"I always found it hard as a kid to trade my vegetarian food at the lunch table, so I knew most plant-based imitations of meat weren't very tasty to others, too," Cheers told Startup Savant. "I contacted my friend Danita Claytor, a teacher and community activist, to discuss developing an alternative. Her mom, Honey, was battling cancer, and we shared an interest in nutrition and discussed creating a vegetarian product that would turn the burger industry upside down. Together with Jumoke Jackson, a private chef with a global reputation among celebrities, we created Everything Legendary to offer breakthrough products that could appeal to everyone, including hardcore meat fans and what I call alternative eaters, who are willing to try anything new."
On February 26, 2021, the three appeared on ABC's hit reality show "Shark Tank," where its famous entrepreneurs decide whether to invest in startups based on the founders' pitches. The best-known is Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team.
"I had done my research and knew he was vegan and had invested in several other plant-based food businesses, so would make an ideal investor for us, though we hoped some of the other Sharks would be interested," said Cheers. "None were, so we were delighted to accept his offer of $300,000 for 22% of Everything Legendary. He's been a great mentor, always available, and John and Robin on his team are amazing. They've changed my life, and we've sold over a million pounds of our products since the show aired and are in nearly 1,000 grocery stores as of the beginning of June."
Cheers, 38, grew up in Hyattsville, Maryland. In high school, he and his friend Vince Parker sold water on street corners. In college, a fraternity brother was the son of a local funeral director, and Cheers would visit and to learn about how a small business in a competitive industry could be successfully run.
He began working on his B.A. in business management with a major in marketing in 2006 at Morgan State University, a historically black college established in 1867. He had interned at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and took a job there when he graduated in 2009. But when an expected promotion did not come through, he decided never to work for anyone else again.
"I had a modestly successful business during college with my Movie Solution vending machines that rented films and video games, similar to Redbox, so when I left FDIC, I wrote up a Request for Funding Proposal to put them in 20 subway stations," Cheers recalled. "I won, but I did not have funding lined up, and our family did not come from money, so that was a valuable lesson in the need to prepare for success and dot all your i's and cross your t's before an opportunity opens up."
Instead, he created “Should Could Dream,” a motivational speaking tour that would go around the world, inspiring high school students to dream big, a 75-minute show that combines poetry, comedy, and entertainment, now offered on Amazon Prime. The highlight was returning to South Africa, where his father had worked as an executive for a Fortune 500 company, and Cheers was again deeply touched by the people, culture, and country. In 10 years, he put on the show at 500 schools, and his message reached more than one million students.
But financing it was a challenge that just never ended because schools could not afford to pay much, and he barely was able to pay the bills even with the help of family and friends.
"You always want to monetize what you are trying to do, but if you really believe in it, you have to be willing to go hungry, be homeless, and work for free, giving it 1,000% effort, and the universe has shown me that it knows I have that commitment," Cheers said. "Right now, that's on pause, of course, because Everything Legendary is taking up just about every waking moment of my life. But the experience prepared me for 'Shark Tank' because I always had a stutter, still have a bit of it, and was scared to make presentations in public before the tour."
Grassroots Marketing for Plant-Based Products
In 2019, Claytor, a Howard University graduate in education, was still teaching, but they used a small amount of savings, a credit card, and a bit of help from their network to work with Jackson on a recipe and get ready to launch. Jackson had started cooking as a kid to help his single mother and eventually became an executive chef for four-star hotels before starting his own boutique catering company. He shared their passion for healthy food and was a popular motivational speaker for young people in their community.
"You might say we bootstrapped Everything Legendary without even the boots!" Cheers laughed. "Everything we made had to be flipped back into the company. We did dozens of pop-up stands on corners, at street festivals and homecoming games, to sample our burgers and make tweaks on the ingredients, seasoning, flavor, and texture. You have to love the hustle and grind of guerrilla marketing and can't be embarrassed if you need to clown around to draw a crowd. One of our greatest achievements has been to show those who have not had good diets in our community, because of a lack of budget and knowledge, how they can have food that is delicious and healthy. We began to get enthusiastic feedback and finally had a tasty, soy-free, gluten-free winner that was even approved by our moms!"
The current basic burger patty (and the equivalent amount of the ground version) has 200 calories and 21 grams of protein, primarily from peas (according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, one can easily meet protein requirements from plant foods without "amino acid combining" theories popularized in the 1970s that have since been disproven). "You can even pronounce the ingredients in our products!" noted Cheers.
They contracted with a local kitchen to produce the first burgers and had started placing them in markets and putting them on restaurant menus. Cheers did some research on the decision-makers at local Safeway and Giant stores and then dropped off packages of 10 burgers for them, presenting himself as just the delivery boy.
"I would call a few days later and explain to the receptionist who I was, and they would always tell me how much everyone there loved our product," he recalled. Talks started with the stores, though by mid-2020, Everything Legendary decided to focus on selling direct to consumers via their website.
"Vince, who is now our COO, and our social media manager, Darise Deal, know how to use graphics, testimonials, SEO [search-engine optimized content with keywords], and the best e-commerce practices, as well as publicity, to attract customers," Cheers said.
Swimming in the Shark Tank
While the on-boarding process slowly continued at the supermarkets, Duane decided Everything Legendary needed to try to get on "Shark Tank" in the meantime. It's a long and arduous process, and only about 100 startup founders per season get the chance to pitch on stage, with an average of 56% securing deals.
"I'm just very persistent, and I believe that when you have a deadline of next Monday, you really need to deliver it the Friday before to be ahead of the rest of the pack," he said. "By the time a lot of entrepreneurs were on phase one with their 'Shark Tank' applications, I was on one phase two with the producers. We were really well prepared. Barbara Corcoran thought our valuation was too high, while Lori Greiner loved the product but didn't care for the packaging. Mark said he could help with that and has been an absolute game-changer in helping us get national distribution, including more than 300 Targets so far."
Meanwhile, Safeway agreed to stock the products, as did Acme Markets and Giant Food Stores, among others. An expanded line is being rolled out to broaden the appeal.
This comes at a time when there is a constant drumbeat about the negative impact livestock-raising has on climate change, animal cruelty in factory farming, and the benefits of a diet lower in meat.
Claytor is now president of Everything Legendary and drives strategy, Jackson oversees recipe development, and Cynthia Betterson manages commercialization.
A recent survey by the Harris Poll and sponsored by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that around 6% of American adults are vegetarian, half of them vegan (meaning they do not consume egg or dairy products). But 54% of the US population "always or sometimes" eats vegetarian meals when dining out (including 70% of the 18 to 34 demographic).
"Our attitude is that this is the cleanest, healthiest, best-tasting burger in the world, and we want to see it at family cookouts this summer from the hood to the suburbs," said Cheers. "Taste is the key to making a food product successful, and everyone from every walk of life can be part of our flavor movement."
About the Author
Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.