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Breakout Brands

Cali BBQ builds a media brand along with a following for slow-smoked brisket

Founder Shawn Walchef believes the ability to tell a great digital story opens doors

Shawn Walchef’s goal is to build “the Amazon Prime of barbecue and media” in San Diego.

The founder of the restaurant Cali BBQ is creating a viral empire that depends as much on slow-smoked brisket as it does a prodigious stream of podcasts, TikTok videos, LinkedIn posts and blogs about the restaurant industry — or really any business. Walchef believes telling a good digital brand story is fundamental marketing, and he hopes to give entrepreneurs the tools — and the courage — to tell their own stories.

Walchef’s own story is a fine case study for adapting to a new consumer.

The 5,700-square-foot full-service restaurant he first opened in 2008 once seated about 275 guests. During the pandemic, he cut dine-in down to about 100 seats, streamlined the menu to focus on core meats and sides and converted a back patio to create a master smokehouse, adding three Ole Hickory Pit smokers to his existing two.

Leveraging tech tools to further reduce labor costs, the restaurant now serves as a commissary for two ghost kitchen operations serving other parts of San Diego via delivery and takeout. In addition, Cali BBQ has outlets at San Diego State University’s Viejas Arena basketball arena and a deal for two concession booths at the new Snapdragon football stadium.

Walchef says he’s also in talks with local breweries across San Diego — a craft beer hot spot — to serve his barbecue at their venues.

“Our deep thesis in digital hospitality is ringing true: That as restaurant owners, we can no longer discriminate how people get our food. So we have to rethink how we distribute great barbecue,” said Walchef. “I think a lot of people are realizing that specialization is the way to go.”

Walchef said he’s not necessarily looking to build more brick-and-mortar restaurants, but to add more points of distribution.

“The goal is to add more meat to the smokers,” he said. “If I fill five smokers every day, then I’ll add another smoker.”

And with the great barbecue comes Walchef’s in-house media attention.

cali-bbq.jpgCali BBQ’s Media division hosts two sponsored podcasts and is developing a streaming show, Walchef said. The media side generates revenue — not as much as Walchef would like, but it’s growing, he said. And he believes it will open doors for the Cali BBQ brand as it grows beyond San Diego.

Restaurant operators understand that hospitality is how you make someone feel, and that gives them a competitive advantage — if they know how to share that story online, he contends.

“But a lot of it’s the fear of ‘I don’t understand social media,’ or ‘I don’t understand TikTok — that’s a dancing app’ [or] ‘I don’t understand Instagram Reels.’ That’s just where all the attention is,” he said. “If you make content that’s business content, that is documenting about your business, and share your hospitality and your love of your community, it is inspirational and people will get so many business opportunities that they’ve never had on a standard restaurant P&L.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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