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Episode 83: It’s Rabbit Season according to Brian Bonk CEO of Pel-Freez

Spread the Ozark love

IANWA - 83 - Brian Bonk Pel Freez

IANWA Open [0:11] It's time for another episode of I am Northwest Arkansas, the podcast covering the intersection of business, culture, entrepreneurship, and life in general here in the Ozarks. Whether you are considering a move to this area or trying to learn more about the place you call home, we've got something special for you. Here's our host, Randy Wilburn.

Randy Wilburn [0:42] Hey folks, and welcome to another episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. I'm your host, Randy Wilburn and I am here today in downtown Rogers. It's one of the few times that I have been able to get out of my garage, if you will, my pseudo sound room to get in front of somebody and actually do an interview and I'm excited today to do this socially distant interview with Mr. Brian Bonk. Brian is the President and CEO of Pel Freez. And for those of you that don't know about Pel Freez, that's why I'm doing this podcast today. It is an amazing company that's been around for over a century. And they have been right here in downtown Rogers and they are like the best-kept secret. And we are going to change that today on this episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. So, without further ado, Brian, how are you doing?

Brian Bonk [1:28] I'm doing great. Thanks so much for coming by. This company has a fascinating history and story, and I'm happy to have the opportunity to share it.

Randy Wilburn [1:36]. Well, I appreciate you taking me on a quick tour today. As I look down and as and I'm looking through a window in one of your conference rooms adjacent to your office, I didn't realize how much space that you guys have here in downtown Rogers. It's almost like a whole city block if you will, or maybe even two with a processing plant. You've got storage, you've got a shipping building. I mean, you've got a little bit of everything and a lot of labs, can't forget that. But I would love for you as we do on every episode of the I Am Northwest Arkansas podcast as we always like to get into the individual. So, I would love for you to tell us your curated superhero origin story about Brian and how you got here, right here where we are today. And then we'll get a little into Pel Freez and rabbits.

Brian Bonk [2:26] So, I come from a life sciences background. I did my Ph.D. in Biological Engineering at MIT in Boston. So, I spent about seven years doing that. I was always interested in doing something entrepreneurial. I did a couple of different internships and a brief stint with a startup me and my friends were looking to launch towards the end of grad school, where we were dead set on doing a startup-- we spent about a year. We had a technology we were looking to commercialize at the end of my Ph.D. We spent about a year talking to potential investors and customers and the market and we got to reach this point where it was a good idea but it wasn't so good that we want to drop everything and do it full time. So, towards the end of grad school, I was looking for something to do. I wanted to do something entrepreneurial in life sciences, that was my background. I stumbled upon this article somebody sent me and it was about some recent MBA student-- I think he was from Harvard. And he moved to Atlanta and bought this HVAC company and was extremely successful at it. And it got me into this idea of what's sometimes called entrepreneurship through acquisition. And it opened me up to this whole world where this has become a fairly popular niche career path for MBA students. But the idea is that there's thousands of baby boomer owned businesses where the owner is looking to retire.

Still, the business might be too small or too weird for them to sell it to private equity firms or larger corporations and maybe their kids don't want to take it over. So there's kind of this unmet need for business owners in this category to find a way to retire. And so, this is where a young whippersnapper like me comes in or some MBA student comes in with raised money from investors and acquires some of these businesses and the idea is that they stable enduringly profitable businesses that a recent MBA can run fairly without too much management experience. So, I started talking to all these people who were doing this and the typical MBA student who does this acquires a super boring--- boring is a relative term but you know, to the average person, that just sounds like very boring stable businesses. Some MBA students I know who did this went and acquired a fire hose testing company in New Jersey and you don't think about it but all these fire departments need their fire hoses tested for insurance liability. Another person I know has acquired like a high-rise window washing business in Dallas, which you don't think about it, but it's like this super-profitable business. The owners want to retire, so they sold it to this entrepreneur. So, as I started talking to--- and most people don't even realize this as a career path. When you think about buying a business, you think you need to be independently wealthy. But there's sort of a whole community of investors out there who support this kind of thing. And then the more I kind of--- I just got really interested in this idea. And in particular, because there are thousands of small life science companies out there. They only sell some weird reagents or they just be a very nice product like Pel Freez. And the investment thesis was the typical MBA student who is going out and acquiring an HVAC business. Doesn't have the domain expertise to run a life science reagent company like Pel Freez, so nobody was doing this investment model in the life sciences, so I got super interested in this. I ended up meeting some ambassadors. They had actually taught a course about this at Harvard Business School.

The professors of this class wrote a book about it, and they later became my investors. But I just got super interested in this idea as there are so many small and---. Everybody in Cambridge where I was, they were all going into venture capital or doing like, hey, let's apply machine learning to X. Some were raising money for their startups, but I wanted to do something different. And, I just felt like there's this opportunity out there, these small businesses that can be a big fish in a small pond and none of these smart people in Cambridge were doing this. So, I'm like, we have to find one of these businesses. So, I took a class at Harvard that they teach a class about this model and that's how I got to know the people who know their professors at Harvard, but they are also quite successful.

Randy Wilburn [6:51] What was the title of the class?

Brian Bonk [6:52] It was called Financial Management of small firms, and then entrepreneurship through acquisition. And this is actually one of the most popular classes at Harvard Business School. And, at MIT, you can cross-register between the schools, but---

Randy Wilburn [7:07] ---like to keep all the smart kids together.

Brian Bonk [7:10] Being at one of the most popular classes, it was full, and what I have to do is I have to meet these investors. We need to do this. So, I sent them an email and I'm like, listen, nobody from MIT, Biological Engineering is doing this. There's this huge opportunity. Just let me take your class. I want to do this. And, you know, initially, the registrar said, you know, this class is full. About a day later, the registrar emails me. It's like we found a place for you in this class. So clearly, they saw the opportunity too especially given that they also occasionally back some of their students.

Randy Wilburn [7:45] It's an additional case study for them.

Brian Bonk [7:47] Well, we are a case study now and we will talk about this journey. But you know, this journey acquiring Pel Freez, it's being developed into a case study that's going to be taught to the Harvard MBA students in the fall semester, so pretty excited about that. I can talk more about that. But that's how I stumbled into this career path and got to know my professors/investors through this course. After I graduated, finished my Ph.D., we negotiated some terms but then we kind of formed a partnership when off to the races. So, the deal was, they would pay me a modest salary and provide all the sourcing and diligence and legal expenses while I traveled around the country looking for a niche biomedical business we could acquire. So, I went everywhere. I remember from California to Florida to Delaware to Utah and Arkansas and, we were very picky about our investment criteria. We wanted something that's large on the tab market, maybe under-invested in high barriers to entry, so an enduringly profitable business. So, after about a year of traveling around and interviewing different owners, we kind of set our sights on Pel Freez. And a lot of spooky coincidences happen like I would send letters to these business owners, and I would go hi, I come from a life sciences background, Ph.D. from MIT. How do you feel about selling your business? You know I have investors and I would send these letters to all sorts of business owners and business owners get these things all the time. But the previous owner of Pel Freez, the only reason he even read my letter was that his Manager, Gino who was reading his mail for him, happened to have the same maiden name as my weird Polish last name, Bonk. So, the others even open my letter was because of this weird Bonk connection, but we have the same undergraduate degree; we just really hit it off. And it ended up being about a year-long negotiation and diligence process as we learned about the business. I believe that was quite a rollercoaster probably for both of us. But on March 31, January 1, I moved down here from Boston.

Randy Wilburn [9:58] Something we have in common.

Brian Bonk [10:00] I moved out after ten years in Boston. I drove down here, my dog and me. I got an apartment in Fayetteville while we sort of did the remaining work on closing the deal on March 31. We closed on Pel Freez and just in time for two species of pandemics. The COVID and then there's also a rabbit pandemic spreading throughout the Southwest. So, it got thrown into the fire pretty quickly. But it's been an amazing adventure so far, and I'm thrilled to be in Northwest Arkansas. I think this is one of the most underrated parts of the country. When your finance professors write you a big check, that's cool. It's so cool to be here and be leading this awesome under the radar company. And there's just so much potential here that we're all excited about.

Randy Wilburn [10:51] So, I mean, obviously you spent your time and effort in you travailed as you traveled around the country trying to identify different places. What was it specifically about Northwest Arkansas that really kind of sold you on the overarching idea of what you were trying to do that you could do it here? Was it just the way that this business was run or was it the overall aesthetic of this area?

Brian Bonk [11:16] I mean, that's the reason why I came here to acquire this business. But you know, obviously, I have been here pretty long term so the geography of the area is very important and if I hated it here, that would have factored into our decision to do this. You don't really hear about Arkansas a lot in Boston like we vaguely know Walmart is here. Even in Boston like we don't have Walmart's. I legit until I moved here, I thought. I mean, we have Amazon and Amazon is everywhere. And I just assumed because I never heard about Walmart in Boston. I just assumed Walmart was going out of business just being pushed out by Amazon and then I get down here. No, no, we are not going out of business. And I'm not friends here who you know tell them about their bonuses and stuff. So, we just don't hear a lot about Arkansas. But that's probably why this is such I think underrated part of the country. I mean, there's a stereotype and when I first moved down here, my friends would be like, hey, how many squirrels have you eaten? And you know, I went in first I was like, Nah, they don't get scrolls here. But then I learned about the Bentonville scribe. But, apparently, it's quite good and now I'm disappointed that that's canceled. And now we're eventually hoping to do a competing rabbit barbecue festival. Probably not this year, but that's one of the things we have planned. This area is growing so fast that there's palpable excitement in the air. And I mean, it's definitely not Boston, but you know, people are friendly. It's absolutely beautiful here and it's really cool to be part of this Northwest Arkansas growth trajectory.

Randy Wilburn [12:53] Yeah, I think it is. I think maybe one of the other things that you will probably find and I think you have already found it just based on our short conversation that we have had since I have been with you this morning, is that people are pretty open here and they will connect with you. And it's not about you trying to do something or everybody having an angle on something. People just genuinely want to help other people just like the same way we connected. We got introduced by Karen Wagaman from the Rogers Little Chamber of Commerce, and Karen is the ultimate connector. And so, when she said, hey, you need to meet this person. I took it seriously because I'm like, okay, I know, Karen. I mean, I've just interviewed somebody else she introduced me to yesterday. So, I mean, that's just the way that it is, and or actually two days ago, but anyway, the bottom line is people here, like legitimately looking for ways to help each other. And I think you're going to find that as you get here, and I've got a couple of years on you, but I came from the same place and I was the same way. And I've said it over and over. When I told people I was going to Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas, they were like, why in the hell would you go there? And I'm like, I said, listen, you know, now I tell people don't knock it until you've tried it. Come see it. Come see what the people are about. It is an amazing place. And so that's really exciting. And I think you probably won't have a hard time attracting some other really bright people to come here to help you grow this business. But I would love for you just to tell the audience a little bit about Pel Freez. And you know, again, it's a company that's over 100 years old, which you don't always find. You said a couple of things that really stood out to me, which was that, when you think about small business owners, typically, most small businesses usually end up just closing up. There is no transition. There is no ownership transition of any kind. There isn't a plan in place, and it's hard to get people to buy something that's unknown. But you did your due diligence. You found a company that's working. But what was it about the Pel Freez's brand that really attracted you to- you said, hey, we could do something with the rabbits because it's almost like you have two businesses here? So, I would love for you just to expand upon that Enix and educate people on what Pel Freez is all about.

Brian Bonk [14:56] We are super unusual and an interesting business with the past same history so I'm always happy to tell this story. But yeah, the company started in 1911 as a backyard rabbit farm in California. According to Company Lore, Herman Pel Freez the founder of the company, gave a pregnant rabbit, didn't realize it was pregnant, to his son. Apparently, the rabbit's name was Betsy-Ann and so he gave a pregnant rabbit to his son. According to Company Lore, soon, the Pel Freez home was overrun with rabbits as they breed like rabbits. And, again, according to the official company bio, Permin turned the dilemma of all these rabbits in his backyard into an opportunity and began selling rabbit meat to his neighbors. So, within a couple of decades, the H.F. Phel Freez and sons that's Phel-Freez with a Ph of where they changed the name. It was the largest rabbit meat company in the United States. Rabbit meat kind of peaked in popularity in World War Two because it wasn't rationed like beef and chicken were. And so around that time, 1940, so this rabbit meat is peeking. They moved their operations to Arkansas from California to take advantage of cheaper land here and I think there was a family connection. So, they moved to Arkansas. They changed their name from Phel-Freez with a Ph to--- I guess frozen foods were sort of the keto of their day. I think it was the hot new trend back in the 40s. So, they changed their name to Pel Freez with a Fr to capture this growing way of frozen foods at the time. So, they moved to Arkansas changed their name to Pel Freez, and about this time, they are the largest rabbit meat company in the United States. And about this time, there are a couple of breakthroughs in the 40s and 50s that set the stage for the growth of the biomedical industry today. So, at the time in the 50s, biomedical research is taking off, but there was no sort of catalog life science companies where you could just buy your reagents are certainly not the way they are today. So, researchers who would need like a rabbit spleen to do some tissue extraction for their experiment that they know where to get them. So, they went straight to the source and contacted the rabbit meat company. And I was showing Randy some of our original biological marketing materials. We have these little pamphlets so you could get your rabbits spleens for 15 cents a rabbit testicle for a quarter and a gallon of rabbit urine for 15 bucks.

Randy Wilburn [17:25] Who knew a testicle was so cheap?

Brian Bonk [17:29] Well, the rabbit testicles are not very big. So, this kind of one-off biological business, initially it was a meat company where the bioproducts were the byproducts quickly became a biological business where the meat was the byproduct and so, this biological business grew. And there's a couple of big successes earlier on either one of our first successful biological products was theirs again, not to get too graphic, but there's a reagent used in blood coagulation time assez(sp)* that is still a major product for Pal-Freez that its actually uses, it's derived from rabbit brains. And it's used for measuring coagulation time for testing the efficacy of things like blood thinners.

Randy Wilburn [18:12] Yeah, real quick. When you say reagent just give people like a real layman's term understanding of what a reagent is? So, could you do that?

Brian Bonk [18:20] Yeah, sure. A reagent is just like a chemical you use in an experiment. And so anyway, in a biological lab, you will only see shelves of these things. They are just going to be bottles of all sorts of stuff, everything from salts, to chemicals to media. So, reagents are just sort of the supplies you need to do your experiment. So, maybe you're developing a drug or a medical device. Those aren't the real--- you need reagents to do the experiments to develop these things. So, back to the story, not to get too much into the science but we had a couple of successful products that really grew. The most recent previous owner, David, came from a chemical engineering background. A Stanford MBA and in the 70s bought control of the business from his family and given his background, he brilliantly leveraged this rabid biological business and built it into a sophisticated biomedical supplier. So today, we still have two divisions. We have our food division and our biological division, which significantly transfers* overwhelming majority of our profits. But you know, fast forward a couple of decades and we are a supplier to pretty much every major vaccine, pharmaceutical, diagnostic company. If you can think of a large pharmaceutical company, they're probably one of our customers or have been so you know, we have a database of about 9,000 customers and most of our revenue comes from about 20 to 30 big pharma and diagnostic companies and we serve hundreds of smaller life science companies and academic institutions.

I think last time I looked, we were sold to over 40 countries 65 employees today, so we have found a niche as we supply critical reagents to a number of vaccine programs and other biological applications. And just to give an example, literally the world's largest top-selling vaccine of all time, I'm not going to say what it is, but it requires this stuff called a rabid compliment. They need it to test the efficacy of each lot they make, and that's derived from rabbits. So literally the world's largest top-selling vaccine requires this random reagent-- you know, this small company in Northwest Arkansas. And it's funny coming from Boston. It's really interesting to see the whole kind of supply chain. In Cambridge, where every major pharma and biotech is doing research in these shiny glass towers and their brand new--- most people don't realize and that's kind of what I liked about this business this space is--- People don't realize that these vaccines and stuff, they rely on a supply chain that traces back to an Amish, rabbit farm in Missouri. It's just so interesting to see, you know, we are at the very bottom of this supply chain for the biotech industry. But it's just so interesting to see how we are a fundamental supplier of critical reagents for these wildly successful companies. And I think of ourselves as a kind of picks and shovels business of the biotech industry. To use the Levi Strauss analogy, these biotech and pharma companies developing drugs they are the gold miners but Levi Strauss came in and you know, he sold the blue jeans and picks and shovels to them and I ended up making way more money than all the gold miners but that's our niche. We sell the necessary reagents to these larger pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

Randy Wilburn [21:57] I love that analogy. That is good with the whole Levi Strauss story. So obviously, I got to ask you this because there is a race for a vaccine right now and I would have to imagine that in some way, shape, or form rabbits have to be involved in this process. So, I'm speaking of operation warp speed, and I think obviously we all need that. The world needs this vaccine at some point in time as quickly as we can get it and they're breaking all kinds of records and time in space to try to bring something to market that will start to allay the concerns and fears that so many people have over the COVID 19 pandemic.

Brian Bonk [22:40] Your vaccines work in different ways, are sort of niche. Our niche is more in the bacterial vaccines, which is the stuff that requires our reagents is certain types of bacteria and that's a big market, but we are not directly involved. We are making a sale. We have some things that we are in the process of developing some COVID related products. But none of our major customers are doing COVID vaccines right now, unfortunately. But there is an opportunity in that space that our R&D team is working on. When COVID happened, we found ourselves in a unique position because we have these two divisions, which rely on one raw material stream and we are overwhelmingly the largest processor of rabbits in the United States. And, historically, we sold them to restaurant distributors. And, when COVID happened, our restaurant sales dropped off a cliff but a lot of people were using our rabbit serum and products in the developing COVID diagnostics. So, on the one hand, for the bio business, we couldn't get enough rabbits. We were still really backlogged in our rabbit serum, which is used as a control in specific COVID diagnostic tests. And so, one side of the business we couldn't get enough rabbits and the other side, we had way too many. So, it's been this interesting about balancing supply and demand here. It's been one of the key management challenges since taking over, but we are working on developing some---. Our space is more your reagents and sort of standards and controls and we are working on developing control standards that we think can be used for certain types of COVID diagnostic tests.

Randy Wilburn [24:33] Yeah, I like that. I think I want to switch gears a little bit just because nobody listening to this podcast can eat a reagent, but they can eat rabbits. The thing that blew me away was when I saw some posts, and I want to say it was either YeYos or another company that a local restaurant here that had done barbacoa with the rabbit, and it looked amazing. I mean, just absolutely amazing. And I know that you are teaming up or will eventually be teaming up with a number of local restaurants here to get rabbits on the menu but let's talk about the rabbit from a meat perspective. For people that have never had rabbits, what does rabbit taste like?

Brian Bank [25:17] Rabbits are fed alfalfa. It tastes like chicken, but because rabbits are fed alfalfa and chickens are not, it has a slightly unique flavor. It tastes a little sweeter in my opinion. Some people say gamy but I don't know if that's the right---. It's a different variation on chicken. You can tell it's not chicken but it's kind of got a chicken consistency and it's an extremely lean protein, so it goes well with things like braises and [inaudible 22:50] and stews and those sorts of things. And so, a lot of chefs love cooking with rabbit because it has a unique flavor profile. And you can do some nice things with it. I mean, the problem with rabbit meat is--- Europe is way more popular. But you know, unless you went to culinary school, or like grew up hunting, you've probably never had rabbits or you come from one of the few ethnic groups in the US where the rabbit is a big part of their cuisine. A lot of people don't know what to do with it. We have sort of two very different divisions. We have the biological division and the food division, and I think both of them are untapped opportunities in their own right because I think rabbits will always be sort of a specialty item. It's like hamburger over in Europe. I don't think we will ever get there but there's just this barrier. People don't know what to do with it and to be honest, they don't know how to get it either. It's not sold in a lot of stores. It's not sold in any major retailer in any volume. So, as part of our marketing efforts with the food division, we wanted to get people--- This all started when there's a brewery next door to Pel Freez and they have this food truck, three cents an acre. So, this all started--- there's a beer company next to the food company, we should do something. So, I called the food truck and like we should just do a special thing like to celebrate new ownership. They were a New Orleans themed food truck three cents an acre, and we should do something? rabbits really big in Cajun culture. So, we got talking and it turns out Meredith, who owns the food truck, she also does food marketing and does marketing for local restaurants and knows every chef in Northwest Arkansas. So, we got talking, she started helping us with our social media, just posting. Originally it was just going to be like, hey, let's just post some rabbit recipes. Let's take some nice delicious looking photos and maybe we can make this go viral. Maybe we can get the right buy-in from shops. Maybe we can just generate more interest in lowering the barrier to eating rabbits which can be a very intimidating protein. People don't know what to do with it. So, after brainstorming and Meredith is great at social media, you know, we should do a pop-up and that's Meredith's thing; she does pop-ups among her many other talents. So, our first food event was kind of experimental. Three cents an acre. They made a rabbit gumbo, and we did it in collaboration with Ozark which is right next door to us? wildly successful. It was sold out and it was delicious. We got tons of compliments. And so, we should be doing these events more often. And, Meredith knows all these chefs. So, the next one we partnered with is YeYos which is a Mexican restaurant down the street, really good. They made a rabbit barbacoa a taco. And so, we have a bunch of these events lined up. We are hoping to do one of these every couple of months just to lower the barrier to rabbits. A lot of our marketing materials for such an old company are a little bit outdated. And we have these kinds of old retro recipe books we've been giving out, but there's an opportunity to update these. So, what we kind of envisioned was, let's partner with local chefs, rabbit is, as you know, very popular in relative to the rest of the country, very popular in this region. So, let's partner with local chefs, and let's get a rabbit recipe from each of them. We will include it in our promotional recipe book, and it can be an opportunity to cross-promote our products. So, we can promote these local restaurants that are featured in our product and promote Pel Freez, promote rabbits so we're putting in the final stages of putting this together. Hopefully, I have a launch in about a month but as part of generating these recipes, interacting with local shops, we have some exciting events planned. There are the rabbit Gumbo and rabbit tacos. We have a rabbit pizza planned. I think our next one? hoping to get one of the barbecue places to do like a rabbit sausage. We are probably going to cook it out of our little storefront that we just launched. So, yeah, a lot of really good recipes. And Meredith has been running all this but I lost track of all the projects she's doing but we have a lot of the local chefs lined up to partner with us.

Randy Wilburn [30:31] Yeah, and I'm hoping maybe you can connect with Jordan Wright from Wright's barbecue or somebody like that.

Brian Bonk [30:37] If you're listening to this, we would love to do a ---

Randy Wilburn [30:40] If Jordan has been on the podcast as has Matt Cooper from The Preacher's Son as has Jason Paul from Heirloom, which is not open right now, but he is an amazing chef. So, there are some really good folks. They have a store so if you guys ever come down here in North Arkansas, the address is 205 North Arkansas. Is that correct?

Brian Bonk [31:03] The storefront is actually to 219---

Randy Wilburn [31:06] --- 219 North Arkansas. If you just go right past the Pel Freez sign, you can look to the right. There's a little building and they have Pel Freez proteins there. They can sell the whole rabbit. What is that pre que* rabbit? Is that---

Brian Bonk [31:18] It's just sort of pre-butchered.

Randy Wilburn [31:20] Oh, I got you. Hind legs. Eye of loin in there. They do have liver available upon request. But if you want to get some of the Pel Freez proteins before the market blows up, and you find them in Whole Foods, and O and F and all these other fabulous stores. You can get them right here locally in Rogers.

Brian Bank [31:40] Our storefront is pretty modest. Historically, we sold rabbits by the pallet to big distributors. Within a couple of weeks of taking over the business, somebody came into the office and his wife wanted to make a rabbit pot pie. So, he was just looking for a couple of rabbits, and we didn't take credit cards as we were not set up for this. So, we had to walk him down to the plant, get his information to invoice him. He must have really wanted that pie because he was waiting for like 20 minutes. And people just started coming up to me after I bought the business like my grandmother used to raise rabbits for Pel Freez. I love rabbit and I just don't know where to get it. And, you know, getting into retailers is a process. We are selling this stuff by the pallet and we need a way to make this accessible to the community. So, we did open this little storefront just to do consumer orders, which has been fun and it's been very successful. We have gotten more business than we expected from it. Pel Freez being in downtown Rogers for 70 plus years, we have this strong connection with the community and it's important to me that we embrace that and partner as much as we can with the local restaurant community here. So, the way we have been doing this is by providing experimental samples for chefs to try out a recipe, and we provide them for free and then there's a discount if they want to keep offering rabbit, then we will provide it to them at a discount to our wholesale prices. We were such a big part of it, you know. I will be under the radar, but we have been in downtown Rogers for so long but it's very important to us to nurture these community ties. And really, we learned this is an opportunity to really revitalize a real hometown Arkansas brand. So, this has been a lot of fun. I'm very pleased with how that's going.

Randy Wilburn [33:41] Good, good, good. Well, like I said it earlier, and I do think that that will be the case that as people catch on about the Pel Freez and about what you're doing and the new ownership and just how you're expanding things. I think what you're going to find is that you're going to get a lot of people that are going to raise their hand and say I'm interested in either just buying rabbits or making some connections because I know some people that have an interest in them. So, I think that's huge. I'm going to make a couple of connections for you after this podcast because I think it'll be beneficial. But yeah, I'm just thankful that we got a chance to connect. And I mean, this story is amazing on a number of levels. First of all, it's just a great entrepreneurial story. I think it's important for people to understand. You said a couple of key things on this podcast, which I don't want anyone to miss out on is that, especially when you were taking the class, that even when you were told no, that the registrar said, hey, it's closed up, you still reached out, and somebody made a way. I think a lot of times we give up at the first no, and you can't do that. I think you need to keep pushing forward. So that's a great example of that and I certainly recognize that aspect of it. But then I also like the fact that you're finding a way within the business to make use of everything, right, like literally the whole rabbit. And I think that that a lot of times we miss out on opportunities that are like right there in front of us and I mean granted that's the business plan for this business. But you can apply that in a lot of other spaces that we operate in, where people don't take full advantage of all the opportunities that might be available to them.

Brian Bonk [35:12] Now, when you're dealing with animals and in the life science space, it's essential to make sure as little as possible goes to waste.

Randy Wilburn [35:23] Yeah. Absolutely. So well, Brian, I appreciate this. Just in your short time here, what do you like to do in your spare time when you're not physically in this building? Because I imagine that you probably hear a lot; you're probably burning the midnight oil quite a bit. But when you're not physically in this building, and you're not dreaming about rabbits, what are you doing for fun here in Northwest Arkansas?

Brian Bonk [35:45] Oh, the good news about not having a lot of time to do things is that there's still a pretty long list of things I want to do. I didn't know, it's going to take me a couple of years, I think to check everything off, but it's just exploring the area. There are so many fun bars and breweries and restaurants trying to do more hiking. I bought a Jeep I'm always looking for. It doesn't make sense to have a Jeep in Boston but I'm always looking for excuses to take that off-road and take the doors off. I play Polo music. I've been playing; it's how I want to unwind at the end of the day as I play keyboards and sing a little bit. So yeah, and I just bought a house here so that's also keeping me busy just down the street in downtown Rogers. So, between the Jeep at the house, the business, everything's keeping me busy.

Randy Wilburn [36:37] So you're making some roots here.

Brian Bonk [36:38] Yeah, well. We're in this for the long haul.

Randy Wilburn [36:42] Good, good. I'm glad to hear that. And I would imagine that maybe in the near future too, that might also mean some new employees that you may have to hire depending on how the business goes. And so, there will be plenty of opportunity for growth in that area.

Brian Bonk [36:55]. We've been investing in our R&D team; I didn't even get a chance to get into it. But we have so many of these large pharmaceutical and biotech companies as customers, and there are so many product development opportunities. Once you sort of build the relationship as a supplier to these companies, they start asking like, hey, can you do this, and then these new product development opportunities come up. And that's how a lot of our most successful product lines have grown. So, we have been investing in both equipment, supply chain things, but also making some key hires in our R&D actually, in both divisions. But yeah, we have big plans for the business.

Randy Wilburn [37:38] I love that. That's great. That's great. Well, I appreciate you sharing your story. Would you mind giving us the name of the book that your professors wrote?

Unknown Speaker [37:48] Sure. It's called 'The Harvard Business Review Guide to Buying a Small Business'.

Randy Wilburn [37:53] Okay. All right. That's simple enough. I love that purchasing a small business. All right, perfect. Well, Brian Bonk, I appreciate you coming on the I am Northwest Arkansas podcast.

Brian Bonk [38:06] I'm delighted to be a part of it.

Randy Wilburn [38:07]. We hope that people get something out of that. Now and I'm going to put you on the spot. I didn't say this before. But is there anything special you'd like to offer our I am Northwest Arkansas listeners if they want to come up here and get some rabbits.

Brian Bonk [38:19] You mention the podcast or Randy's name, or just a fun fact you've learned from the podcast, we will hook you up with a discount.

Randy Wilburn [38:26] There you go. There you go.

Brian Bonk [38:28] Whether it's on our rabbits or where we're doing these events, we will hook you up with something.

Randy Wilburn [38:33]. Please mention the I am Northwest Arkansas podcast and that you heard Brian here first and maybe even a little something a little tidbit about Pel Freez and we can go from there. But I have no illusion that these guys are going to grow this into something big. Not that it is already big in the space that they're in, but I think they're going to create some new opportunities here in Northwest Arkansas that everybody is going to be excited about. So, Brian, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Brian Bonk [38:57] Thanks so much, Randy. Appreciate it.

Randy Wilburn [38:58] Well there you have it, folks, another episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. I appreciate you listening. I was just really blown away by Brian's story. I don't know about you guys but I want to listen to this again because there were some things that he shared that encouraged me as a small business owner so, I hope you got something out of that. As always, we like to focus on the intersection of business, culture, entrepreneurship, and life here in the Ozarks. And it's kind of cut a swath between all these different areas and so really excited to see what Brian and his team are able to do in the future. And, as he said, come on up here. If you come up to Rogers, downtown Rogers right around the corner from Onyx Coffee, grab some coffee over Onyx, come over here and get some rabbit and then take it on home and make your wife or make your husband a stew or some gumbo or something like that.

Brian Bonk [39:41] Don't forget to pick up some beer at Ozark.

Randy Wilburn [39:42] Big shout out for Ozarks. You can get some beer over there as well. So definitely want to encourage you to do that. But thank you again for listening to the podcast today. Our podcast is brought to you by the exclusive Real Estate Group down in Fayetteville. Chris Dinwiddie and his team of agents do an amazing job when it comes to real estate. So, if you need real estate help, if you just have a question, check out Chris Dinwiddie and his team at the exclusive Real Estate Group. They know what they're doing when it comes to real estate period. And if you want to learn a little bit more about Chris, specifically, I did an episode with him several months ago that you can check out as well here on the podcast. It tells you a little bit more about his approach to real estate here in Northwest Arkansas. If you're new to the area, and you haven't purchased yet, because I always tell people when they move to a new area, they should rent first before they buy because they need to know where they want to live. And then once they buy, you should always find a good realtor so that they can help you navigate the process and Chris Dinwiddie and his team at the exclusive Real Estate Group can definitely help you do that. So that's all we have for you this week. Again, check out the podcast wherever great podcasts can be found. Give us a rating give us a review. Let us know what you think about the podcast. And keep listening and share it with a friend. Remember sharing is caring. That's it. I'm your host Randy Wilburn, and I will see you next week.

IANWA Open [41:05] We hope you enjoyed this episode of I am Northwest Arkansas. Check us out each and every week, available anywhere that great podcast can be found. For Show Notes or more information on becoming a guest, visit We will see you next week on I am Northwest Arkansas.

About the Show:

Brian Bonk is new to Northwest Arkansas but the company he runs, Pel Freez, based in Rogers, has more than a 100-Year track record as the largest supplier of Rabbits in the United States for both Food and Scientific Purposes. Hear how Brian ended up here in Northwest Arkansas and learn more about why Rabbit’s serve an important role in some of the finest restaurants in the world as well as some of the most successful research science labs.  You will never look at Rabbit Stew the same way again.  

Hear all about Brian’s fascinating journey on this episode of I am Northwest Arkansas.  

*Transcript Coming Soon

Important Links and Mentions on the Show*:

Pel-Freez, 205 N Arkansas St, Rogers, AR 72756

*Note: some of the resources mentioned may be affiliate links. This means we get paid a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you use that link to make a purchase.

This episode is sponsored by:

The Exclusive Real Estate Group – Serving all of Northwest Arkansas from Dickson St. to the Bentonville Square, Broker Chris Dinwiddie, and his agents are ready to provide first-class representation for any of your real estate needs. Click Here to contact them and be sure to mention that you heard about them from IANWA. 

Email to learn more about sponsorship opportunities.

Connect more with I am Northwest Arkansas:

Thank you for listening to this episode of the I am Northwest Arkansas podcast. We showcase businesses, culture, entrepreneurship, and the lives of everyday people making Northwest Arkansas what it is today. Please consider making a one-time donation to our production team through PayPal to help with the expenses of keeping this podcast running smoothly