Hot Potato: Zack “Danger” Brown still reeling as Kickstarter plea rakes in the dough

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
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From the July 24, 2014 edition

Zack “Danger” Brown is gearing up to prepare one of the most expensive potato salads ever assembled.

Of course, this wasn’t the Columbus native’s intent when he launched a Kickstarter campaign on July 3 with the modest goal of raising $10 to fund a homemade batch of the picnic favorite. From there, things snowballed. The campaign received coverage in national publications ranging from USA Today to Buzzfeed. Jimmy Fallon joked about it on his late night program. Then, in early July, Brown appeared on a televised segment on “Good Morning America” wearing an Homage-printed “I just backed potato salad” T-shirt. Now, with the August 2 end of the campaign looming, Brown has already raised more than $60,000 — a staggering amount for something that started as a simple inside joke between friends.

“Someone in this group chat I’m in dropped a joke about potato salad, and I knew I needed to one-up them,” said Brown, 31, during a mid-July interview at The Kitchen in German Village. “I got this immediate image in my head of the type of person who would go on to Kickstarter and raise money for potato salad. It would be this super-genuine, simple person who’d be like, ‘I just need $10 for potato salad, please.’”

Initially, Alive approached Brown hoping to team up and prepare a batch of the side dish, but when he relented (“I can’t make potato salad until the end [of the campaign], but I can do almost anything else,” he explained in an email) a compromise was reached, which is how we found ourselves standing in the spacious confines of The Kitchen on a recent weekday whipping up a couple pounds of macaroni salad.

From the get-go, Brown downplayed his abilities as a chef. He said he’s never actually made potato salad — a statement that became infinitely more believable when he expressed genuine disbelief the veggies for macaroni salad are added raw (“So you don’t cook them at all?”) — and a majority of the dishes he prepares at home are basic slow-cooker recipes that require little in the way of ability or attention to detail. He does have some knife skills, though, in that he can hold a blade and move his arm in something resembling a chopping motion, and he made relatively short work of the assorted green and red peppers, celery and green onion.

“I always say I should take a knife-skills course,” he said, dicing a green pepper into semi-consistent hunks. “And then I just go right back to whatever I was doing before.”

It helps the chosen recipe incorporates less than a dozen ingredients (including basics like salt and pepper) and boasts cave-painting-simple instructions: “1. Combine dressing ingredients 2. Stir into remaining ingredients 3. Cover and chill.” It’s also insanely cheap. While Brown’s tater salad fund has stretched comfortably into the five-figure range, we were able to procure all the ingredients for our macaroni salad for the tidy sum of $12.41 — even after springing extra for organic veggies.

All told, it takes Brown a little under half an hour to prepare the salad, and he appears visibly pleased as he stirs the finished product, seasoning it liberally with salt and pepper. And how does it taste? “That’s definitely a macaroni salad,” offered Alive’s staff photographer. So … success?

Before we started cooking, Brown dished on the fallout from his Kickstarter launch, his plans for the money and his run-ins with everyone from Obama for America’s John Carlson to former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan.

I posted [the Kickstarter] Thursday morning [July 3], and by that night I had raised $176 and was already out of stretch goals in my mind. It was already overwhelming at that point, and then between Thursday and the next Tuesday we raised more than $40,000. It was a complete shock. I think we hit $10,000 when I was doing an interview over at Homage, and I had to take a second to step away from the camera because I just couldn’t process what was happening.

I was at [the] Doo Dah [Parade] and got a message from a friend that she was on a beach in Florida and she overheard a family arguing whether they should support the potato salad Kickstarter. That was the morning it had been published in USA Today, I think, which makes sense. Here’s a family in a vacation spot and they probably got their USA Today under the door in the hotel room sometime in the morning. My brain exploded at that point, and I was like, “Ok, it can only come down from here.” Then it just kept climbing.

I did a quick read and knew I wouldn’t be violating [Kickstarter’s terms of service]. You have to have a clear project idea. You have to offer your backers some kind of reward. It can’t be explicitly for charity. I figured, a guy making potato salad? That’s a product. I think part of it was having spent a ton of time on Kickstarter. I work in the tech world in my regular life — I own a small software company — so I feel like Kickstarters are ending up in my chat and in my inbox all the time. When Ouya was announced I remember being crazy about it. I ordered the Oculus Rift as soon as it was available. I preregistered for a Pebble Watch then backed out. But following all these different Kickstarter campaigns you get to learn the tone. All successful Kickstart campaigns have the exact same tone. The videos are exactly the same. There’s this sameness, and I figured using this serious, Kickstarter-y tone for something that’s totally absurd would be funny.

We’re trying to figure out exactly how this thing is going to work, and it feels like the landscape is shifting every day. We want to do a big event, but it turns out big events are pretty expensive. We haven’t gotten a ton of people to step in and say, “Oh yeah, I’ll just donate it to you.” We should have $30,000 remaining after we’ve paid for all the promises we’ve made — the shirts, the hats, the recipe book and so on. What’s the best thing we can do with that money? Maybe throwing an epic party isn’t the way to go. We’re thinking of maybe throwing a smaller party where most of the stuff is donated and taking the rest of that money and donating it to charity.

You can’t explicitly say you’re going to give money to charity [on Kickstarter], but other than that all bets are off. Any dollar you have remaining [after fulfilling backer rewards] you can take it as personal profit and do whatever you want with it. Clearly spending the money on hunger and homelessness makes a lot of sense.

The current plan is to set up a fund through the Columbus Foundation that can gain 10 percent interest a year and be around forever, instead of giving a one-time contribution and then the money is gone. We’d like to build something that can stand the test of time.

We’ve talked to a CPA and an attorney, and my understanding is if we’re setting up a vehicle to give the money [to charity] we actually don’t end up paying taxes — otherwise we’d be paying taxes on everything. If any of your readers are CPAs and disagree with that I’d love to know, but that’s the current assumption.

There are going to be people that hate anything on the internet, and then there are going to be legitimate gripes. Those people saying, “Man, I wish people would contribute to real causes instead of potato salad” are probably right. There is something to be said for this being an upside-down model of telling a joke. I told the joke, and then said, “Hey, if you found this funny give me some amount of money.” The average contribution is $8, so 6,000 or so people reading a joke, finding it funny and paying $8 feels right. I think that makes sense. I don’t think it was gained through deceit, but we’re still committed to using this money towards the greater good.

We are in talks with Hellman’s, the Idaho Potato Association and a company called Hampton Creeks that makes this incredible mayonnaise without using eggs. [Hampton Creek cofounder Joshua Tetrick] has a Ted Talk about how they’re trying to change the world by eliminating factory-farm eggs. It’s interesting to meet people and have opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

People make fun of me when I say this, but the most surreal thing was going to CD102.5 and meeting Randy Malloy and Lesley James. Lesley James knowing who I was and coming over to talk to me was completely absurd. There’s no reason she should know who I am. It’s such a strange thing to listen to someone on the radio all the time and have them recognize you and know who you are.

I’m currently on CNBC’s council on crowdfunding, which is crazy. They’ve got eight people they’re getting together that can recommend stories and that they can kind of pull out of a bullpen and put on TV whenever they need someone to talk about crowdfunding. I know they said they were looking to [recruit] the guy who did the Ouya, and I think they were going to get the Pebble Watch people — people who launched real Kickstarter campaigns that made millions of dollars. Then there’s potato salad guy. It’s so ridiculous.

The conversation I had with [“Good Morning America” cohost and former New York Giant] Michael Strahan after telling him I was going to tackle him was absurd. I ran up and I tried to tackle him during a commercial break and just ended up sort of bear-hugging him. He lost some weight, but he’s still very solid.

I ran into John Carlson of Obama for America [at the airport] and was like, “You work for the White House?” He said yes, and then I said, “I’m the potato salad guy.” The fear he must have been feeling … to have this stranger recognize him and say, “Hey, I’m potato salad man.” It was horrifying. He must have been looking around, like, “Do I have a security detail anywhere?”

I still love potato salad. Now, I may not love the joke as much as I did originally. The lifecycle on a joke my friends and I tell is typically about a minute and a half. To be 13 days in and writing a script for the next video, we’re like, “Oh god, this is not funny.” It’s challenging to find new ways to make to original joke funny.

We’d like to continue trying to make people laugh, and we don’t need money to do that. We have a YouTube channel … and it’s something where we’ll continue making jokes and producing content — even if nobody outside our group laughs at it again. I think that’s been the most rewarding thing so far, being able to feel like we spread some humor and joy through the world.