The last time I saw Chevalo and Monique Wilsondebriano, they were selling burgers at the Charleston Farmers Market. That was three years ago, back when their small Charleston Gourmet Burger Co. marinade business was a family affair. Each Saturday at their stand, Chevalo would man the grill, Monique would handle the till, and their adorable daughters would help pass out napkins to farmers market customers eager to try their specially marinated burgers.
That was then. This is now. Come December Charleston Gourmet Burger Co. will hit shelves in 580 Lowe's stores across the nation, and in January it will be available online at Walmart.com. Suffice to say, you won't find the Wilsondebrianos at the farmers market anymore.
"We pinch ourselves," says Monique. "We can't believe that was just three years ago."
If it weren't for the hours they spent launching the brand, the marinade's super-fast success would sound like a tall-tale. It all started when the couple was still living in New York City. There Chevalo, then a New York City Fire Department EMS and a 9/11 first responder, spent his free time sampling the best of the Big Apple's burgers. And that's where he came up with his perfect burger philosophy: Forget your toppings — onions, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles — for Chevalo, if the meat wasn't perfectly seasoned, the burger was a failure.
"My main thing is we believe the flavor of the burger should start in the meat itself," he explains. "Respect the flavor from the inside out. A patty should be able to stand on its own, like a fine steak. If a steak is good, you don't have pile a bunch of stuff on top." When he and Monique moved to Charleston, Chevalo put his theory into practice, serving homemade marinated patties at a backyard barbecue. As Monique told me in 2013 for a story in Charleston magazine, at the party her mom pulled her aside and said, "Look at your grill. There's a line going through the backyard just for the burgers!" That's when Monique says the idea came to her. "I thought, 'We should sell this,'" she says.
So the couple bottled their sauce and started selling it at area farmers markets. Then they got a spot on Food Network's Food Court Wars. The show created some buzz, but the big media bump came last year when the Wilsondebrianos were selected for Today's "Startup to Success" series. In the segments millionaire Marcus Lemonis, host of The Profit, a CNBC program about how to succeed as an entrepreneur, analyzed the Wilsondebrianos' sauce, in addition to three other competitor products.
"We are profitable, we are debt-free, and as our business grows, we expect to become a major household brand," Chevalo said in their pitch. "So now in order to go nationwide, we want to be able to carefully do that. We hear a lot of companies do it too fast and fail, and so we feel we need the guidance."
The line worked and the couple made it to the final round, losing out to 2Armadillos Snack Co., a chickpea product.
But while they didn't take home the $100K prize, what they got in free advertising can't be counted and helped grease the wheel for meetings with Lowe's and Walmart.
That said, the Wilsondebrianos believe their business boom should ultimately be attributed to a well-crafted product. "The marinade is made from fresh Charleston ingredients — fresh garlic, tomato, onions, peppers," says Chevalo.
His key to the perfect burger? Marinate it in Charleston Gourmet Co. marinade for at least 45 minutes and make sure your patty is bigger than your bun.
"No matter where you bite into, you should get more meat than bun," he says. Good advice, especially from a man whose farmers market marinade may just take a big bite out of the sauce business.