Former Bison football player expanding Big Deck Barbecue business
For Zach Willis, the idea to turn a family tradition into a business took root at the start of the COVID outbreak, when he had time on his hands and a strong desire to start an enterprise where he could be his own boss.
FARGO — The name Zach Willis is familiar to many North Dakota State University Bison fans, as he was part of three championship football teams.
Now, the 2017 West Fargo High School grad is making a name for himself in the business world as co-owner of a barbecue sauce brand called Big Deck Barbecue Co.
The company's products, Willis says, are based on barbecue sauce recipes his father, Tyson, created while entertaining family and friends on the family's expansive outdoor deck.
"Most people think the name is a funny play on words, but it does have meaning to us and we're really proud of that," Willis said.
"The deck, where the name comes from, that was our main point of gathering for my family. Any time you can break bread with family and friends, it's good," added Willis, who said the idea to turn a family tradition into a business took root in early 2020 during the start of the COVID outrbreak, when he had lots of time on his hands and a strong desire to start an enterprise where he could be his own boss.
In talking things over with his father, Willis said it was decided that he was in the best position to take on the risk of a new business and Big Deck Barbecue was born.
"We had no infrastructure, no way to take orders and the next thing you know, we had 50 orders over night," recalled Willis, who said the business celebrated its three-year anniversary earlier this month.
Now, he said, Big Deck Barbecue is poised to move out of the Square One commercial kitchen it shares with three other businesses and into larger digs that will allow production to ramp up.
"There are four different companies in here (Square One) right now, which I think is super awesome. But, sometimes you just need that dedicated space you can go to all the time," said Willis, referring to a building at 1700 32nd Ave. S., in Fargo, that is being turned into a kitchen and retail space for making and selling Big Deck Barbecue sauces and rubs.
Willis is co-owner of the company with his fiancee, Julia Dwyer, and they are helped out by Alessandro Genova, a high school friend whom Willis describes as "somebody who gets the growing pains we're going through."
Willis expects the new production facility will speed things up to the point they can build inventory and get back to the part of the business that was "fun." And by fun he means getting back to making new flavors and recipes, "rather than the grunt work that takes up so much of my time."
A hallmark of Big Deck Barbecue, he said, is striving for consistent high quality while also offering a dash of the unique, like a peanut butter barbecue sauce and a dill pickle mustard.
"We have the ability to make those unique things very tasty," he said.
Willis stressed that great volunteers have been instrumental in helping the business reach this point and he said two or three job positions may be added after the company settles into its new home in south Fargo.
Having majored in marketing at NDSU, Willis said he enjoys the creative side of promoting their products, which he said can be found on the shelves of about 75 stores around the area, including grocery stores and Scheels.
The level of visibility that Big Deck Barbecue has already achieved is still hard for Willis to get his head around.
"It doesn't feel real to me," he said, noting that when it comes to spreading the word about his business friends have helped out a lot.
"All my teammates tell their families about it," said Willis, who smiled and added: "I have friends in the NFL."