Ex-Packer Jim Bob Morris, NHL star Chris Chelios tackling tequila market

By Cameron DaSilva | Posted 2 years ago

Starting a company isn't easy. It takes a great idea, plenty of financial support and infrastructure to get things off the ground, no matter what industry one is trying to break into. 


Former Green Bay Packers safety Jim Bob Morris runs 32 different companies and has had an enormous amount of success since retiring from the NFL, but there may not be a brand he’s more excited about than El Bandido Yankee tequila. 


Morris and NHL legend Chris Chelios started their own tequila company with the goal of unseating the top brands in the industry – the Patróns and the Don Julios. It won’t be easy, but the athletes-turned-entrepreneurs are confident their product has what it takes to become the best in class.


It all started at the LUXBar in Chicago when Morris and Chelioswere sharing a drink after a day of shopping three days before Christmas in 2019. That’s when the idea was planted in their minds.


“It was 2 o’clock in the morning, like every business gets started, we were drinking a competitor’s tequila,” Morris told OSDB Sports. “I said ‘Wow, I really don’t like that.’ Chris, and it could’ve been the alcohol talking, said ‘Well, maybe we ought to just do our own.’ And I said, ‘Maybe we should.’”


Immediately, they had a name for their future tequila company: El Bandido Yankee, which comes from the film, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Chelios pitched the idea, referring to one of the lines at the end of the movie. Morris had seen the movie a thousand times, but he didn’t remember that quote.


Fittingly, he returned home from Chicago a few days after conjuring up the idea of their tequila brand and turned on the TV, only to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” on the screen, just before the scene when the colonel yells out, “El Bandido, Yankees!”


“I started the process the next day, began drawing our bandit. I wanted to make it mysterious,” Morris said. “We started the marketing campaign of how we wanted to position before we actually got things going on the distillery side.”


Morris, who owns an ingredients company called Heartland Supply, already had connections in the food industry and had previously been buying agave from Mexico as a substitute for sucrose and fructose before El Bandido was born. That made it easy to get things going from a logistics perspective, because he quickly connected with his agave supplier and took a trip to Mexico to find a distiller. 


Morris and Chelios began working with their master distiller, Karina Rojo, who understood their goal of making a pure tequila with no additives or chemicals. They spent months upon months with Rojo at the distillery in Mexico, seeking to create the smoothest tequila possible.


“I think I have a pretty good palate and we knew what we liked. When we started the process, she worked with us,” Morris said. “Tequila has to be double distilled and we wanted to do it the old school way. We wanted it slow cooked in the brick ovens. We wanted it on copper stills. We wanted it 100% authentic.


We didn’t want to put any crap in it. We’re not going to put a drop of adulteration in it. We wanted to let the taste of agave come through. I can taste the glycerin in the top brands.”


Chelios and Morris have both been on the road trying to get their tequila brand into stores and onto shelves, hosting launch events everywhere from California to Texas to Illinois. The response has been great so far, too.


“No question the product is good and loved by everyone, especially with the fact that it is additive free and so smooth,” Chelios said. “Everyone who has tried it loves it. Tequila is having a moment right now, and we are all really happy to be a part of that.”


El Bandido’s slogan is, “So smooth it’s criminal,” accurately portraying the story behind the bandit on the bottle and the taste of the tequila inside. 


“We were making a drinkable tequila, not a shot tequila. You could shoot it all day long, but the problem is, it’s so smooth but it’s still tequila. I tease people about that: ‘One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor’ – because it’ll put you on your ass,” Morris joked.


With as much success as El Bandido has already had in its infancy since launching in August, one of the best parts about the brand is its cultural impact. Morris, who’s Native American, is proud of his heritage and all of the companies he runs are minority business enterprises, or MBEs. He created the Morris Family Multicultural Student Center at Kansas State, supporting people of all cultures.  


He’s also supporting families in Mexico, given the company’s ties to the country, its distilleries and the agave culture. 


“I was a kid on welfare and so I wanted to build bridges for people. So when I was down in Mexico, we got hooked up with a group called SACRED, which stands for ‘saving agave for cultural recreation, education and development,’” Morris said. “It was important that we got involved with the culture and understood what was going on with the agave. We wanted to create a developmental atmosphere with our workers and their families. SACRED has teamed up with us and we’re building soccer fields down there.


“It was important to me because of my background and it’s important from our brand perspective that we’re a minority developed brand. We submitted for our MBE status and it’s important for people to know where we come from and how we look at the cultural element of Mexico.”


El Bandido has been submitted for approval as a Minority Business Enterprise, or an MBE. It will be added to a growing list of Morris’ several other companies that are already MBEs, including Morris Packaging, Morris Converting and Heartland Supply, among others.


Being certified as a minority business is important to Morris, continuing to celebrate his culture and raising awareness for minority-owned companies. Among all of his companies, Morris estimates that he employs about 1,100 workers, with 27 dedicated to the El Bandido venture. The help he’s gotten from his team has opened the door for the possibility of launching other spirits in the future, too, after El Bandito has gotten its time in the spotlight.


“We’re committed to this sector,” Morris said. “We’ve got 7 or 8 other spirits in development now, which we’ll be ready to launch. We want to give El Bandido plenty of time out there and see how it comes together.”


One of the best ways to get the El Bandido name out there is with endorsements. He sees it as a brand that athletes could endorse down the line, given how many offers professionals are presented with on the current sports landscape. 


When Morris was playing, the endorsement opportunities weren’t as plentiful as they are now, especially with the advancements in technology, social media and the media in general.


“I was just lucky to be there,” Morris joked. “The nicest thing anybody ever did when I was playing was that I got a pair of Spot-Bilt tennis shoes and asked if I could wear those in a game. That was about the best endorsement I ever got. I was a good endorser for all the beer companies when I was playing.”


Morris continued to explain how things have changed since he and Chelios were pros, pointing out that athletes are committing to big colleges as freshmen in high school and with the new Name Image and Likeness (NIL) ruling, they’re able to earn substantial amounts of money at a young age.


“It’s not just pro. We’re talking about this new element of promotions that start with 8th graders or earlier,” he said. “There are kids out there basically getting commitments from major universities as a freshman in high school. Colleges are making commitments to them. It’s a different world. It’s completely changed from Chris and I’s days and the promotional aspect of what’s available to you.”


It’s taken a lot of work to get El Bandido Yankee off the ground and Morris is encouraged by the initial response. He and Cheliosare constantly on the move promoting the product, fighting to get it into liquor stores and on shelves across the country.


And they’ve done it the right way, supporting the local communities, celebrating Morris’ Native American heritage and by producing a drink in its purest form with no additives and oxygenating it so the pure taste of the agave comes through. It cost more to do it that way, but there was no aspect of this brand that went overlooked – from the name to the bottle design to the way the drink is crafted in 50- and 60-year-old brick ovens that are still in their original state.


Just as the work is only getting started, so too is the story of El Bandido Yankee.


“It’s been fun. It’s been one of the more entertaining enterprise to start development, but our work is just beginning,” he said. “We know what’s in front of us and how hard we have to work and we’re going to do the work in order to get there. And we’ve got a great team. Chris and I, every day we’re out promoting. Chris is doing promotional signings. I’m running around the various states where we’re trying to move product.


“We are going to unseat people. We are going to be a disruptor to the marketplace because we’re just good. We’ll outwork them and we’ll be better than them. People will be talking about El Bandido Yankee.”


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