Tailgate and grow: Firm secures NFL deal to customize portable kitchens

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Taylor Johnson
Kobe Johnson
Ron Johnson

Taylor Johnson touts the versatility of the portable outdoor kitchen her family developed and the ease the product affords in cooking meals for everything from camping trips to road trips.

But if Johnson were pressed to name a single ideal use for the Tailgate N Go, it might be tailgating. It’s a match made in heaven in providing in one sturdy box everything needed to grill burgers and brats, prep the fixings and serve a parking lot buffet before the big game.

Now the Johnsons and their Grand Junction company have taken the combination one step further for pro football fans in offering the Tailgate N Go customized with their favorite National Football League team logos and colors.

The Johnsons have a partner in their venture in Matt Higgins, the cofounder of a private investment fund and vice chairman of the Miami Dolphins. Higgins invested $250,000 in Tailgate N Go when the Johnsons pitched their product on the “Shark Tank” television show. Higgins also helped the family complete a licensing contract with the NFL that allows the company to customize the Tailgate N Go for any of the league’s 32 teams.

“Matt has opened some awesome doors for us,” Taylor says.

Higgins says he was happy to help. “The Johnson family shows what ‘Shark Tank’ is all about — building your business from the ground up, refusing to give up when faced with challenges and forging ahead as a team,” he states in a news release from Tailgate N Go. “I was proud to help Tailgate N Go do an unprecedented licensing deal with the NFL and all 32 teams so that football fans can experience the best possible tailgating experience in sports.”

Johnson says she expects the deal to pave the way for similar contracts that will enable the company to customize Tailgate N Go for other professional leagues and college teams. “There are some really big things I see down the road for us.”

The licensing contract with the NFL — and with it with the opportunity to sell Tailgate N Go kitchens through the league website at www.nfl.com — constitutes yet another milestone for Ron Johnson, his daughter Taylor and son Kobe.

Ron originally envisioned the Tailgate N Go as a way to organize cookware, utensils and condiments for family camping trips. He says he sketched the initial design on a napkin.

What Ron and his children developed, though, is far more sophisticated in a sturdy metal box with room for plates, utensils and seasonings as well as cutting boards. 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.

Ron also operates Riverbend Machinery and Riverbend Equipment in Grand Junction and Denver. Those companies sell, lease and service heavy equipment.

The Tailgate N Go is constructed out of aircraft aluminum, a metal that’s both lightweight and durable.

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 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 fits 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 boxes for Tailgate N Go and Overlander are fabricated in Denver, but painted in Fruita and assembled in Grand Junction.

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.  That reaction, Ron says, was encouraging.

Moreover, the Johnsons were told repeatedly they should appear on “Shark Tank” — the reality TV show in which entrepreneurs pitch their products and services to a panel of “sharks” who consider whether or not to invest in the efforts. 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 beat long odds to appear on the show. Out of 40,000 companies that apply each season, only 150 are selected to pitch to the sharks. Of those, only about 80 are included on broadcast episodes.

The Johnsons pitched Tailgate N Go in a “Shark Tank” episode broadcast in October. Kobe was the first deaf entrepreneur to appear on the show.

The Johnson pitched to Higgins as well as Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, Daymond John and Kevin O’Leary.

O’Leary offered to invest $250,000 as a line of credit with 10 percent interest. He also wanted a 10 percent equity stake in the company and $100-per-unit royalty. The Johnsons declined that offer and asked Higgins to reconsider. Higgins agreed to invest $250,000 for a 20 percent equity stake and $50 per-unit royalty until the $250,000 is repaid.

Taylor says the family’s goal at the outset was to reach a deal with Higgins because of his connections with the NFL. Higgins is chief executive officer of RSE Ventures, a private investment firm he founded with Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins. Higgins also serves as vice chairman of the Dolphins. Higgins previously worked with the New York Jets as executive vice president of business operations and was involved in efforts to build MetLife Stadium.

The strategy worked as planned, Taylor says, because Higgins helped the company reach a licensing deal with the NFL. “It means a lot to have signed a deal with the NFL,” she says. “My dad dreamed of this deal from day one at Tailgate N Go. And our shark, Matt Higgins, made that happen.”

An update on an episode of “Shark Tank” broadcast in April announced the deal and detailed the efforts of Higgins and the Johnsons to introduce the customized Tailgate N Go kitchens as part of Super Bowl activities in Miami. Tailgate N Go is the only company featured in an update on “Shark Tank” during the same season of its initial appearance.

Taylor says working with Higgins and pitching products on “Shark Tank” and to the NFL has been as rewarding as it’s been instructive. “It’s an experience I will treasure forever.”

The process has been rewarding in other ways in promoting Tailgate N Go and sales, she says. The company received nearly 40 orders after the broadcast of the first “Shark Tank” episode.

The effects of the coronavirus outbreak since have hampered efforts to further ramp up sales, Taylor says.

Trade shows in which the company would have participated have been canceled. Moreover, customers can’t visit the company’s facility in Grand Junction to check out products in person.

But she also expects the deal with the NFL and what could be similar deals with other pro sports franchises and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to promote growth in what’s just one market for the versatile Tailgate N Go portable outdoor kitchens, but an important market.

It’s a match, she says, made in heaven.