstance that we got in there,” Tim says. “But it wasn’t by happenstance that we won.”
The transformation from barbecuing at festivals and catering other small events to competing against classically-trained chefs was jarring, Tim admits, but it showed him and Matt that they could compete with even the most seasoned professionals without endless preparation.
“We were so lucky to have it blow up so quickly, we didn’t even realize that we were in over our heads,” Tim says. “We just went at it like we would anything else. We had less than five weeks to prepare, and we were competing against people who were preparing all year. We didn’t have time to panic or overthink it, and we just had to do it.”
Smokey Treats qualified for the 2018 WFC by winning The Taste of America Challenge, an Instagram contest where two contestants from each state advanced to the big event. Smokey Treats posted the ABT and got so much fanfare that they won top spot in Wisconsin’s fan favorite and judge’s choice categories.
With much more time to prepare for this year’s contest, Tim and Matt are working hard to clean up their food presentation skills. Tim joked that his only prior culinary training was four years of home economics classes in high school — and the classes never touched on competition food plating techniques.
“Last year, we crushed it on taste, but we’ve never taken any culinary classes on how to plate things. That’s an area we knew we needed to improve,” Tim says. “Go home and look at my DVR now and it’s all food shows — it’s funny, a guy with an English degree and business degree, and now I’m cooking.”
When it comes to the food, Matt runs the show. He’s carefully crafted Smokey Treats’ recipes and the methods and techniques it takes to cook them. Tim handles the business end, taking on things like bookings, partnerships, administrative duties and economic projections.
Tim’s current role as an acquisition manager and former job as an agent recruiter for American Family have surprisingly tied in seamlessly to his role with Smokey Treats.
“Going through my MBA coursework, there were obvious business management and accounting courses that have been helpful, but the classroom stuff isn’t nearly as important as what I’ve learned from real world experience,” Tim says. “Marketing, quoting, building partnerships, looking for new festivals and opportunities, it’s fun for me. It’s exciting. I love it.”
But that’s definitely not the most fun part of being part-owner, Tim says. He’s Matt’s sous chef when they’re working. And having a hand in a successful business with his best friend is the most he could ask for.
“He’s his biggest critic. He’s so hard on himself, and that’s one of the reasons I was interested in doing business with him,” Tim says. “He is absolutely the talent in our business partnership. He works so hard to make sure he doesn’t let anybody down.”
On his way to set up the food truck for its first-ever event, Matt texted Tim: “I cried the whole way here.” Tim laughs. “He’s got this hardened exterior, but he’s just the biggest softy,” Tim says. “He’s just so passionate about it, and that’s something I’ll never forget.”
They’ll make the most of the rest of the warm weather season before parking the truck for the winter and working on their schedule for festivals, contests and other events in 2019.
Tim says he knows Matt wants to be the sole owner of Smokey Treats at some point, but for the time being, they’re enjoying the time they spend together on the passion Matt has generously shared with Tim and the public.
“I never imagined that my buddy’s dream of barbecue and my dream of opening a small business would collide,” Tim says. “There’s a bit of dumb luck we’ve fallen into, but nothing will surpass everything that Matt’s put into it.”