Pushing the sauce

Local man works to build an empire from family tradition

He sells it one jar at a time, using a spoon and a story and a friendly laugh. And it doesn’t hurt that it smells so good. Vancouver resident Thomas Brown spends a couple hours each Saturday offering free samples of his family barbecue sauce at specialty grocery stores throughout the Vancouver-Portland metro area.

He sells it one jar at a time, using a spoon and a story and a friendly laugh. And it doesn’t hurt that it smells so good. Vancouver resident Thomas Brown spends a couple hours each Saturday offering free samples of his family barbecue sauce at specialty grocery stores throughout the Vancouver-Portland metro area.

Mr. Brown’s Barbecue Sauce has been around as a retail product since 1995, but it was invented during the Eisenhower Administration. Brown’s father, Rufus Brown, came up with the recipe in 1953, and would sell it to his neighbors in North Portland. Along the way, Brown learned to make the sauce as well.

"The way my dad was, if he was gonna do something, you were gonna do it too," said Brown. But he’s not complaining. He went on in life to do his own thing, serving as a Marine in Vietnam, earning two degrees from Portland State University and then working as a news editor at KATU for 10 years and then at KGW for four. But after being "downsized" from both gigs by the late 1980s, Brown determined never to work for anyone again.

That’s when he pulled out his dad’s old recipe and tied an apron around his waist.

He started out in 1989 selling barbecue out of an old bus in Hazel Dell, snagging passing drivers with the aroma of his dad’s recipe. Rufus passed away in 1990, and in 1995, Thomas Brown switched from the bus to selling jars in local stores, and today he produces 25 cases of the stuff each month. That’s around 50 gallons, and it’s for sale in specialty grocery stores from Vancouver to Salem, going for an average $6 per 16-ounce jar.

"My sauce is the leading seller in all the stores," he said, pushing his product on a sunny day at Pasta Works in Portland. "When you do demos, you’re gonna sell some product," he says.

"It’s got that little bite that kinda says hello to ya after about eight seconds," he said with a warm smile to an interested couple. They walked away with two jars – one of the original recipe and one of the new honey lemon pepper flavor.

"Women always seem to choose the honey lemon pepper," he said to a young lady who snatched up a jar of the stuff.

"Ah, that’s because it’s amazing," she replied.

Brown’s salesmanship and the quality of the sauce certainly move product and keep him from searching the want ads for a day job, but he hopes to take it higher still. He’s been working to land a major distributor to go national with his product and wants to hand off the business to his family. Brown has five grown children.

"They all grew up around the grill with my dad learning how to cook," he said. "I’m trying to get into a position where I can turn it over to them."

In an attempt to woo distributors, Brown has produced a DVD of his appearances over the years on shows such as Good Day Oregon and KGW’s Good Evening show, where he gave cooking lessons and promoted his sauce. Still, he says breaking that barrier and getting a distributor is quite a hurdle.

"It’s hard to get hooked up with distributors," he said, "because there are just so many products out there. But I feel with the new DVD, I’ll be able to get somebody interested."

In the meantime, he keeps his apron and his smile on, turning shoppers on to his culinary magic.

"I love cooking and I love talking about food," he said. "And I always like watching people when they taste it for the first time."

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