By Benjamin Treviño
Cesar Gonzalez and Rudy Esquivel love to barbecue. They love it so much that they cook outdoors an average of three times a week. The one thing they don’t like is the residual taste that’s left behind whenever they used lighter fluid to get the fire started.
“I told Rudy we needed to come up with an idea that’s fun and easy to use,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted it to be something simple, like ‘set it and forget it.’ I also told him it has to be chemical-free, because I’m allergic to lighter fluid.”
“After a couple of days going back and forth, we decided it has to be something to put in the middle of the coals and burns from the inside out,” added Esquivel. “And it has to powerful enough to get the whole thing going for grilling.”
That conversation was more than two years ago, and Rudy and Cesar spent the ensuing weeks and months trying to take their vague concept and bring it to reality. They went through no less than 135 iterations of their idea, and what they came up with is a wax-based fire starter shaped like a hand grenade. They call it the “Grillnade.”
“It has more to do with the idea that it starts the coals or wood from the inside out,” Gonzalez said. “It burns in the middle of the pile. We combined the word grenade and grilling and called it the ‘Grillnade.’ We think the design is catchy to anybody’s eye and the appeal for women is that it’s easy to use.”
“It has really great burning characteristics,” Esquivel added. “The shape is also very intriguing, but the big thing is there’s no more lighter fluid taste.”
For the past two years, production of Grillnade fire starters has been a garage-based operation. It has also been a family endeavor. Cesar and his wife, Lorena, and Rudy and his wife, Laura, have been doing everything themselves by hand, including production, packaging, labeling, marketing and shipping.
“We’re in about 11 retailers in Texas,” Gonzalez said. “We weren’t really ready to start going, because we’re still using prototype equipment, but we did not want to pass them up. We have sold between 1,500 and 1,600 packages in the past 11 months, which totals about 4,500 Grillnades.”
“Then we heard about the McAllen Innovation Grant Award competition,” Esquivel said. “So we went in there, because winning some grant money would really help us to buy equipment where we can mass produce and really do more of these.”
Esquivel and Gonzalez and their Grillnade idea were named as one of six winners of this year’s competition. The McAllen Innovation Grant Awards is a program designed to encourage product innovation and business creation in the McAllen trade area. Awards are made on the basis of the strongest and most potentially viable ideas, as well as the best presentation. The pair also won this summer’s Good Pitch Competition and have availed themselves of other networking opportunities provided by the chamber.
“I’m taking their 8-day course on how to develop the product,” Esquivel said. “How to market it, and how to highlight the benefits of our product. So that’s another thing the chamber is helping us with.”
“They also have the innovators and entrepreneurs social,” Gonzalez said. “And throughout this process we’ve met a lot of good people around here, other entrepreneurs, and we’ve learned better ways to do shipping, how other people do things, where we can get materials, where we can get the best printing, and so there’s a lot of we’ve learned through networking.”
“Obviously we want to develop and support innovators and inventors like Cesar and Rudy,” said McAllen Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Steve Alhenius. “They really solved ‘the burning question’ with their product. We’re trying to create that ecosystem where people recognize McAllen as a place that supports innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs. We do 14 different programs with that in mind.”
Gonzalez and Esquivel plan to use their $5,000 grant award to buy new equipment that will help them produce more of their Grillnades and do additional marketing. Their advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs is to just find something you really love and turn it into something profitable, regardless of one’s level of business expertise.
“I think it’s just a matter of doing it,” Esquivel said. “But, you also have to love what you’re trying to do. We live what we do. We love to barbeque every day. If it’s something you really like it makes it easier.”
“I’m only an engineer and Rudy works in law enforcement,” Gonzalez added. “Neither one of us was a businessman, but we both have experiences from the past and we know others in business especially through the chamber, and we all collectively learn and ask together and if we don’t know, we all work to figure it out.”
Editor’s Note: For the past 12 years, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce has been awarding grants of up to $10,000 to local entrepreneurs to encourage product innovation and business creation in the McAllen area. Six start-up companies were selected as winners of this year’s Innovation Grant Awards competition, which was held October 24. This is the final installment in a series of reports profiling each of this year’s recipients, their innovative process, and their thoughts on what it takes to start a business.