Every weekend pitmaster who whips up his or her own barbecue sauce and spice rub for cookouts has had the same fleeting fantasy: “This stuff is so good, I should package it and sell it.” Then they return to repositioning the spareribs over the coals.
Rob Ryan, an air-conditioning technician in Manteca, took it a step further three years ago when he started Rob’s Smokin’ Rub & Frog Sauce company. The giant step came after two years of experimentation with spice rubs and barbecue sauces.
“I was a backyard barbecue guy, buying rub out of Kansas City, Mo.,” he recalled. “The rub was $20 and it cost $20 to ship it. I thought, ‘I need to figure out something better.’ ” So he searched the Internet for rub recipes “and came up with my own.”
Not long after that, he concocted ’cue sauces he cooked in a 5-gallon pot on his kitchen stovetop, “bottling” them in pint jars from Walmart. “The combination (of ingredients) is just something I tripped on,” he said. “I tried out (the sauces and rubs) on my family and friends and everybody liked them.”
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Then serendipity showed up. It was at a barbecue cooking school in San Jose that he ran into Ed Somerfield, owner of Big Ed’s Buzzard BBQ in Santa Clara. The pitmaster tasted Ryan’s sauces, gave them a thumbs-up and suggested he bottle them. Somerfield directed Ryan to a small gourmet-foods facility in the village of Sierra Madre, near Pasadena, that could do just that.
A deal was inked with the E. Waldo Ward & Son company, which now cooks up batches of Ryan’s sauces in 80-gallon vats, following the entrepreneur’s proprietary recipe, and labels and bottles them. Production is between 4,300 to 6,500 bottles a year. The rubs are assembled at a separate facility in Stockton. “It’s funny; when I go to barbecue competitions, I see other teams using my products, so I have to tweak my own stuff to have something different,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s sauces have done extremely well in competitions sponsored by the Kansas City BBQ Society and the Kansas City American Royal Association. Their throw-downs typically involve hundreds of entries from around the country. “My sauces are five-time top-10 winners,” Ryan said. “I’ve got an application in with ‘Shark Tank,’ ” a television show for business entrepreneurs seeking investors.
Ryan’s Sweet ‘n’ Tangy won the world championship in the sauce/novice category at last year’s World Hot Sauce, BBQ and Extreme Food contest in New Iberia, La., which brought competitors from 14 countries.
“The awards ceremony was a live webcast I was watching on my computer in my home office,” Ryan recalled. “All of a sudden the announcer said, ‘In the novice category, the world sauce champion is Rob’s Smokin’ Rub Sweet & Tangy.’ My wife, Whitney, was in the back room, and I went running down the hallway screaming, ‘I’m a world champion!’ ”
Ryan’s road to ’cue fame has been a tough one, he said. After working “40 hours-plus” each week at his job, he spends weekends at vending events, food festivals and barbecue competitions. He’s pretty much booked through October.
“I say to Whitney, ‘Put this or that on our calendar,’ and she just looks at me and sighs,” he said. “I keep booking and booking, hoping that someday it’s going to really take off.”
Rob Ryan – Ryan’s BBQ sauces and rubs
What’s so special: In a competitive barbecue world, Rob Ryan’s two sauces (Sweet ‘n’ Tangy and Spicy) and rubs (mild, sweet, hot, lemon pepper and one for beef) show nuance and balance, delivering levels of intriguing flavors ($9 to $14). They could be the backyard pitmaster’s new best friends.
The local connection: Products from the Manteca-based Rob’s Smokin’ Rub & Frog Sauce company are in many specialty stores in the Central Valley and Bay Area (including Casa de Fruta); and at BBQ Pro, 10140 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks Village, 916-595-7444, www.bbqproonline.com; Diablo Grills, 10100 Fairway Drive, Roseville, 916-361-7100, www.diablogrills.com; and at www.robssmokinrub.com.
Expectations: As Ryan’s sauces and rubs continue to win competitions, he hopes word of mouth will spread and his line will show up in more local stores. He’s been knocking on doors around Sacramento, but “it’s not easy to find vendors, though it’s not for lack of trying.”
Quote: “Making sauces and rubs is something I really wanted to do. When I jump into something, I jump feet first and go in over my head.”
Rob Ryan, Rob’s Smokin’ Rub & Frog Sauce company