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Featured Story: Kentucky Entrepreneurs: Dan-O’s Taste of Success

Viral social media recipes propel Dan Oliver’s seasonings into thousands of stores

By Mark Green

Dan Oliver, the founder and developer of Dan-O’s Seasoning was forced to rely on social media when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down events where personal marketing had helped him build sales. Determined to not lose ground, Oliver turned to social media. When his instructional recipe posts began going viral, he knew he was on to something. Then, a partnership with a Louisville marketing agency brought success pitching the product to Kroger, Walmart, Lowe’s and other retailers. Now, Oliver is growing the product line and selling it across the nation.

Mark Green: You were successful selling whenever you interacted with people. What was it that was really connecting?
Dan Oliver: When I repackaged, I identified some things, No. 1 being a better-for-you product. I wanted to show people what was in the product. I would not only have my bottle there with the seasoning in it, I would have another bottle empty except for the salt in the seasoning, which was just a small amount. I would give them a sample first, and once they tried it, they’re like, “Wow, this is good!” Then I would hold up this bottle and say, “Look—that’s all the salt that’s in it. So it’s good and it’s good for you. That’s all. What you’re tasting is all those natural ingredients, and we use real sea salt.”

I was just really passionate about the product and showing people that here’s a seasoning product that’s never existed because most all of these other seasoning blends are full of salt and sugar, the No. 1 and 2 ingredients. I knew I had something because it’s a better product than all the other seasonings out there.

In the beginning I wondered, “Am I doing something wrong? Why is nobody else doing this? Is it OK to put ‘low sodium?’” Here I am, Dan-O in Louisville, Ky., identifying a problem and creating a solution. You have to use seasoning, in my opinion, to make food taste good. And everybody has to eat, so my market is everybody.

MG: When you decided you needed to pivot to social media, did you have any clear expectations of how it was going to go?
DO: I never had a Plan B. My plan was sink or swim with Dan-O’s from Day One. I never gave up. When COVID hit, it was March 7 (2020) and I’m up in Michigan. I was at this hunting show and it got shut down. So, I had to drive all the way home. I’m listening to talk radio and I’m thinking, “I’m never going to be able to do a flea market ever again.” So, my whole forecast for 2020 changed. Now there had to be a Plan B and that was social media.

I was listening to Gary Vaynerchuk at the time and I remember him saying, “TikTok is this new app that everybody’s going to, all the young crowd. If you’re not on TikTok you’re dropping the ball.” I already had Facebook, Instagram, YouTube going and maybe had 30,000 followers combined on all of them. I was probably averaging $1,100 a day in online revenue between Amazon and my website. I told myself on the drive home, “If I can do $200 a day, I can survive for a while and see how long this COVID thing lasts. I just need to go kick *** on social media and do this TikTok thing.”

I already had a TikTok account; I just was getting no traction on it. But I came home and I started making TikToks. It was just nonstop because it was sink or swim. I had no other option. I couldn’t fall back to bartending; bars weren’t open. I had something I could try to save my business, so it was TikTok, TikTok, TikTok. In the first two weeks of the pandemic, I was doing $200-$300 a day. But I was always trying.

Instagram, YouTube and Facebook never did it for me. One day on TikTok I got this video to 500,000 views. It was crab cakes. I almost didn’t even make the video because I was discouraged, a little depressed, nothing was working. I did it with one hand filming, one hand cooking. And it worked. It offended a bunch of people. People from Maryland were saying, “Where’s the Old Bay (seasoning)? What’s this Dan-O’s? That’s not how you cook a crab cake!” But guess what? I hit $1,000 in sales that day and I thought, “Bingo!”

The next day was equal or a little bit better, and it just kept stair stepping. On that first video where I did $1,000, 80% of the comments were negative. All I would reply is, “You don’t know until you don’t know. You don’t know until you Dan-O.” I thought that was funny. Then, after people started receiving their product a week later, all these comments started to turn towards my side. I would make a video, and it would go viral and everybody was saying, “Oh, it’s Dan good.”

All of a sudden, anybody who’s reading the comments is seeing all these people saying, “It really is Dan good!”

I make it fun. I’m just a normal dude. I have a way to connect, I guess. And it just kept going. One of the next videos I posted, I went from averaging $1,500 a day and it jumped to $3,000 a day, and then a few months later it was $10,000 a day. It was crazy.

MG: There’s a certain style to your videos. There’s a pace, the lighting, the sound, the editing, the manner of speech. Where does that come from?
DO: It goes back to my childhood. I had two older brothers, two older stepbrothers, three older stepsisters. I was the youngest. Everything was always a competition to me; my whole life I was trying to win. I’ve always paid attention to details and I’ve always been good at teaching others things, like when I was bartending. I actually I thought I was going be a golf pro—not like on the PGA Tour but giving people golf lessons. I like teaching people things and I feel like I’ve always had a knack for cooking. My family used to tell me I should be a chef, but that’s not the job I wanted to do.

With my Dan-O Seasoning, it all merged into where I can teach people about this better product. I’m also competing with the rest of the world, trying to win.

MG: Who’s creating the ideas? It’s work just to come up with 12 ideas a week.
DO: We have a whole team—about 10 people total. We try to hit certain pillars. Our goal has been 12 new videos a week lately. For the last six months I haven’t been on vacation or anything. Every week I’ve been pumping out 10 to 12 videos.

If we’re going to make 12 videos this week, we’ll try to have one or two based on value—this meal only costs $10. A couple more are driven towards showing people where you can get it: Kroger, Walmart. A couple that bring up the nutritional value of Dan-O’s. If we’re making 12 videos, we’ll make six of them hit these certain categories, and then the other six are just whatever I come up with.

MG: You now have 3.3 million followers on TikTok and 170,000 on Instagram. Do you get revenue directly from TikTok because you have so many viewers?
DO: Back in 2020 when TikTok was young and fresh, I had gotten into the part where you get monetized for views. Then we started to realize: Is this $1,000 we’re getting a month worth our views perhaps being manipulated by TikTok? We know if they’re going to pay for views, maybe they’re not giving you as many views. We can do $500,000 in sales. If we get $1,000 in this payment, it’s not even worth it. Let’s just get rid of it and let’s not take any money. Right now, we don’t get it from any platform, and even on Facebook we have a million followers. We’re almost 700,000 on YouTube and we don’t get a dime from any of them.

MG: Is that a pro tip? Don’t focus on getting money out of the platform but focus on pushing your sales?
DO: If you have a brand, I would (do that). People who are influencers, who get all those people watching and get paid from those platforms, don’t have a business to manage, don’t have other people that need to make money, and make payroll and stuff, then yeah, get paid from the platforms. But we’re a business, so we don’t want anything to skew our views. The focus is on the business.

MG: You now wholesale product to retailers with thousands of locations. How hard was it to get into the system with Kroger and Walmart?
DO: Not easy. There’s a lot of marketing strategy. Back in 2020 we were exploding on the internet when I made my partnership with my partner. He owns the marketing company. He said, “We’re going to take all of our online sales and all this data and put it in this pitch deck. We’re going to show them that we’re sponsoring Super Bowl commercials and Spencer Boyd, the NASCAR driver, and we stand behind our brand. We put all of this into these pitch decks and showed it to Walmart and Kroger. Sure enough, a year later we go on the shelves.

But that stuff takes a while and it’s not easy because what they look at is not only are you a successful product—anybody could get lucky overnight on TikTok and have a product take off—but can you back the business? Do you have a bank account that can fill $1 million orders? Do you have the right people in place? They want to know where you’re manufacturing. They have to make sure you can stand up to an order that’s $2 million. You must show you can get the orders processed, get the product in place. When you start dealing with the Walmarts and Krogers of the world, if you’re late on a shipment they’ll fine you $10,000.

MG: How many retailers do you have? Kroger and Walmart are the big ones, but how many others?
DO: We just went in 1,600 Lowe’s stores and we’re going into our first batch of Costcos now. We’re going into a big batch of Sam’s Clubs now. We’re in Dollar General and there are 18,000 Dollar Generals. We’re ready to launch small little dollar packs at the Dollar Generals; that’s a huge deal for us.

MG: At what point did you get a marketing partner?
DO: I met my partner right after I got home from that hunting show in Michigan. A friend of mine said, “You need to talk to this guy. He’s owned the marketing company for 20 years. He’ll do things for you that no other marketing companies would. He’s the type of guy who will build your website and bring in more sales and help you in marketing just for a percentage of revenue.” I said that sounds like my guy; I don’t want to pay him, just give him a percentage of growth basically. We had a talk and made an agreement to take 10% of revenue. We made that agreement probably a week after COVID hit and started working together two weeks later.

He, being a marketing company, had been investing in other businesses and putting in his resources and time to help them grow. But at the end of the day, he didn’t own any equity in the business and they could leave and hire their own marketing. He was tired of getting that done to him. He told me he really wanted to be a part of something. He wanted a partnership with me and I agreed. I knew I needed help. I knew that I had just taken a product from point A to point B and I needed somebody to help me take this to the next level. I know what I am as far as educating people and being the face of the brand, but I’m not the business guy. So it was almost a perfect “things-happen-for-a-reason” type of thing. Everything was falling in place.

MG: Is it unusual that a marketer will work for a percentage of revenue?
DO: They usually don’t. If I had just started my business, I’m sure he would have said, “No thanks. I need some sort of retainer.” But I was already established. This was 2020. In 2017, I think I did $40,000, then it was like $120,000 in 2018 and in 2020 I was going to do $500,000. Then COVID hit and my world was falling apart, but I had to do this to survive. Then here’s this great guy to come in, saying, “Let’s take this to the next level.”

MG: Who was the marketing partner?
DO: Phil Crosby and Crosby Interactive. We still have Crosby Interactive, but it’s mainly all focused towards Dan-O’s—that and customers we acquire that are in our same field as far as consumer-packaged goods. We’re so good at what we do at Dan-O’s that we can help these other products that are similar to us.

MG: Louisville has had a significant food and beverage sector for decades. Was that a benefit to you? Did you tap into some of the resources and expertise there?
DO: I’m always watching videos. Several friends own restaurants; early on those restaurants were some of the first people to ever put Dan-O’s on their menu (as an ingredient). What really put me on the map was going out at flea markets.

MG: What about Louisville’s food business side, the manufacturing, the distribution, the production pieces? Did you tap into expertise there? Or did you figure that out yourself along the way?
DO: In 2016, when I had my original packaging, I used to do that myself. I used to package it at night with my buddy who owned a restaurant. They would shut down at 5 p.m. because it was a breakfast restaurant. I could go in there with all my supplies and mix the ingredients, put it in the bottle and seal it. I did that for about six months or so. It didn’t take me long to realize it took me eight hours to make 200 bottles that I could sell in two hours—way more time making the product than selling. I needed to find a copacker. And that’s when somebody introduced me to David Ochoa at Bluegrass Superior Foods. Bluegrass Superior Foods is how I started.

MG: Where do you produce?
DO: We still have Bluegrass Superior Foods, but we have others. We have two in Kansas City and a couple we’re talking to spread throughout the country, because why send it to the West Coast from the East Coast? Let’s find a manufacturer on the West Coast so we can cut some money on logistics. We’re always looking for new copackers and somebody to handle that side of the business.

MG: You reportedly have 70 employees. Is that a correct number?
DO: It was at one point. We had to make a change and got rid of our warehouse so now we’re just below 50. We outsource the logistics now. I think it was too early for us to get into the real warehousing. When you go down that road you might as well start manufacturing too.

MG: At what point did you hire a CEO?
DO: The CEO is my partner, Phil. When we made our partnership I said, “I want you to manage the business. You’re the CEO. I’m the founder.” He takes care of the business functions.

MG: How did you finance during your growth?
DO: Basically, we made our partnership. It wasn’t that my partner had a bunch of money to dump in. He had trade. He had a marketing team that he could put into Dan-O’s. When we started getting Kroger and Walmart lined up, that’s when we said, “We need money.” We were generating money from online, but it wasn’t enough to be able to fill orders of a couple of million dollars; we had to go out and seek our first investors. It is really hard to get money from banks if you don’t show nice profits, so we had to raise money by selling equity. That’s when we brought in our first investor, which was Eric Woods, who played for the Louisville Cardinals and Buffalo Bills. Shortly after he came on board, we had more customers come on board. We had to raise like another $2 million.

If you want to grow, you have to have money but it takes money to make money. You have to have capital. You can get all these letters from Walmarts and Krogers and go into 30,000 stores, but if you don’t have the money to produce, how can you do it? There’s a thing called “dead man’s valley”: Here are your purchase orders, but you have to get all this money to fill them. Then you send all that product out, but you don’t get paid for 60 days. Then you are in this valley with no money, waiting to get paid. One of the hardest parts of the business is how you get the money.

MG: Do you have a bank partner now?
DO: We have a few, but this year we’re trying to show profit so going forward we’ll never have to sell any more equity. We had to sell equity because we didn’t look that good on paper. You can show them $100 million in sales, but if you’re not making a profit, you’re not making any money. Hopefully this is the year where we get in good standing with the banks. We did get some bank loans, but they wouldn’t give us what we needed so we had to sell equity to raise the capital.

MG: What has this acceleration of sales and revenue allowed you to do?
DO: Going all the way back to 2016, every dollar I’ve made I’ve put back in the business just to grow. Even with all the success, it’s gone right back into the business. I have a little bit more salary. Other than that, there’s not a bunch of money to go around. We’re very much watching every dollar we spend and watching budgets. When it was me managing the business, it was robbing Peter to pay Paul and just getting by. Now that I have a CFO and CEO, everything is run properly and we have different marketing budgets. It’s a great thing to see. When I was working on starting my business, I watched “The Secret” and it talks about manifesting your ideas. Everything happens for a reason. If you visualize it, it’ll happen. Everything about Dan-O’s just came together for me.

MG: What are your goals for the next several years? New products or partnerships or other things?
DO: We’re getting ready to launch a new product called Cheese-oning. It’s cheese mixed with seasoning. We’ll be launching that in the next two months. We’re going try to come out with several products—one every two or three months—and be online only. Maybe we present them all to the grocery stores, and if they pick them up that would be awesome. What we want to do is expand the brand. Now when you go to Kroger, especially in Kentucky, you see two kinds of Dan-O’s on the shelf. We’re working on expanding the brand to where you see a block seven or eight wide of Dan-O’s on the shelf, different flavors. That’s our goal by 2025. We want to have eight products on the shelf, a block of seasonings. At that point we may look at other products like chips or peanuts or hot sauce.