Thomas Edison famously stated, "Genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration." By now, Shawn Davis, founder and president of CBS Foods, should know this mantra well.
In the mid-2000s, Davis' daughter made the nightmare statement of any parent working in the protein industry - that she would no longer eat meat after seeing an activist report on the processing of proteins.
Davis - a professionally trained chef and concerned father - wrangled with his daughter over this announcement and convinced her to at least eat seafood in order to keep some animal proteins in her diet.
With that seemingly simple parent-child interaction, "Chef Big Shake" and his family found its "one percent inspiration," and began on a winding journey that has led to the creation of one of the more intriguing stories of the protein-processing industry today.
Davis founded CBS Foods after toiling to create the perfect shrimp burger that his daughter would enjoy. Years later, after a 2011 appearance the television show "Shark Tank" and subsequent publicity tours, CBS Foods has grown rapidly. But the "99 percent perspiration" is still underway, as the company begins to expand distribution and diversify its product line beyond shrimp burgers.
The rise of CBS Foods
When Davis appeared on "Shark Tank" with his innovative shrimp burgers nearly two years ago, he couldn't have imagined that CBS Foods' star could have risen so quickly.
Certainly, Davis - who worked in foodservice almost his entire life, and had been working at GE Capital and on a side catering business at the time - was disappointed when given the news that the show's investors would not fund his business. However, the episode resulted in fantastic publicity for his shrimp burgers, and soon, CBS Foods had secured more than $500,000 from private investors - more than twice the amount he'd requested from "Shark Tank."
"I am blessed to have an investor that really understands what needs to happen so that we can be successful," Davis says. "And I think that is really the key, having a unified belief system from the co-packer all the way to the third-party investors."
Davis had already fulfilled his mission to transition back into the food industry full-time when he founded CBS Foods in 2007. Now, the financial backing would allow him to take it to another level.
"This is like a dream come true," Davis told The National Provisioner during its November 2012 visit to the processing facility on the bayou outside New Orleans, La., where the Original Shrimp Burgers were processed. "Everybody has a dream, and I think it is always been my dream to do something that I truly loved - and this is it."
After Davis' appearance on the "Shark Tank" show, revenue grew more than 300 percent in three months' time.
January 2012 brought about another significant milestone for the fledgling company. It was then that CBS Foods announced its first large-scale retail distribution of the Chef Big Shake Original Shrimp Burger in more than 800 retail stores.
At the time, Davis said in a release, "At CBS Foods, we are pleased to experience such immense growth in so little time. We are thrilled that consumers enjoy the Shrimp Burgers, as our mission has always been to bring gourmet seafood dishes into the everyday meal."
Early on, Davis relays, things went well. But, he admits that he lost a lot of sleep that first summer of distribution, learning the intricacies of the business nearly on the fly. One such worrisome time came in August, when a new retailer's large order was completely derailed as a large hurricane rolled through Louisiana. Davis says that the retailer completely understood and still orders the product to this day, but he certainly was on pins and needles the entire time.
"I said, 'Listen guys, I am down in the plant and they are evacuating the city,'" he recounts. "What does that mean? It means that we are not able to fill those purchase orders. So that was a very painful experience for me - my first purchase order to a major retailer and I can't deliver it, [despite them taking] a chance on me in the beginning.
"I sat home with no sleep for like three for days waiting for the storm to pass through. That was one of the biggest challenges," he adds.
The "wow" factor
Davis and his wife, Robin, started as a two-person wrecking crew, handling everything related to the company, from new-product development to sales calls, supplier negotiations to trade-show reconnaissance, and cooking demonstrations to media appearances. In June 2012, CBS Foods hired Nicole Carolan as operations manager, and she has contributed significantly to the rise of the company thus far. Furthermore, new products are still taste-tested and critiqued by the Davis' children to this day.
Since the development of the Original Shrimp Burger, CBS Foods developed four additional varieties: Jalapeno, Cajun, Chesapeake and Teriyaki. It also has expanded its product line to include Lobster Pot Pies and Lobster Mac and Cheese.
All of this fits into Davis' vision for the company: revolving around a measured expansion of product offerings and distribution.
"My ultimate vision obviously is to have our products in every grocery store across America - not only the Shrimp Burger, but really all the Chef Big Shake gourmet comfort food," Davis says. "I want people to eat my food and feel like, 'Wow, this is a treat. This is awesome!' - I want that wow factor."
To get that, Davis keeps the lines of communication with his consumers open, and knows that his product must be positioned just right to capture consumers with a great eating experience.
"It is not a 99-cent product, it is a product you're going to pay a premium price for, but you are going to be satisfied when you eat it," he adds. To that end, Davis never has cut corners in development of the product. When the opportunity to mass-produce the shrimp burgers became a reality, Davis traveled to China and Indonesia first in order to find an inexpensive source of shrimp.
He says he wasn't happy with what he'd seen from those producers, and began touring the Gulf Coast, making connections throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. Eventually, Davis found a processor who could handle his product, particularly through the busy season.
Beyond simply finding the best-quality shrimp, Davis says he's never lowered his standards on the other ingredients in the burgers, and because of it, the product has a selling point around the concept of healthy eating.
"I try to keep the product as natural as possible," he explains. "We don't use any unnatural binders, and we try to keep it as clean-label as possible."
Davis explains that consumers and the media have applauded him for the healthy aspects of the shrimp burgers when compared to other protein burgers, but the retail buyers with whom he has spoken appreciate the opportunity to offer a unique, frozen seafood item featuring shrimp, which is nearly universally loved by seafood consumers.
"Shrimp is the No. 1 seafood product in the America," he relays. "People eat popcorn shrimp, coconut shrimp and the like, so I tell customers, 'Why not offer it handheld?'"
Davis knows the journey that awaits CBS Foods, citing the long, slow growth curve that turkey and salmon burger products had to endure to reach today's popularity levels. But he's not limiting himself to shrimp, specifically - or burgers, for that matter.
"For now, my niche is seafood, and I am comfortable here because it is something I love," Davis explains. "Right now, that is where I'm going to keep the brand, going hard after the packaged seafood meals, the linguinis, pastas and other comfort foods."
Although Davis' mission may not bring about Earth-shattering results right away, his innovative products are certainly capable of giving a "big shake" to the seafood marketplace.
Meanwhile, his measured approach to building his company should serve notice to all protein processors that Chef Big Shake isn't a brand (or persona) that will remain a distant, low rumble easily ignored. With the right support and continued innovation, nothing will stop CBS Foods from shaking up the entire industry in the future.