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How One Veteran-Owned Barbecue Restaurant Is Looking To Government Contracts As An Expansion Opportunity

Mack Thomas is a father, a Disabled United States Marine Corps Veteran, a Black business owner—and someone who knows good barbecue.

Mack Thomas co-founded MacQue’s Barbecue with his wife, Charlie, in 1986.

In 1986, he and his wife, Charlie, founded MacQue’s Barbecue in Sacramento as a catering business to serve customers across the area smoked meats and sides made from scratch. As a graduate of California State University Sacramento, Mack is passionate about serving his community. Over the past 30 years, The Thomas family have learned the ins and outs of the business and grown MacQue’s Barbecue into a staple of the Sacramento area: in addition to catering, they now boast two restaurant locations, a bottled hot sauce business, and earned the title of “Small Business of the Year” from the Elk Grove Chamber of Commerce in February.

Even with this success, The Thomases have had to adapt to the uncertain business environment caused by the pandemic. As agile business owners, they have looked to enter new markets with their product, and California Capital FDC is helping them get there. 

Experience Drives Expansion

Mack and Charlie began selling MacQue’s Barbecue sauces wholesale since the mid-1990s, with a presence in national grocery chains like Sam’s Club and regional outlets like Raley’s. But with the expansion of their restaurant operations—MacQue’s Barbecue opened a second location in Elk Grove, California in August of 2019, adding to their flagship restaurant in Sacramento—the wholesale sauce enterprise was less of a focus. Plus, partnerships with grocery chains proved challenging to maintain. 

“The company’s buyers would change and we no longer had a relationship, so we would get dropped as a client,” reveals Mack, who would spend hours each week sampling sauces at the stores, “or a larger brand would see our success and edge in with a lower price.”

When Covid-19 caused many office workers near both MacQue’s locations to transition to remote work, and the restaurants lost much of their reliable lunchtime clientele, the need for diversification became clear. It was time to find new wholesale opportunities for MacQue’s sauces, and Mack had an idea that felt more promising than relying on grocery chains. 

“I knew there were opportunities to sell to mess halls and commissaries on military bases from my time in the Marine Corps,” Mack says. “So I was interested in government contracts, but I wasn’t sure how to get in.” 

The Promise of Contracting Opportunities

MacQue’s BBQ Hot Sauce can be purchased at both MacQue’s BBQ restaurant locations.

Like many government agencies and operations, mess halls and commissaries—essentially the cafeterias and general stores on military bases—source their products from private business through a fine-tuned procurement process. Businesses must have the proper certifications, know how to search out contracts and bid on them, and ultimately have the capacity to perform on the contracts. 

Contracts can be particularly impactful for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) owned businesses. Data for businesses of color indicate that they are highly concentrated in the retail sector, where sales volume is relatively lower—which can cause disparities in overall business growth. 

Moving from retail into business-to-business or business-to-government sales is a huge opportunity to grow, especially for diverse businesses” explains Clarence Williams, Chairman of California Capital’s Board of Directors. “But it is one of the most difficult things for a business to do.” 

In search of guidance on navigating the procurement process, Mack turned to California Capital’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC). Working with a PTAC counselor, Mack has been able to take the first steps to bidding on and securing government contracts. MacQue’s Barbecue has become certified with the Systems for Award Management (SAM), a necessity for any business hoping to sell their goods or services to the Federal Government. With that foundation laid, Mack is now focused on recertifying his Disabled Veteran Business Enterprise (DVBE) status, which will allow him to take advantage of programs that cater specifically to veteran-owned small businesses. 

“The fact that California Capital operates a Procurement Technical Assistance Center is extremely important to the way that our continuum of services is able to help businesses, particularly those owned by people of color, expand and succeed,” explains Clarence. 

Procurement as a Catalyst for Equity 

Seeing more businesses owned by people of color pursue procurement opportunities is reason for hope, says Clarence. Income and revenue inequality for BIPOC-owned businesses in retail spaces is prevalent at national, local, and regional levels. 

When you look at the data, the reality is that small businesses of color are still very small in terms of revenue relative to total sales,” says Clarence. 

Mack Thomas at the original MacQue’s BBQ Stand

As Clarence explains, procurement opportunitieslike those with the Federal Government that MacQue’s BBQ is pursuingare key for addressing that disparity and building equity in the business landscape.

“[Procurement] is an avenue for them to grow their revenue in a way that can be more impactful than retail expansion,” says Clarence, “California Capital’s services are designed to build that capacity for business owners and create more inclusive opportunities for disadvantaged businesses.”

Procurement can be, in many ways, an expansion of business owners’ view of what is possible. When entering into a contract with a government agency, small businesses also gain access to networks that can lead to even more opportunities, and the fortuitous cycle continues. Building the ability of disadvantaged and diverse businesses to pursue and be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities is where the expertise of California Capital’s business counselors lays.

“You Have to Have The Best Opportunities”

Knowing this, Mack and his family are determined to take advantage of procurement opportunities, and use them as an avenue for growth. MacQue’s Barbecue is a true family operation, and with their son Michael Thomas at the helm of the restaurant locations, Mack and his wife Charlie are able to continue envisioning the future of the enterprise. 

“I’ve improved myself,” Mack says, reflecting on his decision to pivot away from traditional wholesale ventures. “I’m being more strategic with the growth opportunities I pursue.” 

MacQue’s journey is proof that even with years of experience in your industry, searching for unique opportunities and continuing to learn is crucial to expand and thrive. With decades of wisdom acquired, Mack has learned to be patient while working towards a goal. 

“You may have the best product, but you have to have the best opportunities,” Mack says. “We have the capability to make great hot sauce, now we’re just building the capacity to get it out there.”