Made in the Suburbs: Old Arthur's Barbecue Sauces and Dry Rubs
A Q&A with Eudell Watts IV of Old Arthur's Barbecue Sauces & Dry Rubs.
Q: Describe your company. What product(s) do you make and what are they used for?
A: Old Arthur's manufactures award-winning barbecue sauces and dry rubs true to a set of heirloom recipes first crafted by our great-great-grandfather Arthur Watts more than 160 years ago. Arthur had a dual role in history -- he was one of America's earliest identifiable Pitmasters, but Arthur also started out life enslaved.
As a slave until the age of 28, Arthur's daily task was roasting meat over an open-pit barbecue. This is where he began to experiment with a variety of sauces, herbs and spices to complement the meats he prepared. Arthur continued refining these recipes as a free man for another 80 years until his death at 108.
We started our business on a mission to share the unparalleled flavor, quality and history. At present we make two barbecue sauces and six different dry rubs, true to his original recipes. Though 160-plus years old, these recipes continue to win awards and recognition. Our mild barbecue sauce was just named the No. 1 mild, tomato-based sauce in America for 2022.
Q: Describe the process of making your products.
A: Arthur, our patriarch, refined these recipes over the course of a century. He had plenty of time to experiment and tinker with his ingredients and his process. Unfortunately, this leaves us with a very complex set of recipes to commercialize.
The recipes themselves contain "embedded" recipes for ingredients that must be "compounded" before incorporating into the final product. Some of these precursor steps can take as long as 48 hours to craft. This complexity lends to a wonderfully rich flavor profile. Conversely, it makes it exceptionally difficult to contract it out to a copacker who is sensitive to spending an inordinate amount of time and resource for a single client and their one-off recipe.
We have been fortunate in partnering with a capable copacker for our sauces, but have had to establish our own production facility to properly manufacture our dry rubs due to their unique ingredient and blending requirements.
Q: Do you plan to hire any additional staff or make any significant capital investments in your company in the next year?
A: We are now growing so quickly that we are needing to formalize the roles of individual family members who are involved. We anticipate hiring our first few external employees in the next few months to support the expanded demand and opportunity that we are seeing.
In anticipation of this, we have begun to outline expertise that we lack, so that we are as efficient as possible in bringing in the right talent and capabilities to further fuel our growth.
Q: Do you have enough space in your current facility or are you looking to expand/find a new facility?
A: We are in the process of opening a new production and warehousing facility. We are on track to be fully operational by June. This was necessary to meet the expanded demand for our dry rubs. By our calculations, we will immediately see a tenfold increase in our ability to manufacture dry rub, with the added flexibility to further scale with additional equipment upgrades as necessary.
Q: What will your company's main challenges be in the next year?
A: Our biggest challenge will be in ironing our efficient, cost-effective distribution. Demand is coming from far and wide across America. With our manufacturing in the Midwest, transportation has the potential to be one of our biggest cost drivers. This is something we are studying quite closely. There are times when we simply have to say "no" because a commercial opportunity simply costs too much to access. We are working on relationships that will help us decrease the frequency of those "nos."
Q: What's the hottest trend in your industry?
A: The biggest immediate opportunity that we see, is in offering low sugar and sugar-free alternatives to our current product lines. We plan to begin first with "low carb" reformulations of our Dry Rubs later this summer, and then follow up with low carb variants of our sauces at the end of the year.
Q: Do you have a business mantra?
A: Have a plan, be flexible, roll with the punches, and pivot when necessary.
Q: What is one interesting fact about your company that most people may not know?
A: Our social mission revolves around childhood literacy. We have several initiatives which we have created and continue to support that focus on improving literacy rates in children.
We are fortunate to have Arthur's recipes as part of his legacy. He was not literate. He could not read or write as a result of being a slave for his first 28 years. We are blessed in that we do have his recipes in the handwriting of his children, who did get an education, and did write his recipes down for him as he continually tinkered with them over his and their lifetime. For this reason, a portion of our annual proceeds goes back into theses initiatives we have created in the spirit of Children's Literacy.
Q: What are the benefits to you of making your product(s) here in the Chicago suburbs?
A: Here in Chicago, we are close enough to friends and family that we get from them honest and immediate feedback on our products, our branding and our social media. This allows us to gain insight and pivot quickly.
Q: If you could make any product other than what you do make, what would it be?
A: We are a "Barbecue Sauce and Dry Rub" manufacturer. I believe that Arthur's rich life, reputation as one of the earliest known Pitmasters, and his unequaled products make the foundation for a uniquely authentic barbecue restaurant. Perhaps some day we will have the bandwidth to make that happen.
Q: If you could pick someone famous to promote your product, who would it be?
A: Arthur's is a story of culinary excellence born of hardship and necessity. The historical value is just as significant as the culinary. I would choose historian Ken Burns to tell Arthur's story. His story is the first differentiator from all other products on the market. Once tasted, the products speak for themselves.
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2707 Highland Ave, Evanston, IL 60201
Industry: Barbecue Sauces and Seasonings
Annual revenue: $300,000
Where is your product made: Dry rubs are made in Libertyville.
Number of employees: We are building a family business. There are six or so family members who each lean in and help on a part-time basis: my father, my wife, my teenage children and a couple of my adult siblings.