Let's Get Saucy:
How four Illinois dreamers used barbecue sauce to climb to the top
by Catrina McCulley Wagner
You know it’s summer when you can sit on your back porch in the evening and, like clockwork, will catch the whiff of a sweet, tangy and smoky aroma
drifting across your yard as if taunting you, daring you, to prove that you are the ultimate grill master. That thick, gooey fragrance that calls out to the heart of every man tempting him to fire up his own grill and slather some ribs with his favorite sauce.
But how exactly does that secret miracle of meat find its way to your grocery store shelf? We found four Illinois barbecue masters willing to share their companies’ stories of struggle and triumph from start to finish.
Pappy LeDeaux's Barbecue
Kathy Witoswki, owner of Pappy LeDeaux's Barbecue says she offers four varieties of sauce: Unique Country Style, Classic Sweet Smokehouse, Garlic Lovers and Bayou Burner.
In 1999, friends and Norris Electric Cooperative members, Kathy Witkowski and Jerry Crisman put the town of Effingham high on the list of places to get great barbecue in Illinois. Witkowski and Crisman both had their own favorite barbecue sauce recipes they used through the years and both had received many compliments. So using Witkowski's "Unique Country Style" recipe, and Crisman's "Classic Sweet Smokehouse" recipe, the team joined together to create the Pappy Ledeaux's BBQ brand.
"We started simply, canning the sauces ourselves and giving out free samples to everyone we could think of. Our labels were actually scotch taped on," Witkowski remembers.
At first the team made all the samples from scratch, but then the demand increased significantly and they were expected to produce 800 bottles at a time. "We decided to search for a professional bottling company," Witkowski explains. "We chose Country Bob's in Centralia."
Looking back, Witkowski is still amazed. "I've been the owner of Unique Country Catering for 15 years and Effingham has always supported me in that, but when we started bottling the sauce, the community really wrapped its arms around us," Witkowski says.
The sauce can be found in a 50-mile radius of Effingham in Wal-Mart, IGA, local convenience stores and on the Web at www.pappyledeaux.com. "I'm still working on going nationally, so hopefully we can get there in the near future," Witkowski says.
In 2005, the partners decided to go their separate ways and Witkowski took over the barbecue sauce company.
In July, Witkowski launched her newest venture. "I opened a retail outlet for my catering business called Witt's Smokehouse and Deli three miles west of Effingham on Route 32/33," Witkowski explains. "When I cater, people always ask if they can just get my food as take-out for their family or small gatherings. Opening this deli has allowed me to expand my services."
At Witt's Smokehouse and Deli, you can pre-order family packs that feed from six to 10 people, or party packs that feed 30 to 120 people. Or you can just stop by and grab lunch or dinner to go. "And everything we serve uses Pappy LeDeaux's sauce," Witkowski says.
For more information visit www.wittssmokehouseanddeli.com.
Goldman Burnes says, "You can add my sauce to anything from soups to sauces to give your recipe an extra special something."
Goldman Burnes, a humble Springfield native and the youngest in a family of 18, launched his company, Goldman's Gourmet Barbecue and Marinade, in 1995. It was for a family picnic that he developed the recipe for a sauce that would soon make him a local celebrity. "I brought the sauce to the picnic and everyone just loved it. Soon after that, I opened a catering business," Goldman says.
Goldman decided to try to start selling his sauce. "My local IGA store allowed me to come and sell jars of the sauce in their store," Goldman remembers.
The response was bigger than he could have hoped for. "Soon after that, the Shop-N-Save store up the street contacted me about putting my sauce in their store. We weren't prepared for such a proposal," Goldman chuckles. Goldman needed to have his product professionally bottled and labeled with a UPC number. "We didn't know anything about that. So we decided to call up several manufacturing companies in Illinois to come talk with us and sample our product. We chose TKI Foods in Springfield to bottle and label for us."
Goldman found it fairly easy to make it onto the shelves of his local Shop-N-Save and Schnucks and within a few years, he was recognized by the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce as Minority Small Business Owner of the Year. He even came out with new products; a spicy version of his original sauce, a seafood and wings sauce and a beer and bratwurst mustard. But Goldman's dream was bigger than just the local venues. And when he didn't know how to make that happen, he encountered a few business setbacks and soon Goldman's Gourmet was nowhere to be found in stores at all.
But 2007 would mark the beginning of a huge comeback for Goldman's Gourmet. Goldman never lost his confidence, but he knew he needed some marketing help. So in January he partnered up with Kathy Tega, Marketing Administrator, who would help him launch Goldman's Gourmet nationwide.
She began with Wal-Mart. "Wal-Mart gave us 15 test stores to start with. They tracked our sales during days we did tastings to see how our numbers were. Once those numbers hit the level they expected, they gave us more stores. Right now, we're in 80 stores," Tega says. And by September, Goldman's Gourmet is expected to be in 1,500 Wal-Mart stores nationwide.
Tega says, "We recently signed a contract with Kehe foods out of Chicago, too. They are the distributor for Shop-N-Save, Cub Foods, Schnucks, Meijer, Jewel, Kroger, etc. They are going to put us in 3,000 of those stores in the Midwest by September. We've made it very far in such a short time."
"Our newest venture is a partnership with Tyson Chicken," says Goldman. "They've been trying to find a sauce to compliment their chicken. They'd tried several, but they liked ours the best," Tega says. Tyson will buy the Goldman's Gourmet sauce and put it on their pre-cooked chicken and sell the chicken breasts in individual packages. "For Tyson to pick our sauce is very flattering," Tega says.
And there's another big project in the works for this team. "We're working towards getting in one more store chain. It'll be a big one, but people will have to wait and find out if that works out for us."
For more information, visit www.goldmansgourmet.com.
17th Street Bar and Grill
Mike Mills spent the early years of his career as a Dental Assistant with his brother-in-law. Mills would often make batches of his barbecue in his dental lab on Bunsen burners.
Mike Mills, a Murphysboro native and member of Egyptian Electric Cooperative, was born with barbecue in his blood. "The strongest memory from my childhood is waking up to the smell of smoke. It was the 1940s, and my daddy would get up before daylight to burn wood and make charcoal. That aroma meant we'd be having a good supper that night," remembers Mills.
Mills' dad passed away when he was only 9 years old, but his love of barbecue lingered and became the center of family stories. "I swear, I think my mama thought my daddy invented barbecue," Mills laughs. "Daddy made a barbecue sauce that family and friends raved about. His dream was to bottle his sauce and open a barbecue joint. That plan never came to life." But years later, Mills would fulfill that dream in his memory.
In 1985, Mills decided to move his barbecue hobby to a real kitchen and bought a local bar and grill. He named it the 17th Street Bar and Grill. "I slowly started adding the homey, comfort dishes my family and friends loved, including smoked meats using my daddy's barbecue recipe. Although, through the years, I've tweaked that recipe a bit and my mama never let me forget that. But she was awfully proud when that sauce won the Grand Sauce Award at the Jack Daniel's World Championship," says Mills.
Mills spent much of the late 80s and early 90s in the barbecue competition circuit, winning most. In 1992, after winning World Champion for his ribs, he was approached by a man named Jeffery Steingarten. He was a food writer for Vogue magazine.
"He wanted to do a story on me. I wasn't really sure how barbecue would fit in a magazine like Vogue, but I sure soon found out. That article changed my life forever," Mills remembers.
Soon after the article was printed, calls started pouring in for orders of Mike's famous barbecue. One call was especially interesting. "It was about 6:30 one morning in August of 1992. The phone rang and the man on the other end said, 'My name is George Wendt, and I'm reading about you in Vogue. I want to know how I can get some of your ribs.' For those of you who don't know who George Wendt is, he played Norm on the TV show Cheers," Mills says.
Mills was officially a local celebrity and people from around the world were calling for orders. Even President Bill Clinton has enjoyed Mills' famous ribs.
In 1994, Mills retired from the barbecue competition circuit and focused on his restaurant. He changed the menu and transformed it into a barbecue palace. In 1995 Mills opened his second restaurant in Las Vegas calling it Memphis Championship Barbecue. By 2004, he had three more restaurants there. Today, you can find three additional 17th Street Bar and Grill locations in Illinois besides the original in Murphysboro: Marion, O'Fallon and Sparta. Mills also partnered in opening a restaurant in New York called Blue Smoke.
In 2005, Mills co-wrote a book with his daughter, Amy Mills Tunnicliffe, called Peace, Love and Barbecue. In it you will find recipes, secrets and tales from the legends of barbecue. To order the book, bottles of Mills' famous barbecue sauce or his Magic Dust, Mills' all-purpose barbecue rub, visit www.17thstreetbarbecue.com.
Chef Dick's Barbecue Sauce
This barbecue sauce was Dick Boston's dream, and his brother John and Mother Maxine are doing their best to keep that dream alive without him.
Dick Boston was born and raised in Girard. After graduating from high school, he joined the Navy. He wound up in Florida where he worked as a chef in a seafood restaurant.
"Dick created his barbecue sauce because he found the commercial sauces weren't thick enough to stick to the foods he was grilling," says Maxine Boston, Dick's mother. "So he started from scratch and prepared a barbecue sauce that was to his liking, both in flavor and thickness and used it in the restaurants where he worked."
Eventually, Dick moved back to Illinois and continued his career as a chef. "Dick again used his sauce and people kept asking how they could get some for themselves," says John Boston, Dick's brother.
"People would bring in cottage cheese containers and have Dick fill them up from the kitchen of the restaurant," Maxine laughs. "Eventually, I suggested that we start canning the sauce and selling it."
In order to get into the grocery stores, the Bostons had to have a professional bottle and a label with a UPC code, so they started looking around for bottling companies. The family chose a bottling company located in Union. "We gave them the recipe and they had to enlarge it for bulk processing. You worry that will affect the taste, but they got it perfect the very first try," Maxine says.
Then came the real challenge, getting into some of the local stores. "In order to get into most grocery stores, you often have to go through their corporate office, which is not really easy to do," says Maxine. "We went through Schnucks' corporate office and they gave us permission to sell at our local store," John says.
"It took a lot of begging and determination, but now we're in quite a few stores in Illinois. You can find us in grocery stores in Girard, Virden, Carlinville, Litchfield, Staunton, Gillespie, Barry, Auburn, Chatham, Springfield and Jacksonville," Maxine says.
This sauce was Dick's dream, but sadly Dick passed away in August of 2006. "We were on a roll before then, but now we're just doing everything we can to keep this dream alive for him," Maxine says, suppressing tears. "We may not go national like he dreamt, but we'll do everything we can to keep it going locally. And we couldn't do it without the help of our entire family."
The Boston's are currently working on a new and exciting product. "It was a dream of Dick's that he was working on and didn't get to fully accomplish, so we're working to get it done for him," Maxine says. "You'll have to stay tuned for big and exciting news from Chef Dick's BBQ Sauce."
For more information contact John Boston at 217-627-2025.
If you'd be interested in some recipes from these barbeque gurus, contact the author at email@example.com.