When a sports celebrity’s playing days are over, it doesn’t mean the competitive fire or drive for success in that athlete subsides — many search for outlets for that burning desire to win.

Additionally, celebrity names and food brands go together like, well, steak and potatoes. Steakhouses branded by superstar athletes seem to be an even more ubiquitous match. Many celebrities lend their names to the ultra-premium space to serve consumers looking for the top-dollar, high-end, fine-dining experience.

Exclusive video Q&As

Jeff Carlson of Two Rivers discusses the company’s partnership with Bo Jackson on the 34 Reserve steak line in this exclusive video.

This summer, however, former Major League Baseball and National Football League superstar Bo Jackson and his food distribution company, VEJ Holdings LLC, entered the meat and poultry arena with a unique approach that keeps Jackson close to the products and also targets a gap in the availability of a good steak-eating experience.

“There isn’t anything wrong with eating a Prime steak, but I’m targeting your everyday, nine-to-five ‘Average Joe’ who wants to take his family to dinner and have steak,” Jackson explains. “It’s about putting a quality product out there that everybody can afford, that once they cut into that Choice steak, they might sit there and think the waiter made a mistake and gave them Prime instead.”

VEJ Holdings, based in Naperville, Ill., was founded by Jackson in 2013, but has expanded into protein in the last year or so, launching lines of steaks, burgers, chicken, seafood and pork shanks, with other products on the way.

Many athletes simply license out their name or invest with little to no oversight or hands-on involvement in the day-to-day business, but Jackson decided early on that VEJ Holdings would not follow that path.

“We went out to find our protein-processing companies in one week, and the first product we looked at was in the beef industry. We flew to [Two Rivers in] Dakota Dunes, visited the plant and ate their sirloin,” Jackson says. “I’ve eaten a lot of steaks in my day, and I’d never eaten a sirloin that tender, that juicy. So, nobody convinced me to choose Two Rivers — my taste buds and palate did.”

The same results played out during VEJ Holdings’ visits to Schweid & Sons (which supplies VEJ’s burger offerings) and the other protein processors with which the company partners. Jackson hopes that his customers do the same — let the eating experience close the deal, rather than seeing stars in their eyes when sitting with a celebrity such as him.

“Sometimes it’s good to be who I am, and I’m thankful for that and don’t abuse the privilege,” Jackson says. “But take me out of the equation, and [with VEJ Holdings’ 34 Reserve steak line] you have a Choice steak that rivals a Prime steak but with a considerable cost savings.”

In a short period of time, VEJ Holdings has developed an extensive plan to get its products distributed in foodservice and retail channels throughout the United States. Right now, Jackson says, the primary foodservice targets are the gaming industry, larger restaurant chains and golf and country clubs. But VEJ Holdings also is working the retail side, and Jackson says retail will take up 20 percent of the business when all is said and done. It’s another area where he believes VEJ’s products can fill a need.

“How many times have you gone to the supermarket, bought a product and couldn’t wait to get home and try it, then you were disappointed?” Jackson asks. “It’s all about quality when it comes to me, and if I give you my word that I’m going to give you a quality product, I’m going to go through Hell and high water to make sure that’s a quality product.”

There are plenty of stories about athletes who went broke shortly after retiring from their professional sports lives — in 2009, Sports Illustrated reported that 78 percent of NFL players had gone bankrupt or reported being under financial distress because of joblessness or divorce within two years of their retirement. Jackson’s post-sports business career, however, went the other way — he’s had success in a variety of businesses, and it has been driven by his commitment to being successful and the relationship with the talent around him.

“We have a sales force, and the only thing that we have to do is get in the door, which is where I come in,” Jackson says. “I tell them, ‘It’s my job to go out and catch the fish, and then I’ll bring it back and let you process it.’”

Jackson’s “fishing” plans for VEJ Holdings’ future already have taken shape. First of all, VEJ Holdings will not be a protein-only distributor, even though protein comprises about 80 percent of its product mix currently. Jackson expects to expand into other food products as demand warrants.

“I want to get these products out there in the system now, maintain them and make sure that my customers are happy,” he says. “Then, when there is a need for a certain product, we’ll take a look. Our menu can be as big as we want it, but sometimes bigger isn’t always better.”

Additionally, Jackson expects VEJ Holdings to make a move toward distributing its products to the military, a channel he has experience in serving via a previous food company venture. That, however, isn’t the grand plan that gets Jackson truly passionate.

“I want to be a pioneer and take the American public school lunch from the bottom of the barrel to the top, and the only way to do that is to partner with the companies I’ve partnered with and get into each school district to look at the lunch programs,” he says.

Jackson is dismayed at the amount of children who don’t eat healthy foods in school — partially because they’ve grown up on fast foods and “won’t eat anything green,” and partially because of poor-quality food preparation at the schools.

“Your vegetable should be crispy, you can have your fish cooked to where it’s not dry, and you can have a pre-cooked piece of beef that goes in a warmer and comes out as a nice medium-well piece of beef,” he says. “I want to try to turn around the public-school lunch, and I have to do it one city, one school district, one state at a time.”

Jackson’s active involvement in the business means VEJ Holdings has a good shot at affecting change — if not immediately with the public-school lunch program, at the very least with its customers. His belief in forming relationships helps make his name and reputation easier to handle for some potential customers as well.

“I’m not somebody that’s going to sit around in the office and just keep looking at the mailbox to see when a check comes in,” Jackson explains. “It’s about forming relationships as you go. … I’m a very quiet, anti-social person when I’m away from VEJ Holdings, but when it comes down to business, I’m just as normal as you, and I’m going to treat you like I want you treat me.”

Creating that comfort level with customers, he adds, allows for business to then take care of itself. Jackson says people often are surprised that he’s as down to earth as he is in the business setting.

“Some celebrities think they are above everyone else and don’t want to talk to anyone,” he says. “But I sit down and talk to people, because I hope to have a great business relationship and a better relationship outside the business.”

Nevertheless, Jackson’s background as a competitor and a successful athlete guide VEJ Holdings’ strategies — and that drive for success isn’t something Jackson can simply shed like he could a Raiders, Royals or White Sox jersey. The competitive fire that spurs most athletes never goes away — those who can pull knowledge from their sports career and direct their competitive juices in the right direction succeed after their playing days are over.

“I’m not going to say that I’m always going to hit a home run, but that’s my intention,” Jackson concludes. “In my business, I’m always looking to hit it out of the park, because I’ve learned that you only have one shot.”

In the infancy of VEJ Holdings’ foray into the protein industry, Jackson appears to have made that first good impression — and the company’s roster of products appears stacked with winners. The table is set — Jackson and VEJ Holdings simply need to clear the bases.  NP

Bo knows... processing plants

Andy Hanacek: You mentioned that the products you distribute must speak for themselves as far as taste and quality go, but when touring processing plants, what else do you look for? What is your mindset when you’re going through the plants?

Bo Jackson: Number one, the dedication of the employees; I want to see if the employees are happy. In order for me to have a successful business, I’ve got to have happy employees. If I have happy employees, my customers are going to be happy, because those employees are going to put a quality product out there. That right there is what everybody strives to get, and I saw happy employees in the plants that I toured and work with now. Your employees are your most-valued asset within your company, period.

Hanacek: Was there anything that surprised you when you toured the plants in terms of meat production?

Jackson: No, no, because when I was a kid, my neighborhood was comprised of relatives. So we had one house that had the cow pasture, and that same house had the pigpen — [my uncle] was the farmer in the family. And every fall, we would slaughter pigs and cows for the winter. So, I’ve done it. Plus, I’m a big-time deer hunter, and I’ll hang up a deer and process it in less than an hour.

Hanacek: On the flip side of that, was there anything that surprised you in a positive way when you went on your plant tours?

Jackson: One thing that I was impressed by when we toured the Two Rivers plant was how clean the plant was — it was almost like a hospital surgical room. That and the addition that they’re building impressed me. They’re serious about their business, their process and everything that goes with it, and to see the dedication and the man hours that they’re putting into making the plant better, it’s probably going to be the top processing plant in the country.