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.

Zach Willis at Square One Kitchen in north Fargo on May 9, where he makes Big Deck Barbecue sauces and rubs, the company the former NDSU football player co-owns and operates. The plan is to move to a larger building, which will help the company expand its manufacturing capabilities. "It's a labor of love," Willis said. "It's a direct product of my families love for cooking and passion for bringing people together over food."
Chris Flynn / The Forum

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.

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However, business owner John Bultman says he finds the terms of the agreement heavy handed and he plans to wind up his business by the end of May.

"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.

Zach Willis, co-owner of Big Deck Barbecue Co. in Fargo, blends dry rub seasonings at Square One Kitchen, a commercial kitchen in north Fargo, on May 9.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

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."

Alessandro Genova is part of the team at Big Deck Barbecue Co. in Fargo. Genova is measuring out dry rub seasoning at a commercial kitchen where they make barbecue, mustard, hot sauce, seasonings, and rubs.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

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.

Zach Willis, co-owner of Big Deck Barbecue Co. in Fargo shows off an example of the company's new logo, which features a likeness of his French Bulldog, Frankie.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

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."

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at
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