Billionaire Glenn Stearns bet on Erie, Pennsylvania and Erie paid off handsomely.
Now the follow up to the audacious premise put forth by Discovery last year, Undercover Billionaire, has a cool post-mortem called Undercover Billionaire: Return To Erie, coming this week.
Monsters & Critics got to interview Glenn Stearns once again and dig deep into the hidden truths and promising road ahead for the employees of his barbeque restaurant—Underdog BBQ— that has received traction and built a clientele, even during these vexing COVID times.
Read on as we dish with Glenn Stearns, a resilient cancer survivor, who returns to Erie, Pennsylvania with unfinished business.
The Undercover background
Stripped of contacts and real money, Glenn had to build a $1 million dollar business from scratch in 90 days with a hundred bucks to his name.
Now, exactly one year after his business Underdog BBQ opened, Glenn’s revisiting Erie to check in on the restaurant and visit with those who helped him build it.
You will see candid new footage as Glenn reveals his advice and thoughts about his 90 days and what it takes to start from nothing, culminating with an unexpected huge announcement about his future plans in the city he has come to love.
One of the people who helped Sterns turn Underdog BBQ into a thriving business is RJ Messenger, Owner of Iron Empire Clothing.
The series initially followed Stearns, who operated under an alias Glenn Bryant, as he worked to bring a business to life. We found out that Stearns had to postpone the shooting of the show last year because of a recurrence of cancer, which he was first diagnosed with five years ago.
Monsters & Critics chatted with Glenn who is excited for fans to see what he has in store for his “underdog gang” and Erie, PA, in general.
Monsters & Critics: Gosh, so much has happened since you and I sat across from each other at a table at the TCA when you were sitting with Mindy.
Glenn Stearns: In just one year!
M&C: First of all, let’s start with you. How are you?
Glenn Stearns: I am doing great. Really. It has been a year since I saw you last and a lot has changed. When I left the show last year, I guess I didn’t realize that I was in such an interesting moment in my life.
I sold my business five years earlier and I was kind of floating around the world and I did the show, and it got me inspired to go kind of want to do it again.
So I started another national mortgage company called Kind Lending and been out there doing that.
I turned around and heard people going, ‘What happened, Glenn? Like, how did you get back to work?’
It all happen because of the [Discovery] show. I really realized that I loved building [businesses] and I loved putting teams together and making stuff happen. So here we are doing it one more time.
M&C: Underdog BBQ. talk to me about how this business has flourished when the restaurant sector has really suffered during COVID?
Glenn Stearns: Yes…well, it hasn’t actually flourished, but it hasn’t done poorly. I think the difference is that when any industry changes, when anything happens and it’s happened to me, I was in the financial service industry, and back in 2008 when the world blew up when the financial crisis hit, you have to realize that you can’t look in the past, you have to look into the future.
And that happened again, obviously with COVID where we said, okay, this is not going to be the same thing. It’s not coming back. So we have to figure out a way to get our kitchen into the people’s homes.
We need to start finding ways to bring our business and to-go orders and have people just be able to swing by the restaurant as we’re in a great location, but we had to just kind of change our whole game and think differently.
M&C: It seems like the restaurants that are surviving and doing better are the ones that can really tailor their business to the pickup delivery and to-go orders, although some restaurants are still doing sit down, but you can’t rely on that anymore.
Glenn Stearns: Right? Exactly. Yeah. We’re all different.
M&C: Are you still in business with RJ? Is he still a vital part of this restaurant?
Glenn Stearns: He is. RJ and I have been involved, and his sister is running the restaurant. Now she’s the general manager, Ashley, who was involved in the show before she kind of came in and saved the day at RibFest.
Well, she’s moved all the way up to running the whole restaurant. And RJ has been a part of that, but also his Iron Empire clothing line. I’ve been helping him with that ever since we left the show. So I speak to him probably three, four times a week.
M&C: Do you feel that that this restaurant is right for expanding in Pennsylvania and beyond?
Glenn Stearns: It is, again, it’s going to take a little time to get settled back and we’ll see where the world goes. But, I had some people in to set up the second restaurant in February and we were just getting ready to do that. And then, we pulled back on that.
So I think it’s ready to go. As soon as we kind of get a rhythm and understand what’s going to happen out there.
M&C: I’ve been reading up and listening to your interviews post-first season. How are you doing, this COVID is out there? I would imagine that you’re somewhat immunocompromised…what was the decision to downplay it?
Glenn Stearns: Well, I mean, it is. I had an operation 10 days before I went on to the show and I was eating out of a feeding tube the whole time that I was on the show.
I didn’t choose to talk about all that, not, everyone that I, all my friends and family, I mean, everybody knows about it, so I didn’t care.
I just didn’t want the show to be about this guy getting sympathy. That’s why people are going to do what they’re going to do. I want people to realize that anybody can get a great idea and rally people around them and they don’t have to use sympathy, you know?
So I chose not to talk about it at the time, and I’m not even going to tell those people. Not any of the Underdogs knew about it because I just didn’t want that to be a reason why they would do something.
Because I think it takes away from an average person out there, trying to achieve their own dreams. So if you say, well, when people helped him because they felt sorry for him…, that was the exact opposite of what I wanted. I didn’t want that.
I wanted people to just be innately good as for what I think people are. And not just because somebody was sick. but speaking of sickness, I don’t know if I’m immune-compromised. I don’t really want to think about that because I don’t choose to live in fear.
I don’t choose to change my life. I’ll wear a mask when I am supposed to. And wash and clean my hands, and I’ve got the hand sanitizer in my pocket. So I’m doing the right thing, but I’m not going to cower in the corner and be afraid. So it is what it is.
M&C: You know, Mindy has been there by your side and, and she was there with you when I first met you. How, how does Mindy factor into all of the things that you do?
Glenn Stearns: Well, she has been…I’ve been married now close to 18 years with Mindy and she has been, and this has nothing to do with it, with the fufu stuff. I actually absolutely adore this woman. Like her. Love her. Everything.
Meaning, I always said to myself after like a year [dating someone], I think I get tired and my whole dating pattern was… A year or two years. And I just kinda grew bored, I guess. And it has never happened with her. She has been such a wonderful partner where again, the two of us go out and go for a walk and go to a movie. And it’s just that. And she is a wonderful partner, a best friend kind of feeling.
So for her, she knew this was important to me. I want it to prove to my kids and family and then to people around the country that if they have a dream, they should go for it and not hold back, and not have any regrets in their life.
And so she had supported me the whole time and I was gone, for basically a hundred days or so. This time, we’re doing a little more here. And so she’s been a wonderful, wonderful support to me,
M&C: I read that you established $75,000 of your own money to give small grants for people in Erie. I guess part of the community college or university system in Gannon. Can you talk about that a bit?
Glenn Stearns: What my whole motto or way of thinking has been not to give people handouts, but to give them a hand up and I include all the way to my own kids, right?
Like anything they want, they can earn it. I think that it’s wonderful and they have a sense of pride that they did it themselves.
I’m the only person in my neighborhood who has a lawn mower. My kids cut the grass, and everybody else has the gardeners and all that good stuff. I just think it gives people their own sense of pride.
But I will help. I want people to be able to get that first chance and that opportunity. So I did put a little money out there to get it started. And then what’s happening is that Underdog, Barbecue. And the profits from it go into continuing to feed it.
And so the people of Erie or wherever, whoever wants to go in and support the restaurant, they support it. Half of that money goes to the profit, to the employees in there, and the other half goes to entrepreneurs in Erie. And so my seed money was just to get started, but then it’ll continue to grow as the business in the restaurant.
M&C: I love that self-sustaining kind of model that you’ve built. Did Erie ever expect to have such a patron Saint in you?
Glenn Stearns: [Laughs] You know, and without knowing it, I have fallen in love with Erie, right?
Because I’d never had been here and then coming and seeing these people that just really are wonderful, hardworking people that got hit hard because the big manufacturers left…but these people have come and kind of risen above it all.
And so I am very excited to watch Erie rise and I want to be a part of that.
M&C: This one-hour special, give us an overview, a broad stroke of what we can expect.
Glenn Stearns: Well, I think just going back and setting in on everyone, seeing how all the Underdogs are doing, seeing how the restaurant’s doing, and then sitting down with each one of them and kind of going over how the show affected their life… It was pretty interesting.
And then we’ve got a recap of looking back and seeing some of the interesting or funny moments or terrible moments of the show. It’s really just kind of taking a look back and seeing these people now that a year has gone by and saying, ‘Holy cow, you kind of blew into the town, Glenn and life is different.’
And so we get to take a look at each one of them and see what, what, what came of them after this whole thing.
M&C: The news is crushing. COVID …it’s going to be a tough year, based on everything that I’ve read. Are you a bullish or bearish on American business and American life, in the short term?
Glenn Stearns: Longterm… I think the short term is hard. I think it will continue to be hard.
And I think we learned a lot from the financial crisis on how to get money out into the system. And so whether it’s with the small business administration and what they did with the disaster relief funds or the PPP money, or whether it’s with the money that they gave to the individuals that they were laid off of work. There’s been a lot of different ways or forbearance on mortgages without having to ask any questions and jump through hoops.
They have actually learned a lot from that big, last hiccup in our country. And so for that, I think they think they have softened the blow.
I do believe that people will adapt. I think the short term is going to continue to be difficult and maybe even more difficult. And hopefully, we turn the corner here soon if we can go on a more formal life, but I don’t know, will it ever go back to where it was? Who knows?
But, I am very confident in mankind as they adapt. They always have. And I think we always will, and you can look back in the fifties and or the early turn of the 20th century, What are we going to do about horses? And then cars are going to take off…And then there’s always been something that is going to destroy the workforce… or whatever. Be it computers, whatever. But people adapt and I think they’ll continue to adapt.
So short term, it’s going to be difficult, but I think we’re going to, we’re going to do just fine in the long term.
Undercover Billionaire: Return to Erie Special airs Tuesday, August 18 at 9/8c on Discovery Channel.