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Meet Shawn Walchef of Cali BBQ in San Diego

San Diego is where Cali BBQ owner Shawn Walchef grew up. The region is where he played sports with friends, learned lessons in school, and was taught values by his family.

This is the community the restaurant owner still calls home to this day, now with a growing family of his own.

As owners/operators of Cali BBQ in San Diego, Shawn Walchef and his wife Rositsa Walchef have evolved over the dozen year run of their restaurant to swiftly shift with the times, while always staying true to the community.

While staying true to the community through tough times is particularly topical in the wake of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic and dining room shutdowns, the Walchefs are no stranger to overcoming obstacles while remaining on track.

“We opened in 2008 which was the height of the economic recession,” reflects Shawn Walchef on his restaurant’s humble beginnings in the Spring Valley village of East County.

After 12 years of business and even after COVID-19, the mission remains the same for Cali BBQ: help the community they’ve long called home. Now even more growth is on the horizon as Cali BBQ plans to expand outside of their first location in Spring Valley.

“Just like we cook our barbecue low and slow over a long period of time we run our business low and slow the same.”

Starting the business with his best friend Corey Robinson, the buddies turned business partners had a lot in common. Both Shawn and Corey grew up working in their family’s respective restaurants as kids, later working in real estate as young adults.

With a lifetime of experience in the industry and ‘chef’ as one-half of his last name, it was a no-brainer Shawn would pursue the food biz, right?

“Growing up I would wash dishes and bus tables and I hated it,” laughs Shawn Walchef about working in his family’s restaurant before it transformed into Cali BBQ.

Why is that? Aside from the obvious, cleaning tables meant being pulled away from the park or practice where he’d play sports with his friends as a child. On top of that, the firsthand reality of the financial hardships that often plague a restaurant were more visible to Shawn and his partner Corey than most.

“Neither one of us ever thought that we’d ever get into the restaurant business, we knew how difficult it was.”

Oddly enough, by the late 2000s, Shawn would find himself right back where it all started — at the restaurant.

As fate would have it, the same building that housed the restaurant Shawn grew up working in would later become his own. Inheriting his grandfather’s work ethic and liquor license, Shawn seized the opportunity to bring hospitality to the community he grew up in even if all outside factors suggested otherwise.

Making Cali BBQ

Not every day does a restaurant and a liquor license fall in your lap. In 2008, Shawn may not have had a plan at that moment, but he had a mission.

“We wanted to make a family friendly sports entertainment destination,” says Shawn.

Just like starting a business in the midst of the economic decline was counterculture, so was his model.

Historically, sports bars were of the Hooters variety where food was often an afterthought and a family friendly atmosphere wasn’t even on the table. Having already existed in the diner arena with a banging breakfast, Shawn figured he’d lean into his strengths, interests and time zone.

“What if we served incredible breakfast, had flat screens all throughout the restaurant and we had a full alcohol menu?” pondered Shawn.

“On the west coast, the NFL kicks off at 10 AM on Sunday. Where can you go and have Sunday brunch and watch NFL Sunday ticket, and bring your wife, your kids and your grandparents? There was nowhere that existed that did that.”

Soon there would be. That place would eventually be called Cali Comfort BBQ (and now Cali BBQ).

While the menu was a mouthful so was the original name. Taking a page out of the Tupac catalog, Shawn condensed and modernized his business name using “Cali” which proved fruitful and ahead of its time.

“That was way before anyone was calling their business ‘Cali’ anything in San Diego or even California. It was different, but we’ve always been different.”

Localized branding gave the company a cool factor, but what’s being cool if you’re not nice? Lucky for Shawn, his West Coast instincts are backed by Eastern ethos.

“I learned the hospitality side from my Grandmother Ann,” says Shawn. “She was Japanese and taught me so much from her culture. When I was a kid and I went over to a friend’s house for a sleepover, I brought a gift! Every time I went anywhere, I did that and every time the parents loved me like I was their own.”

Always one to welcome, Shawn was well equipped for the road ahead.

Building a Restaurant

Despite economic uncertainty, Cali BBQ was on its way. Having grown up playing sports and being avid fans themselves, the business partners were in a unique spot where not only were they the founders, they were also the target audience.

Building a sports bar from the fan perspective, Shawn knew how important it was to be sharp in regard to having all the TVs in the bar on the right game at the right time.

“Super fans care about their game no matter what,” states Shawn. “If you care about a game, you want it on when it’s live and you can’t explain that to anyone else.”

This fan-centric viewpoint mixed with world-class hospitality meant going the extra mile every time.

“We’ll open ahead of schedule during March Madness if we need to just to make sure we don’t miss tip-off.”

Obviously, turning on the TVs and firing up the pits is essential for any business in the space that Cali BBQ occupies — even if many competitors still get it wrong. While Shawn and his staff were doing all the basics right, even from jump, that wasn’t all they were doing in regard to the community that supported their sports bar.

“Ever since the day we opened, we knew we had to have roots in our community,” reflects Shawn. “How do we make Spring Valley better? We knew that if we did it right and if we did it with hospitality, we would be different from everybody else.”

Donating time, money and equipment to youth sports programs and young athletes in need, Shawn and Corey took their love and lessons from sports to invest in the future of Spring Valley.

“Giving back was a priority,” says Shawn Walchef and it still is. “When someone in our community asked of us, we’d always answer, ‘How can we help?’”

This altruistic attitude would prove a great example of paying it forward as it paved the way for the next generation of the company.

All-in on BBQ

From the beginning, giving back was always an emphasis. However, Shawn realized that to give back in the biggest and most orderly way they need to do it in a better way.

Rising to the occasion, Shawn and his team decided to create an annual fundraiser event. This even would provide the ability to partner with other businesses to create a bigger impact for kids and the community.

So, what exactly would that event be?

The winning idea? An amateur BBQ contest.

“I contacted Kansas City BBQ Society which is the NFL of professional BBQ,” says Shawn. “We had participated in one contest with them at that time and got last place, we were way out of our league.”

Despite a low-ranking debut in his BBQ journey, Shawn continued to reach out to every contact he made from the contest he’d previously competed in. After many unanswered calls, Gene Goycochea of the Kansas City BBQ Society (KCBS) was ready and on board to help.

Thankfully, so was much of Spring Valley.

“It became so big that before the first event I had to get the Chamber of Commerce involved,” reflects Shawn.

The introductory event was a hit in bringing together the community and giving back. It was also very fortuitous in regard to timing. The already helpful Gene, having just retired, chose to mentor Shawn and give him his time-tested BBQ pits.

Once the coals got hot, so did the business. Having the chance to learn from a legend, Shawn refocused the menu to the slow and low savory favorites Cali BBQ is known for today.

“Once we switched to BBQ, we realized that’s what made us unique,” reflects Shawn. “We knew the BBQ heavyweights would laugh at us at first, but that didn’t matter to us. We knew if we had Gene to learn from it would work.”

Always one to trust his gut and lean on feel, Shawn doubled down on BBQ despite what doubters had to say.

“Going all in on BBQ was a huge commitment for us. Most of the people around me told me that it wasn’t a good idea, but I knew that it was going to put us in a different category and helped differentiate us.”

As they say, what makes you different makes you great. Suddenly Shawn had a new business on his hand and a lot to learn.

Despite the momentum from the event and the help from Gene, Shawn and the newly labeled Cali Comfort BBQ would have a lot of work ahead of them in regard to getting their customers to feel the same way about BBQ as they did.

So, just how would they connect to those customers? A way of life that Shawn calls Digital Hospitality.

Learning Digital Hospitality

The recipe was set: a family fun sports bar built off BBQ and community. They knew who they were, and the sky was the limit. So, how were they going to get there?

Shawn was still figuring it out, but a guy by the name of Steve Jobs already knew.

“It’s crazy to think that my whole career running the restaurant has been the duration of the iPhone. That’s where all these social media apps started to blow up.”

Going digital, Shawn’s first step would be to learn the web from his close friends, the Harris family.

Getting a webpage developed and soon doing it himself, Shawn began to learn the importance of search engine optimization for promoting the restaurant and their events such as watch parties for Pay-Per-View boxing matches.

“I was learning just by doing out of pure basic need and necessity,” Shawn says of his early days of digital.

His enhanced ability to promote his own events ahead of time with the metrics to back was starting to make him a believer in the web.

Social media, though? That’d take some time.

“I made fun of Corey when we opened the business for having a Facebook account!” laughs Shawn. “Then when we couldn’t get people to come in, I had to make a Cali BBQ Facebook Business Page. We started getting engagement and I started posting. I soon learned it was what we had to do.”

The rest as they say is history.

“From there, we started a Twitter account, I responded to Yelp reviews and started claiming our Yelp page,” says Shawn. “The digital side of the business was vital to allow us to grow.”

Not only did the digital marketing allow Cali BBQ the ability to grow, it paved the way for his next endeavor.

“Figuring out Fight Nights helped me understand the whole Digital Hospitality thesis: committing to digital, committing to social.”

Shawn’s early interest in social matched with his commitment to sports and his city put the restaurant even more on the map when he launched the San Diego Love Letter Challenge as a move to keep the Chargers in town.

While the NFL franchise moved, the community was moved by Shawn’s efforts.

To this day, Shawn is still a big believer in digital.

“We’re living in the greatest time ever because the internet is the Wild West. Once you create content you are empowered. Suddenly you have a voice in your business, in your industry and in your community. Now you can use that voice for good.”

That voice and that good would be heard loud and clear on Cali BBQ’s social channels and the Digital Hospitality Podcast for years to come.

COVID-19 and Beyond

While April 2020 marked the 12-year anniversary of Cali BBQ, March 2020 marked the start of nationwide quarantine and the beginning of a new era due to the Coronavirus.

The global pandemic has been an adjustment for all involved, but perhaps no industry has been hit as hard as that of the restaurant business. Sad as it may be, the tough times have forced Shawn to cut staff, but it hasn’t gotten him to cut corners.

Still focused on evolving his business and offering the best hospitality possible, he’s leaned into his support structure and adapted to the new rules.

“Talking to my wife, talking to Eric who’s my general manager, COVID-19 has attacked hospitality in ways that are reverberating all across the globe. It’s changing how full-service restaurants will run for the rest of my life, your life and everyone’s life,” Shawn states.

While COVID-19 and the changes it presents are new, tough times, proven solutions and creative problem solving are not new to Shawn and the Cali BBQ team.

“The restaurant business is very tough, and it’s been very tough, which is why we’ve committed so much to Digital Hospitality to producing media content,” Shawn says.

The Cali BBQ Media team creates podcasts like Digital Hospitality, videos and other content for social media, and offers social marketing advice and provides storytelling through modern platforms.

“Digital Hospitality is not just for restaurants, it’s not just for bars. It’s for businesses and brands in general to understand that we have to figure out ways to sell things online through our own websites. We have to create our own content. We have to tell our own stories so we’re doing everything we can and putting ourselves in an incredible position to still be in business during this crisis.”

Among the crisis, Shawn is seeing the widespread effects on his industry, but he also sees widespread potential.

“Every single day I hear of other restaurants that are closing that can’t sustain the sales that just don’t see this light at the end of the tunnel,” says Shawn. “Not only do we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we know from having run this to-go/delivery business for the last four weeks that all that goodwill that we put in the community has come back tenfold.”

The tough times have revealed a new way of business. Just the same, relationships remain at the heart.

“Our customers, our loyal VIPs, our media friends, our personal friends, our family, our staff, so many people have supported us. They’ve done so in a way that, frankly, it’s overwhelming. You know it’s overwhelming at times to get this kind of engagement, when you do social media and care about social media as much as I do.”

The deep relationships, trusted tools and new rules have also allowed for fun solutions.

“During this crisis I’ve learned that the thing I do best is throw a party,” laughs Shawn.

What’s the party look like now? To-go cocktails and craft beer. With the same dedication to craft, quality and creativity that Cali BBQ is known for.

“Eric went through probably six different ice machines because the ice is that important in the cocktail because it’s going to change the profile of the drink.”

Due to popular demand, Shawn and his team are making to-go cocktails served in growlers ranging from their beloved fishbowl – served with floating rubber duckies – to thematic and cultural takes like the drink inspired by Netflix’s Tiger King.

The party continues for Cali BBQ’s valued customers even if it’s from home.

The low and slow principles of Cali BBQ remain unique even in quickly evolving times.

Just like the restaurant launched in the advent of the Apple iPhone perhaps the COVID-19 crisis will see a new reach of cross-country delivery as Amazon enters its prime.

Either way, the Walchef family is ready to adapt. Shawn remains grounded in being himself and trusting those same instincts that served him and his team for over a decade.

“The more we’ve been who we are throughout the 12 years the better we’ve become.”

For Cali BBQ, that still means being different and giving back.

“I don’t have to talk about hospitality,” Shawn Walchef said. “You know it when you feel it.”

-Article by Ian Stonebrook

-Photos courtesy Cali BBQ


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