Second-year MBA student Courtney Leffall didn’t meet his father until he was 24 years old. After rekindling their relationship four years ago, the father and son are making up for lost time by building a business — one that’s gained national attention on Food Network’s “Food Fortunes.”
“When I was a kid, we never got a chance to build a bike together,” Leffall said. “But now, we’re getting the chance to build a business together.”
The two created “The Grillmobile,” a line of installable grills that latch onto the back of pickup trucks.
According to Leffall, the two were separated for so long because Leffall was born while his mom was still in high school. After his father, Talmon Haywood, joined the military and his mother went off to college, the parents lost touch.
When Leffall got engaged in his early 20s, he emailed his father and invited him to the wedding, where they met for the first time.
Haywood, who lives in Indiana, developed the idea for the grill after he grew tired of hauling his grill to tailgates for his chidren’s sports games. The solution: he drilled a hole in his truck bed and attached a grill.
“I got tired of lugging that grill, and I had some metal left over,” Haywood said. “I saw two hinges in my garage, and it gave me an idea.”
He sent a photo of his creation to Leffall who immediately saw the creation as a business opportunity. At the time, Leffall was applying to the McCombs School of Business. He created a business plan for The Grillmobile and used it to apply for the Texas Venture Labs scholarship in 2013.
The scholarship selects 13 finalists to participate in a business pitching competition. After presenting The Grillmobile idea, Leffall won the scholarship.
“At that point, I was like, ‘Well, if the University of Texas thinks this is a good idea, then I must be on to something’,” Leffall said.
After he became a full-time MBA student, Leffall spoke with professors and marketing and engineering students to help improve the product. He took it to tailgates and came back with positive feedback.
During South By Southwest 2014, Leffall and Haywood tried out for ABC’s “Shark Tank,” a TV show in which entrepreneurs compete for business deals in front of a panel of investors. Despite being cut from the competition, one of the producers invited them to tryout for Food Network’s new show “Food Fortunes,” a similar competition focused on food products.
The two made it on the TV show and flew out to California in January for the competition. Tina Mabley, the assistant dean of the MBA program, put on a “watch party” for Leffall when the show aired March 30.
“This was certainly an unexpected turn to get on a reality show, but I was not surprised by his success,” Mabley said. “He’s definitely someone who drives things forward.”
On the episode, the pair pitched their idea, and over 90 percent of the audience voted to purchase the product. One judge, Willie Degel, founder and CEO of Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse, agreed to invest in the business.
“It’s one thing for your friends or your family to think you have a good idea,” Leffall said. “But when it’s total strangers that have never met you before, that really is a huge validation.”
While the business itself has had its string of successes, Leffall said getting to strengthen his relationship with his father through the business has been the most beneficial part of this experience.
“You know, if you took the business away tomorrow, we would still have that relationship,” Leffall said. “That’s going to transcend any financial or academic success.”