In 1999, Billy Penny found himself in an all-too-common predicament- was laid off from his engineering job in Marion, Indiana, and was looking for a way to provide for his family. But instead of searching for work in a difficult job market, he decided to make his way as an entrepreneur. "I told my wife, 'I'm tired of someone telling me how much money I'm going to make, what my hours are going to be- just want to do something different,'" says Penny, 42.
So he and his wife, Kathy, 36, decided to sell their car and sink all their resources into starting a business- roadside barbecue stand. Unlike Texas, where they once lived, barbecue restaurants weren't very common in their Indiana community, so it seemed like the perfect niche opportunity.
Penny designed a barbecue concession trailer that resembled a log cabin. With the slogan "Eat here or we'll both starve," they launched their business in 2000. Penny contacted the local newspaper to tell his story and drum up interest- the strategy worked. "People just flocked to us," he recalls. "We had 57 people in line for our grand opening."
The response was so overwhelming, the Pennys decided to keep their business going through the winter months, even though it would be too cold to sell from an outdoor cart. Using the $105,000 they had earned in the first six months of business, they opened a brick-and-mortar location, which they named Southern Yankee Bar-B-Q.
Still, they were not content to end there. Penny used his entrepreneurial sensibilities and engineer's vision to design a mobile barbecue concession trailer that could be used year-round. When customers started asking how they could get their own barbecue stand, he decided to patent the design. With the money they'd made with the restaurant and concession trailer, the Pennys were able to open a factory to manufacture the barbecue stands for other entrepreneurs.
Today, for less than $30,000, business owners can get their own stand-alone carts and sell barbecued items anywhere- New York City to as far as the Middle East. In late 2002, the Pennys sold the restaurant side of their business to focus solely on the manufacturing side. And with Southern Yankee Bar-B-Q now estimating sales of nearly $1 million this year, it seems starving is no longer on the menu.