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Taste of Success

Jeff Sanders Hits the Sauce


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Two hefty men are cruising past the seafood counter at Byerly's, a recently opened luxury supermarket in Highland Park, when they hear a voice calling out to them.

"How ya doin', folks?" says Jeff Sanders, who's behind a table that holds three containers of barbecue sauce and a basket of tortilla chips. "We're Roadhouse Bar-B-Que Sauce, the winner of the People's Choice Award at the International Barbecue Contest in Kansas City three years in a row. We're a local company right out of Des Plaines, and this is our own recipe. Come, have a taste. Don't be shy--give us a try. Ha, ha, ha! Take a chip and go for a dip."

The hefty men stare at the boyish, 38-year-old Sanders, who points to the first container of sauce. "That one's mild, sweet, and smoky. Next up is medium-hot southwest style, and there's hot and spicy down on the end. The sauce has zero fat, zero cholesterol, 86 milligrams of sodium per serving--lower than any other sauce on the market. There's no MSG, no preservatives, no oils or artificial colors."

The two men take some chips and dip into the mild sauce. The older of the two says he's afraid of the hot and spicy. "The hot sauce is like good booze," says Sanders. "It kind of mellows out the more you drink." The man nods at that bit of macho wisdom, then pops a couple of bottles, mild and hot, into his cart.

"Oh sir, you're in for some fun--as much fun as you've ever known," Sanders tells him.

Sanders, who started marketing Roadhouse Bar-B-Que Sauce with his younger brother Steve in 1991, doesn't have much money for advertising or mass mailings, so he relies on in-store demonstrations, checking his own persona at the door and donning that of Buddy Roadhouse. "I'm a middle-class Jewish kid from the suburbs," says Sanders, whose family surname was once Sanderovich. "Buddy's somebody quite different. He doesn't give a rat's ass about where he comes from. He has this overwhelming need to meet people, to talk to people. He's part showman, part street-corner pitchman, part cowboy, part chef like Justin Wilson, the Cajun cook on public TV. He's a raconteur, an entrepreneur."

Though Sanders's sauce retails for $2.79 or more, he estimates he can get three-quarters of passersby to stop and sample it. And of those, 95 percent end up buying a bottle.

"What's so fabulous about your sauce?" an older woman in a canary yellow dress says, and Sanders is off on his spiel. "This is my own recipe, right out of Des Plaines. Zero fat, zero cholesterol..."

The woman's eyes go blank, but she takes some sauce.

Sanders chides another lady, "Why, you've been listening to everything I've been saying. You just can't be at Byerly's today if you pass by this table. All you have to do is come over for a taste."

The woman obliges, but her male companion plops a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray's, one of Sanders's prime competitors, into their cart.

"Use the two of us--that way you'll never get tired of either of us," Sanders pleads.

A bottle of Roadhouse lands in the couple's basket.

"I'm allergic to tomatoes," says a short lady, cutting off his routine.

"Well, that would knock you out of the running," he says.

Sanders keeps plugging all Saturday afternoon and on through Sunday, ten hours in all. This is prime time for him--up to 70 percent of Roadhouse sales come during the summer months. This weekend he'll sell 32 cases--384 bottles--of sauce.

Sanders calls his barbecue sauce a "microcue," and he has plenty of local competition in that category. In 1982 Charlie Robinson, an ice cream distributor, won the first ribs contest held in Grant Park, which was judged by columnist Mike Royko; his sauce, Robinson's Barbeque Sauce, is now sold nationally. Dave Raymond, a pharmaceutical buyer who created his sauce with help from his brother, captured second prize in the Royko contest in 1985; he was soon selling Sweet Baby Ray's out of his basement in Elmwood Park, and within three years had it in Jewel and Dominick's. The Tomek family, which still runs a suburban graphic-arts business, began manufacturing their sauce under the name Uncle Dougie's in 1990.

Sanders began with a recipe from his mother-in-law, which he and a friend who ran a restaurant perfected in 1989. Sanders was then working full-time as a video production manager, but he and his brother Steve, a health-club manager, had long wanted to start their own business. With a $5,000 investment from their father they hired Dorina So Good, a company in Union that makes soups, dressings, and barbecue sauces, to prepare and bottle their recipe.

But the first batches were disappointing and expensive. The president of Dorina So Good referred them to John Sheets, a food chemist in Indianapolis. "What Jeff had when he came to me was what I'd call a kitchen sauce," says Sheets. "It was something you'd make on the stove. Three times in a row the sauce might turn out fine, but the next few batches would drift off in quality and be bad."

Sheets translated the Sanderses' sauce recipe from volume to weight measurements, crucial for bulk production, and fiddled with the ingredients. Real raisins were replaced by raisin paste and ketchup by tomato paste, water, sugar, and a strong vinegar. "Fresh onions, which Jeff had been using, are uneven in taste," says Sheets. "They're fine in the spring, but come fall they're harsh and tart. So as insurance we went to dehydrated onions." Sheets also pressed for more potent spices.

Dorina So Good prepared the new recipe, which Sanders called Roadhouse because the name conjured up his childhood. "I grew up in the generation where the family vacation meant getting in a car and driv-ing somewhere."

Roadhouse first appeared in 1991--if you knew to call your order in to company headquarters in Des Plaines, actually a phone on Jeff's porch. Business went poorly. "I was waiting for the phone to ring, but it didn't ring," says Sanders. "We visited grocery-store managers on weekends and vacations, but they already had our competitors on the shelves--like Sweet Baby Ray's and Uncle Dougie's--and they didn't care to add us."

In October 1992 the Sanders brothers attended the International Barbecue Contest. They didn't win, but one day Jeff was hawking sauce in the contest store when Steve grew irritated with his sales pitch. "Do you have to talk in that Southern accent?" he asked Jeff. "Cut it out--it's so annoying." But Jeff, who'd played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof in high school and had later taken classes at Second City, said he couldn't help himself. "This whole different person was upon me. Buddy Roadhouse had taken over."

Back in Chicago Jeff started to play Buddy Roadhouse at demos. Joanne Nottke remembers the first time she booked Sanders for a demo at Foodstuffs, a gourmet market in Evanston. He sold eight cases on a Saturday. "That number of cases was unheard-of for us."

The Sanders brothers had meanwhile been angling for new investors. "We have a great barbecue sauce," Jeff had told Mike Nasatir, a commodities trader and family friend, in 1991. Nasatir had his doubts, but eventually he and his wife agreed to pump "several hundred thousand dollars" into the enterprise if Steve and Jeff would leave their jobs to devote all their time to the sauce.

In January 1993 Roadhouse became the full-time mission of both brothers. They became more deliberate about signing up stores, dividing the Chicago area into sectors and peppering prospects with phone calls, literature, and free samples. That spring they met with Tom Porter, vice president of marketing at Kehe Foods, a leading food distributor located in Romeoville.

"We cooked up ribs, chicken wings, and baked beans--all doused with Roadhouse," recalls Jeff, "and we served it to Porter in his office, complete with moist washcloths so he could dab the sauce from his hands and the corner of his mouth. We were unbelievably nervous." But Porter agreed to wholesale Roadhouse, which put the sauce in 200 grocery stores in Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and southern Wisconsin--double the number it had been in. The brothers added a hot and spicy sauce in 1993 and a medium-hot version a year later.

But the demos remain the backbone of the Sanderses' market approach. "You've got to get the product into people's homes somehow," Jeff explains. "Relying on the demos, we're able to move large quantities of sauce at one time. Once it's established that people like the stuff, they buy it again and again."

Yet he can also be more brazen. Three years ago he sent samples to Governor Jim Edgar along with a note. "I said, 'Governor, now you're going to have bragging rights about a great Illinois barbecue sauce when you get together with other midwestern governors on poker night.'" The governor wrote back, "Brenda and I have a chicken recipe that your sauce will make perfect." When Harry Caray lamented on TV that someone had stolen a treasured fishing net, Sanders bought a replacement and sent it to him, along with a six-pack of Roadhouse. Last summer Sanders read that the Bears training camp was serving ostrich to the players. "I got in the car, loaded up with sauce, and drove right up to Platteville," he says. Roadhouse is still on the team's training table.

The sauce has yet to win first prize in a major category at the International Barbecue Contest, but it snared the People's Choice Award for 1993, '94, and '95. And last August the Chicago Tribune food section put Roadhouse in the "highly recommended" category among sauces available locally. Sanders had the article encased in plastic and props it up on the table at demos.

Roadhouse is now competing with more than 5,000 sauces. Kraft dominates the industry. According to a company spokesman, its sauces account for over half the market. "The product Kraft delivers isn't that good," says John Sheets, "but the company has a tremendous distribution system, so there isn't a mom-and-pop store that can't stock it."

Sweet Baby Ray's squeeze bottle now ranks number 16 in U.S. supermarkets, and the company's standard-size bottle is number 6 in the Chicago metropolitan area. The mild Roadhouse sauce is number 50 in Chicago, well ahead of Uncle Dougie's, which is 69. In other words, Roadhouse is doing just OK. It can be found in some 2,000 groceries in many states. Most Dominick's and Omni stores carry it locally, though only a few Jewels do. Annual revenues are stuck at a little more than $250,000.

Paul Sanders, Jeff and Steve's father, who's now retired and helping his sons, worries about the sauce's future. "When people walk up to the shelves of a grocery store, we start out at a competitive disadvantage based on price. You can find Kraft on sale for 78 cents a bottle. You have to be real interested in food to spend as much as we go for to spread a dab of Roadhouse over a slab of ribs."

Ardie Davis, founder of the Kansas City barbecue sauce competition, says sauces like Roadhouse generally have untimely ends. "There are lots of people who come upon a sauce that's passed down three generations. They get positive reaction, there's a demand for sales, and they make lots of sauce--but not a lot of money. It becomes a hand-to-mouth situation. I can tell you lots of sad stories about barbecue guys who think their ship has come in but are wrong."

Jeff, with a wife and two children to support, is still working as a waiter on Saturday nights. And the corporate office is still his porch. The little profit the firm is earning is being reinvested in the venture. "I get the blues, sure--often during times of inactivity," he says. "Nobody is calling, and you have no one to call. But you just have to work through your feelings, much like an athlete who's not at the peak of performance. I find something to do that relates somehow to Roadhouse, and then I push on with it." Usually that means making phone calls. "Often the calls are fruitless, and they're just social. But they bring me back to a higher level."

The Sanderses now have a food broker pushing for more store placements, and they've taken their first stab at advertising, placing spot commercials on a restaurant-related radio show in Denver, The Gabby Gourmet.

They know a turning point is looming. John Sheets says, "There will come a time when Jeff and Steve have to decide what they want to do with this sauce--whether to stay small, sell out to a larger company, or invest more in advertising and production in order to expand." Mike Nasatir says the crunch will come in the next year or two. "If we do this ourselves it's going to take big dollars--several million, I'd say--and even then we're talking about a big uphill battle."

"Hey, how you doin', folks?" Jeff says to a suave couple at Treasure Island on Clybourn. "Have a taste here of Roadhouse Bar-B-Que Sauce--a little company right out of Des Plaines."

The couple walk on, ignoring him.

"Buddy works better in the suburbs," he says. "In a trendy neighborhood like Lincoln Park there are problems. People here think I'm trying to sell them a bill of goods, as if I'm a used-car salesman or something. Maybe if I could make them think that sauce was performance art I'd be better off." He pauses. "Did you ever see The Rainmaker with Burt Lancaster? Here's Lancaster, this guy who's going to make it rain, but the entire town takes him for a con man. The fact of the matter is that he isn't a con man--he truly believes he can make it rain. And because of his innate belief, he does make it rain--or at least you're left with the suspicion that maybe he did. This was an honest man--he said he'd return money the town gave him if he couldn't bring rain. Above all he had style, an air of confidence that he could do anything he set out to do--like me."

Sanders goes back to work. "We're having a barbecue party," he announces. "No commitment, no engagement ring, and you're all invited. Take a chip and go for a dip." A woman who swears she hates barbecue sauce puts some Roadhouse in her cart.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jeff Sanders photo by Randy Tunnell.

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