Hard work, many hands turn BBQ recipe into a business
BY NEALEY DOZIER
PHOTOS BY WALTER THOMPSON, FIREPIT PICTURES
Perhaps you always envied the quirky cheesemonger floating around the farmers market—the one who quit his mind-numbing desk job in search of the American (triplecream) dream. Better yet, you created a recipe for a fat-burning fudge sauce that is going to launch you to Skinnygirl fame. Or maybe you just tasted something similar to chalk dust from the grocery store and thought, “Hey, I can do sooooo much better than that.” If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to launch a specialty food line, Atlanta native Michael McCord did just that. If he can do it, so can you.
It all started back in 2004, when a handful of Michael McCord’s buddies helped him smoke a whole pig in a grandiose effort to impress his then-girlfriend (now wife) and her parents. “I would love to say that SLAP SAUCE is an old family recipe that has been passed down through the generations, but in actuality I whipped it up in my small college kitchen on a particularly hazy football Saturday. The pork itself was melt-in-your-mouth delicious,” he recalled, “but it was missing a certain something. It was missing the pièce de résistance.”
A “mad scientist” culinary experiment ensued, and the resulting sauce became the whole hog’s drowning glory. Soon the recipe, with a few subtle tweaks, took on signature dish status. A few years later McCord started entering it in local barbecue competitions with a group of friends. Eventually their grilling team needed a name worthy of their pit master legend: In a not-so-subtle nod to Burt Reynolds himself, Squeal Like a Pig BBQ was born.
The acronym was an added bonus, and SLAP SAUCE became his basting bread-and-butter. But it wasn’t until winning the coveted award for “Best Sauce” in SweetWater Brewery’s 2008 BBQ Butt-Off that McCord realized he might be on to something bigger: “Now it wasn’t just family and friends asking for bottles of SLAP SAUCE; it was complete strangers wanting to know where they could buy a sample or two. I knew it was a great sauce but had never thought about bottling and selling it until then.”
McCord contacted the University of Georgia Extension Outreach Program for more information. One purpose of the program (a branch of the Food Science Department) is to provide assistance to individuals interested in producing and selling specialty food products within the state of Georgia. The wealth of material they offer on the subject—including product development guides, food safety laws, best manufacturing practices and government operating regulations—might seem daunting to anyone other than the most experienced industry insider. But the program is in place to help, and McCord, a food-business novice, emphasized the constant support and encouragement he received from the staff throughout his entire experience.
The next step for McCord was to research the various production options available to get SLAP SAUCE off the ground. For some small food businesses, using a shared commercial kitchen is an economical way to start. Also known as a community or incubator kitchen, a commercial kitchen is a facility licensed by the state for producing food products meant for commercial sale. It is a logical choice for those looking to prepare their small-batch product themselves, or to test new recipes before launching on a larger scale.
Since McCord’s recipe was already in the testing stages with the Extension Outreach Program—and because he didn’t care to take on production himself—he chose to align with a co-packer. A co-packer is a licensed facility that manufactures and packages contracted goods to its client’s specifications. For a small food business, a co-packer will make, bottle, label and package the product in adherence to federal and state food laws. He referred to a list of potential bottlers provided to him by the Outreach Program, and after a few phone interviews and site visits ultimately chose Hillside Orchard Farms in Tiger, Georgia, to produce his sauce. For McCord, Hillside Orchard Farms “eliminated all of the guesswork” when it came time for production.
Starting a food business is expensive, and the risk of failure is high. McCord is fortunate. “I am lucky enough to have parents who believe in me and want to see me succeed. They loaned me a small amount of money to get the ball rolling,” he says. Support from family and friends can be a viable option to acquire funding, but it is definitely not the only way. A small business loan is most traditional, although taking on debt in these tough economic times can be particularly unnerving. That is why many food entrepreneurs are using the power of the internet to raise much-needed capital. Websites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are providing alternative methods of raising money by pairing fledgling food startups with investors who believe in their cause. According to Kickstarter’s website, last year over 1,000 food projects successfully found funding, with nearly 400 of those raising $10,000 or more.
In less than a year, SLAP SAUCE was ready to make its market debut. “It took about eight months from me trying to package 200 bottles of sauce in my home kitchen, to getting my sauce tested and approved at UGA’s Food Science Program, to ultimately picking up my first batch of sauce from my bottler,” he said. But that was just the beginning.
McCord began calling in the favors. “It takes a village to make a sauce. I have enlisted everyone I know: My wife did the label, a friend from high school helped me with the website, another friend from college helped me land my first big order and my neighbor shipped that first big order for free. Although I may get credit for everything in the end, it has been the people along the way that have made SLAP BBQ what it is today.”
With the SLAP SAUCE brand gaining momentum, the next step was to get it onto shelves. Demand for small-batch goods is at an all-time high. In 2011, sales of specialty foods and beverages reached a whopping $75 billion in the United States alone. This huge revenue stream means more and more retail networks are opening their arms to “mom-and-pop” producers like McCord. Still, that doesn’t make the marketing easy. McCord understands that having a high-quality, niche product is imperative for success. “Most barbecue sauces that you find are the thick, ketchup based, Kansas City–style sauces. SLAP SAUCE is a hybrid of the thin vinegar-based sauces of North Carolina and the mustard-based sauces of the lowlands near Charleston and Savannah. It is a versatile sauce that is just as comfortable slathered on pulled pork as it is thrown in the wok with an Asian stir-fry or poured over a piping hot plate of pretzel bread.”
SLAP SAUCE is now sold in 11 stores across four states including Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and Texas. Whatever McCord is doing, it seems to be working.
“Find the right price point for you and your retailers, have better-thanexpected customer service and be true to your word. People want to do business with good people,” he emphasized. Amen to that.
So what does the future hold? He is hoping to expand into more Southeastern grocery stores and specialty shops in 2013. A second sauce, SLAP ROJO, will hit shelves this summer. “I couldn’t be more excited,” he exclaimed. “It’s a thin, tomato-based sauce that has flavors inspired by the Latin American cultures that celebrate food, friends and family as much as Southerners do.”
If it tastes half as good as the original, I just might squeal like a pig! eA Nealey Dozier is an Atlanta-based freelance food writer, professional recipe developer and food photographer. Dixie Caviar is where she shares her passion for food, entertaining and—most importantly— all things Southern! dixiecaviar.com