Souse BBQ owner Rob Griffin has been spreading the good word about traditional eastern Carolina barbecue since long before he started his business, but after a series of fortuitous events, he decided to start selling his sauce for real. In just two short years, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Recently, he won second place in Our State magazine’s Sauce Boss contest and was named Best Vinegar-Based Sauce in the North Carolina Hot Sauce contest in September 2013. Charlotte Myer, our Specialty Food Buyer, spent some time chatting with him about his passion for eastern Carolina barbecue, the secrets to small business success and more. Read on for excerpts from that conversation, and to learn more about the story behind Souse BBQ!
CM: First of all, I would just love to hear a little bit about how you got started making Souse BBQ Sauce.
RG: This is a version of a recipe I inherited from an old family friend years ago. My dad and I made it for about five years, just in small batches in our garage, and we’d give a gallon to a friend, a gallon to a family member, just a little bit here and there. Then in 2011, my wife and I were planning our wedding, and we felt really strongly about making it very North Carolina-centric, so we had dogwood flowers, we had barbecue, we got married at the college. We were trying to decide what to give away to our guests, and she suggested giving away my barbecue sauce, which is a vinegar-based barbecue sauce like what is traditional to North Carolina. So I made a few batches and bottled it in mason jars, and that’s what we gave out! Fast forward one week, we came back from the honeymoon, and I had about 20 emails and voicemails saying, “Can I have more?”
I really wrestled with whether or not to make more and give it away. I thought about it, and I decided that over the course of a year I could spend a little bit of money and make a go of selling it. I spent the next year working on the marketing, the branding, coming up with the label and design, getting all my ducks in a row, and made my first batch to sell in late May 2012.
CM: So Souse has just celebrated its second birthday?
RG: Yeah, exactly. But an interesting side story is that our wedding was the day the tornadoes hit, and we were in downtown Raleigh right when the tornado came through. So I started selling in 2012, but because of the tornado, I had extras from guests that hadn’t been able to come to the wedding at the last minute. And as I was weighing whether or not to sell my sauce, I took all of those extras out to retailers and asked them to try it to get their feedback, and here we are!
CM: It was a hit from the get-go! So when did you first become passionate about food, and about barbecue specifically?
RG: Oh man, I have been a vinegar-based barbecue fan since I was a kid, and I think that it amplified itself during some time that I spent living in Minnesota. There was only one restaurant there that served sweet tea, there was no Chick-fil-A unless you went to the student union at the University of Minnesota, and that was a little creepy, and all of the barbecue sauce was tomato-based. So, the guy who’s recipe I inherited, I used to get gallons of his sauce, bring it back, and parcel some out for friends to try to get them hooked on the North Carolina-style vinegar sauce.
So I was making a little profit there in Minnesota, and I think that’s when it really hit me how much I enjoyed making it and using it, when I was trying to convert the masses out there. Before, they were just putting ketchup on their meat.
CM: Growing your production is full of unforeseen challenges. Were there any surprising lessons that you learned in the process?
RG: I’ve learned so much. There are so many little things that are the cost of doing business, but it’s a stumbling block for a lot of people that are trying to do it right. It can be as simple as the $800 it costs to get a bar code. For a small producer who really wants to make her pickles, or her jam, or his salsa, those costs are prohibitive.
Then when it comes to actually selling your product, to get your foot in the door somewhere, you have to really set your jaw and be willing to go back again and again, because sooner or later you just catch somebody in the right mood on the right day, somebody who’s told you no 10 times. Sometimes those people become your best customers; you never know if you don’t keep at it.
CM: What about any “bloopers” that you experienced?
RG: You know, bloopers, probably the most embarrassing for me was that I participated in an Intuit contest to win a commercial for the Super Bowl. I had never done anything like that, and to have it out there for all my friends and families to see so they could vote on it, that was a real experience.
So again, that was about persistence. You gotta stay on it, you gotta get outside your comfort zone. Sometimes very unique and free promotional opportunities come your way, but if you’re not willing to get outside your comfort zone, you’re going to miss out.
CM: That’s so true, and I think it’s so important for anyone starting their own small business, and especially their own food business. You have to be a little bit fearless about pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, because no one else will do it for you. It’s so hard!
RG: You have to be willing not to take things personally. For every person that comes up to us when we’re doing a demo at a place like Southern Season, and takes a bite and says, “Oh man, that’s good,” there’s going to be a person behind you that can’t stand vinegar and their face is scrunched up and they’re spitting it out in front of other customers. You can’t do anything about it! You have to just keep smiling and keep going.
CM: So, how do you most often enjoy your own product?
RG: Oh wow, there are so many ways. I do barbecues with my dad, we do barbecues with our family. My wife makes phenomenal ribs with our sauce, and I can claim none of the credit. And one thing I love a lot, but I don’t get to have but once a year, is Al’s French Fries from the State Fair. I get my Al’s French Fries and dip them into Souse BBQ Sauce, and it can’t be beat. I look forward to that every year.
CM: Oh, I’ve never tried those. Sounds like something to add to my “to-do list”! So, what’s your favorite Southern food tradition? I’m guessing barbecue?
RG: Barbecue. It really is. I mean, fried chicken is good but it’s not really my thing. Barbecue, and somebody who can really make fried okra, because those are hard to beat. So yeah, barbecue, fried okra and some good old pinto beans, that’s about the best meal you’ll ever find.
CM: We’re so excited to have your sauce in our store! Tell us, why are you excited to partner with Southern Season?
RG: Well Southern Season to me, for decades, has represented a great slice of North Carolina. It goes way back. You asked me before, when did I really get in that foodie mode, and a lot of it ties back to the notion of “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Southern Season was my Christmas gift outlet of choice in the years that I lived out of the state. Moravian cookies, lemon drops, moonshine cordials, anything that had to do with the Tar Heels, the outline of the state cutting board, I’ve bought ‘em all and bought ‘em all 10 times over.
It is such a great representation of what our state has to offer, and it’s all right there. There’s a Southern charm to it, a Southern flair to it. Having looked to Southern Season for years for the best of North Carolina products, that to me was the ultimate goal, to be there on those shelves with them.
CM: That’s so great to hear! What’s the most important thing that you think people should know about your story? What makes you unique?
RG: There is a modest history to my sauce. The state of North Carolina is eternally torn against itself in its taste buds for barbecue. Ours gives all of the vinegar lovers the vinegar flavor they’ve grown up with and love, but it’s not pure vinegar and pepper flakes. There’s enough robustness to it that it appeals to those who have grown up with and love tomato-based sauce. I just really feel like if this were politics, this is the sauce that can stand in the middle of the aisle and make both parties come together. That’s probably the best way to describe it.