Phil Castle, The Business Times
Once upon a time, Ron Johnson would go on camping trips with his children, Taylor and Kobe, that were anything but organized.
They’d pack their gear into totes. The clutter on the top of the picnic table left little room to prepare meals. Worse still, essentials were invariably forgotten and left behind, whether that was condiments, seasonings or utensils.
Not anymore. Now the Johnsons are really cooking — not only on their camping trips, but also with Tailgate N Go and the Grand Junction-based business they’ve developed.
Ron figured there had to be a better way to organize camp cooking and recalled the chuck boxes his father used to store gear. What Ron and his children ultimately developed, though, is far more sophisticated in a sturdy metal box with room for plates, utensils and seasonings as well as cutting boards. Moreover, a railing system on the box accommodates such accessories as griddles and grills. And, yes, that includes the kitchen sink.
The Johnsons soon realized they’d not only solved their problem, but also come up with a versatile product and along with it a potentially profitable business.
In addition to other efforts in growing Tailgate N Go, the Grand Valley family pitched the venture on “Shark Tank.” The ABC television show features entrepreneurs who present their products and services to a panel of “sharks” — tycoons who consider whether or not to invest in the efforts.
The Johnsons can’t disclose what happened until after the show airs — the episode is scheduled for broadcast at 8 p.m. Oct. 27. But they can talk about the process and another step in what they say has been rewarding process.
“It’s so fun what’s been happening,” Ron says.
It’s been all the more satisfying, he says, because he’s worked with his daughter and son on developing Tailgate N Go — and spent so much time with them on long road trips promoting the product. “The most fun I have is sharing all this with the kids.”
Ron also operates Riverbend Machinery and Riverbend Equipment in Grand Junction and Denver. Those companies sell, lease and service heavy equipment.
Ron says he sketched the initial design for Tailgate N Go on a napkin, but the family has since gone through nine prototypes to add features and correct problems.
And they’re not done, according to Kobe, who’s deaf and communicates with sign language. “We’ve never stopped improving the product.”
The latest version of Tailgate N Go is constructed out of aircraft aluminum, a metal that’s both lightweight and durable, Taylor says.
The outside of the Tailgate N Go includes a butterfly latch, a feature designed for campers in bear country, as well as built-in handles, a bottle opener and hooks for hanging towels or trash bags.
The inside of the Tailgate N Go includes a storage net in the lid, additional storage compartments for food and spices and a knife magnet. Tailgate N Go also comes with cutting boards, including a board with a paper towel holder.
Ron developed a patented rail system upon which the cutting boards and other accessories hang on the outside of the box. That includes a collapsible sink as well as griddles, grills and stove burner.
The Tailgate N Go measures 46 inches wide, meaning it can fit between the wheel wells in pickup truck beds.
The Johnsons also developed a slighter smaller model they branded the Overlander that fits into Jeeps and small sports utility vehicles.
The Tailgate N Go and Overlander are available in a variety of colors and color combinations.
While Ron says he came up with the idea for Tailgate N Go for camping, the portable kitchen can be used for a variety of other activities. “It’s just got a lot of versatility in terms of it just being mobile.”
That includes, of course, tailgating at sports events and cooking at backyard barbecues. But the Tailgate N Go also could be used at construction sites and even to provide portable kitchens in the event of disasters, he says.
The Johnsons displayed their Tailgate N Go kitchens at trade shows across the country to not only promote the products, but also gauge the reaction of potential customers and improve on the design.
The reaction, Ron says, was encouraging. Moreover, they were told repeatedly they should consider pitching Tailgate N Go on “Shark Tank.”
So they did. The Johnsons participated in a casting call in Southern California and were selected to pitch Tailgate N Go to five “sharks” — Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, Matt Higgins, Daymond John and Kevin O’Leary. The exchange was subsequently selected for broadcast.
The Johnsons beat long odds in the process, Taylor says. Out of 40,000 companies that apply each season, only 150 are selected to pitch to the sharks. Of those, about 80 are included on broadcast episodes. Kobe Taylor was the first deaf entrepreneur to appear in an episode.
The experience at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif., was almost surreal, Kobe says. “I’ll never forger it.” He says he felt as though he didn’t walk through the two sets of double doors that lead into the studio, but floated. Then he saw Greiner and the other sharks. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is real.’ ”
Ron says he quickly realized the sharks mean business. “It’s real business. It’s really happening.”
The sharks are paid as cast stars of the show, but any money they invest in ventures is their own. Entrepreneurs can make a deal if they and the sharks are interested. But if all the sharks opt out, entrepreneurs leave empty handed.
The Johnsons can’t disclose what happened until after the show airs.
But they’re moving forward with their business and plan to sell their products not only on their website located at www.tailgatengo.com but also Amazon.com.
They’re also looking into larger quarters for their operation in Grand Junction as well as the possibility of participating in the Colorado Rural Jump-Start Program offering tax incentives to companies that create new jobs.
The boxes for Tailgate N Go and Overlander are fabricated in Denver, but assembled in Grand Junction. Grand Valley vendors also supply parts and services in completing the products. The future of the operation will depend in part on demand for products and how the company can best accommodate manufacturing and distribution.
“We want to stay in Grand Junction,” Kobe says. “That would be awesome.”
For now, the Johnsons keep cooking — not just on their camping trips, but also with Tailgate N Go and business they’ve developed.