Hot Sauce, Hotter Sales

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Guy's BBQ Sauce business catches fire

Ira “Guy” Hughes’ barbecue sauce has won numerous awards. At the Mahoning Valley Rib Burn Off last year, he won both Best Sauce and Best Ribs awards.

Ira "Guy" Hughes used to hide from fans of his bbq sauce. So eager were they to buy the spicy condiment that he couldn't make it fast enough.

A line supervisor at General Motors' auto assembly plant in Lordstown, Hughes loved to barbecue and thought that opening a little restaurant would be a nice sideline. He never expected that his customers would insist on taking bottles of the bbq sauce he made in his kitchen in Newton Falls home with them. Or that meeting demand for that sauce would become his primary business.

Today, Guy's Award Winning BBQ Sauce has expanded to include a handful of flavors - original, spicy, hot and spicy garlic, plus Sweet Thunder Hot Sauce and Sweet Thunder Inferno Hot Sauce, all available for sale at retail giants such as Kmart, Wal-Mart Fisher Foods, Topp’s, Giant Eagle, Marc’s, Sav-A-Lot and Heinen’s throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Another of Hughes’ barbecue sauces, Pete’s Official Tailgate Sauce, benefits Youngstown State University’s athletics department and is available for sale on campus as well as at select retailers in the Mahoning Valley.

Hughes’ love of barbecue began when he was a young child. Some of his fondest memories, he says, are of family cookouts; it is his family’s secret barbecue sauce recipe that he enjoyed as a child that inspired the recipes he created for his line of barbecue sauces. All of Guy’s BBQ sauces are made of natural ingredients – tomato paste, sugar, spices and the like. They are also free of preservatives, artificial colors and stabilizers. Barbecuing professionally for more than 30 years, Hughes opened his first restaurant, The Smoke Pit, in the Austin Village Plaza in Warren. Then, he relocated to the city’s west side, opening Guy’s BBQ.

Eventually, he took over the restaurant and catering business at Hotel Regency on the heavily traveled Route 422 strip.

The former occupant, Hughes says, left and the hotel needed someone who could move in quickly and cater events that had already been booked. So, he opened Guy’s Rib Paradise. There, he recalls, it wasn’t unusual to have a “full house” in the restaurant while simultaneously catering two or three parties.

When the Hotel Regency burned, destroying the entire complex, Hughes took a brief hiatus from the restaurant business before opening Guy’s BBQ not far from where Guy’s Rib Paradise once stood.

All the while, demand for Hughes’ barbecue sauce continued to grow. Finally, he decided to abandon the restaurant business. “The restaurant business is very demanding,”

Hughes explains. It consumed all of his time and energy and he wanted barbecuing to be fun as well as profitable. Limiting his business to catering special events and barbecuing at festivals would be more lucrative and consume less of his time, Hughes reasoned, so he bought a concession trailer and started selling his barbecued ribs at summer festivals.

Before he knew it, crowds were a regular fixture around his concession trailer and, just as before, his customers wanted sauce to take home. So, he found a commercial canner to bottle his sauce and distribute it through a handful of retailers.

Sales were strong and swift, so swift that his distributor failed to keep the grocery shelves stocked and some of the chain stores, frustrated by empty shelf space, dropped the account.

Sometime after that, Bill Santangelo and Mike Audi, co-workers at Zidian Specialty Foods, a food distributor in Youngstown, discovered Guy’s BBQ.

“We were at the Mount Carmel festival in Youngstown and there was this massive crowd,” Santangelo recalls. “There was smoke billowing up in the middle and we wanted to see what was going on. We went over and saw that they were all gathered around this trailer.”

The co-workers thought that to attract such a crowd, the ribs must be pretty good and they decided to give Guy’s BBQ a try.

“I watched him walk away,” Hughes says with a smile. “I saw him take a bite and then he just stopped.”

Santangelo and Audi turned around, walked back to the trailer and started reading the label on a bottle of Hughes’ sauce.

“It was awesome,” Santangelo says.

“They asked me who bottled and distributed it,” Hughes adds. “I told them and Mike Audi said, ‘You need to come see me.’ Two days later I was in his
office and two weeks after that they were distributing my sauce.”

“It’s been a success story ever since,” Santangelo says.

“The reason we like Guy’s sauce so much is its unique flavor,” says Rick Coradini, director of research and development at Summer Garden Food Manufacturing, Boardman, which today manufactures and bottles the full line of Guy’s BBQ and hot sauces.

Summer Garden is a sister company of Zidian Specialty Foods.

“It has a sweetness and a hottness – a two-stage flavor profile. It’s not like a lot of sauces that are vinegary,” Coradini continues.

Apparently, consumers like the sweet hotness too. Production has increased by more than 50% since Summer Garden began bottling Guy’s BBQ Sauce about three years ago, Coradini reports.

The Ohio State Buckeyes are even big fans. Summer Garden/Gia Russa and Guy’s BBQ catered a dinner for the team and coaches during their preseason training
camp late last summer and “it was the best catered meal we had in two years,” says Jim Cordle, a three-year starter who’s played tackle, center and guard. “Everybody said it was the best ribs they ever had. I ate for an hour straight – I don’t know how to quantify that much food because I’m not a slow eater.”

The Buckeyes aren’t Guy’s only celebrity fans. Guy Mitchell, former executive chef for the Philadelphia Eagles who has cooked for movie stars and politicians, including guests at Vice President Joe Biden’s residence, sampled the sauce during the Fancy Food Show in New York last July and walked away with eight cases that he planned to share with the chefs who cook in the White House, Hughes reports.

Ira “Guy” Hughes holds a commercial-size jug of his Sweet Thunder Hot Sauce during a local home and garden show where he explained how to make barbecued ribs and his son, Kevin, left, and Emily Littell, right, offered samples to those in attendance.

Next month, the entrepreneur will take his sauce to “a huge food show in Las Vegas” where he expects his products to garner similar reactions. Hughes says his business’ recent designation as a certified Minority Business Enterprise through the state of Ohio Department of Administrative Services should also help spur interest and sales of Guy’s BBQ sauces in stores such as Sam’s Club and KeHE Foods, which have programs that target minority-owned businesses for inclusion among their suppliers.

Hughes also expects the private-label sauce created for YSU to help drive ongoing growth and demand for his product, both because demand for Pete’s Official Tailgate Sauce continues to grow, and because other universities want their own. (Hughes says he is in discussions with OSU and the University of Akron).

“Everybody’s heavy on tailgating,” he says.

With ongoing support from Zidian Specialty Foods’ national sales team, Hughes says the geographic area where Guy’s BBQ sauces are available will continue to expand. He even expects to begin exporting his products to Mexico.

Promoting his product and operating his catering/concession business became Hughes’ sole occupation in 2006 when he retired from GM. His company, Guy’s BBQ Pork LLC, employs 10, including his wife, three sons, daughter and 17-year-old grandson.