What happens when you run out of your top-selling product? On September 18th, 1885, Charles and Frank Menches faced this very question. Hiram Hopkins and the rest of the Erie County Agricultural Society’s Board of Directors had agreed to allow the Ohio brothers to run a food concession stand at its annual Erie County Fair (a.k.a. the “Hamburg Fair”) precisely because they offered something no other food vendor offered: pork sausage patty sandwiches.
Facing a dire reality and in classic fashion, the Menches brothers instantly switched because they had no choice. In doing so, they forever changed history and created a trillion-dollar industry. Their attainment of the final “P” completed their Side Hustle MVP. You can see the “P” throughout these entrepreneurs’ businesses, from opening and closing circuses and similar shows to selling their successful novelty food company, then investing those profits into a movie theatre just as that industry was about to explode. What can their story teach you about earning your “P” and becoming a Side Hustle MVP?
And so, that Friday morning, the last day of the event, which sported record-breaking crowds the day before, the Menches brothers found they had no more pork. When Frank rode his bike to the nearby Village butcher, Andrew Stein refused to sell the barely 20-year-old ten pounds of pork. “Too hot,” said the butcher. “I’m not going to slaughter an entire pig just for you.”1
Frank faced a dilemma.
The Fair didn’t want any wood-fired grills spewing hot ash on their new wooden grandstand. The Menches brothers and their innovative gas-fired grill thus earned a prime location right next to that grandstand. With the big parade, the final race, and all those people hours away, the boys needed something more than penny candy to sell. Frank needed to make a decision. Would his older brother Charles approve? With no pork available, Stein convinced Frank to take five pounds of ground beef.
As you might expect, carnies are a resilient breed. A cross between pioneer adventurers and self-reliant frontiersmen, they’re the kind of people who have a knack for finding practical solutions with nothing more than chicken wire and duct tape. The Menches brothers, having been in the carnival food concession business for more than a year, knew exactly what to do.
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Using their pork sausage patty as the model, they duplicated their effort with the ground beef Frank had returned with. The first attempt failed. It was raw in the middle. They cooked it more and produced what could best be described as a hockey puck. Eventually, with the help of coffee, brown sugar, and a few other ingredients, the juicy patty quickly sold out.
When a satisfied customer asked for the name of this tasty treat, Frank had no idea what to call it. With sweat from the muggy day and the hot stove dripping down his cheek, he peered up at the banner proclaiming the event. It said, “Hamburg Fair.” Frank turned to the customer and said, “It’s a hamburg sandwich.”
From that day, September 18th, 1885, the “Birth of the Burger Day” through today, (with apologies to Ronald) “billions and billions” of burgers have been sold.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Some of the greatest breakthroughs happen by accident. Whether it’s Columbus discovering America or Alexander Fleming’s inadvertent discovery of penicillin, you’ve seen how these happenstance events can change the world.
Most often, you find these events initially described as “failures.” For example, in 1943, much to the delight of children everywhere, James Wright failed in his attempt to create a less expensive synthetic rubber for tank treads, boots, and just about every other thing critical to the war effort. Within a few years, children were bouncing this Silly Putty off walls.
The essence of all these stories is this: you begin in one direction, hit an obstacle, then pivot to another direction that turns out to end with a pot of gold. The Menches brothers certainly profited from their pivot. It wasn’t until they were nearly out of the fair concession business in the 1920s, however, that the first White Castle emerged and the real fast food profits began. The boys certainly left money on the table for many others to gather, but they did well for themselves.
But this isn’t a story about the success of the hamburger business. If anything, it’s a template based on what might be called the “Business Hamburger Success” model.
What triggers the pivot?
All good plans go awry in the heat of battle. This can happen at any point in the life of your business or side hustle. It is a sudden and dramatic change (Covid being the most recent notable example) that invalidates all your great strategies and tactics. Many throw in the towel. True entrepreneurs look for ways to turn lemons into lemonade.
This is known as the “Pivot.”
Danielle Langton is a business strategist based in Austin, Texas. She specializes in helping founders pivot and personally invested heavily in her business at the beginning of the year. She even hired a business strategist in hopes of making 2022 a banner year.
Then everything hit the fan.
“In February 2022, I found out I was pregnant with our first child,” says Langton. “My initial feelings were: being completely overwhelmed and ‘this is not the right time,’ mixed with joy, excitement and ‘OMG, how does one run a business and have a baby?’ and ‘What will my clients think?’ I felt defeated, like my entire plan for the year was going to be thrown off.”
In effect, she had become her own client. When she realized this, things began to move quickly and doggedly.
“I needed to prioritize my time and energy immediately and focus on what moved the needle in my existing business,” says Langton. “I shifted new programs and launches that were not a good fit given the timing and really leaned into a slow summer focusing on my existing clients, my mental health, and the human growing inside of me.”
Not that it was all sunshine and roses. Going through this transformation process had its challenges.
“The pivot or ‘slow down’ was not easy at first,” says Langton. “I felt like I was failing and not doing enough. But then I realized that this time allowed me to really get clear on what is important to me and how I want to lead in this season and the next season coming up with a baby around. I was able to map out what my ideal team should look like. I let go of team members who didn’t fit the new vision or level of support and hired new ones. I got tighter on my offers, including one high-touch program and one passive program. I even realized I could host an in-person founder retreat at 35 weeks pregnant, just as I promised my clients! And I hired support for my existing clients while I’m out on leave this fall.”
As of September, with the baby due in October, she says she’s “on track to exceed my 2022 business goal.” Langton now understands. She says, “What started as a frantic, ‘failed’ year ahead has actually turned into exactly what I always dreamed of: A business that not only allows me to work from anywhere, but at any time, with the most supportive team and clients, and allows me to be fully present with my family as needed.”
Langton looks forward to the birth of her child like any mother would. At the same time, she’s confident she can support her business as any successful entrepreneur would.
Ironically, on that steamy September 18, 1885, in Hamburg, New York, Charles and Frank Menches probably had no idea of the impact the birth of the burger would have on their entrepreneurial career, let alone the fast food economy. But, like so many others before them, theirs was a pivot that genuinely changed the world.
Their lives as businessmen produced many more lessons we can still learn from today. But this particular one perhaps stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Are you interested in learning more about the pivot process? Click this link to receive a free checklist.
1That was the reason given according to John C. Kunzog’s ca 1920 interview with Frank Menches. Research suggests another (and better) reason. By the Fall of 1885, a swine epidemic known as hog cholera had wiped out nearly two-thirds of the pig population in Western New York. Quite simply, Stein may have refused to risk slaughtering a whole pig for such a small sale and with no guarantee of a buyer for the rest of the meat.