Spartan Jesse Lee Graff Wants To Get Chicago (BBQ) Sauced

Jesse Graff graduated from Michigan State University in 2005 with a degree in finance and moved to Chicago, where he worked for investment firms for several years. But Graff had an itch to explore going into business for himself -- and a talent for making barbecue sauce that he had been honing since college.

After mulling the possibilities, Graff decided last year to take the plunge, launching a company with friend and business partner Caleb Castillo-Olszta to produce and sell barbecue sauces made from Graff's recipes. At the same time, Graff enrolled in post-graduate courses at University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, which is known for its strong emphasis on entrepreneurship.

Jesse Lee's Barbecue Sauce is still small scale, operating under Illinois' cottage food law. He and Castillo-Olszta produce small batches of a single variety in the kitchen of the apartment they now share and hand-deliver their sales, mostly to friends and acquaintances. But Graff has big goals that involve developing several flavors of sauce, possibly including one that he hopes would establish a regional Chicago barbecue sauce identity parallel to the already well-known varieties such as Kansas City, Carolina and Texas.

I must issue the disclaimer that Graff is a friend, a former member of the board of the Chicago Michigan State alumni club on which I currently hold a seat. But since I'm still fairly new to this food writing business, it wouldn't benefit me or you if I drew attention to a product that I didn't think merited your attention.

I have already gone through the first jar of Jesse Lee's sauce, am getting close to bottom of jar number 2... and have placed an order for two more. It is very well-balanced, not too sweet (a problem I find with a number of bottled sauces) and not fire-breathing spicy, even though there are hot habanero peppers in the mix.

Here's what it looks like slathered on chicken drumettes, which I have to say were awesome.

Chicken drumettes with Jesse Lee's BBQ Sauce

Chicken drumettes with Jesse Lee's BBQ Sauce

And here is what the current design looks like, though Graff informed me today that he has reached an agreement with a packager who will use a laser system to apply the label directly onto the jar.

Jesse Lee's Barbecue Sauce

Below are excerpts from an interview I recently conducted with Graff over lunch at The Counter burger place on Diversey.

Q: When did you actually initiate the project?

A: The barbecue sauce has been in development for 10 years. I started making the barbecue sauce sometime in high school, I’d say. That was a result of my parents’ cooking, they would buy your typical barbecue sauce, your Kansas City style, take it home and doctor it up. At some point I adopted the patriarchal role of grilling and barbecuing, so that’s when I started fooling around with my own ingredients. When I went to college, that allowed me to really experiment. I always had willing guinea pigs (laughs) to test the sauce on.

I made a couple of batches using root beer, so now I put fennel into the barbecue sauce, it lends to that smoky flavor. One time I used ginger ale, so now I put ginger in it. So it’s been developing, piece by piece, for the last 10 years.

But we didn’t really start kicking things into development until October of 2011. That was mostly a push from Caleb. Caleb had had my barbecue sauce a number of times, he said you’ve wanted to do this, to start a business, now’s a good time because you’re starting school. Let’s do it.

Q: Where did you know Caleb from?

A: At the time he was my friend from high school’s former roommate in college. When he moved out to Chicago, we started hanging out more and developed a better friendship. So now, I’d say the first five months, from October until February, up until the point at which we had our tasting party, we were just tweaking the recipe and making it even better than I had developed it. We formed the LLC in January, we just picked up insurance, other research was going into it.

We also have two other blends that are under development. The website we started around February, the logo design we started in March. Things have been a pretty slow and steady process. That’s a product in part of my partner working full-time, my going to school part-time and working part-time.

Q: How did you develop the cooking jones in the first place? You picked it up when you were much younger than I did. How did you decide you like to cook?

A: There were two factors. One was that my parents split, and I was fending for myself a lot there in high school. That kind of forced me to learn how to use the stove and how to cook for myself.

Not to say my parents were bad cooks or anything, they also influenced my cooking interests. My mom is 100 percent Sicilian/Italian, so she’s got some pretty good recipes that have been handed down to her. So we would cook bacon and cook for the holidays and things like that.

But I was also a short-order cook for five years. I started in high school cooking at the Country Club of Detroit. When I was in college, I cooked all over, at Buffalo Wild Wings, Red Cedar Grill, Lou and Harry’s. It allowed me to get creative and still improve my proficiency around the grill.

Q: What have you found most interesting and challenging in terms of developing your recipe and introducing it to people and getting feedback?

A: I think the most interesting thing has been tweaking the recipe and going through all these different stages and different methods of improving the barbecue sauce. I didn’t really know how many different styles of barbecue sauce are out there. Now I’m very well informed on that.

I did a lot of research. The fun part is just being creative. We’re developing two more blends, we want to eventually have five to seven different blends. It’s not just sitting behind a desk 12 hours a day and behind four computer screens looking at charts. It’s something you want to do and you can wake up for, stay up late for. And have fun! And I’m doing it with one of my buddies, which makes it easier.

Q: A lot of people I’ve met who are into food or growing did something else before, usually something corporate, in an office. They decided they were their own favorite boss and tired of jumping to somebody else’s tune and they were just going to free-fall and try to do something that they love instead.

A: Especially with the economy the way it is, a lot of people are displaced from their traditional roles, which is almost forcing people to fall back on their hobbies and say this is a good idea, now’s the time to take a step forward and see where it goes.

Q: What are you finding in terms of coming up with a plan to get a product profile and get shelf space?

A: That was a pretty primary concern for us from the beginning because the barbecue space is very well saturated. What we intend to do is carve out several niches ourselves. The most important thing is to make our product unique and differentiating it from all the other products out there.

We’ll rely on the types of sauces and blends we come out with. I’ve been using habaneros in my sauces since college. So all the varieties we’ll be coming out with will feature a different kind of pepper. That’s going to be a little niche for us and create a kind of identity.

We’ve tossed around the idea of having seasonal blends as well, similar to a microbrew, for example, where certain peppers are only in season during certain months, so we make blends showcasing that pepper and give it an exclusivity, limited edition kind of effect.

Another niche we’re trying to create is actually giving a name for Chicago-style barbecue sauce. My original is kind of a Kansas City derivative. Then you’ve got your Carolinas, which are mustard-based, your Alabama white, which is mayonnaise-based, Louisiana, which is a rub, Kansas City, which is tomato-based. They’re all unique in their own way, and one of the blends we’re developing uses corn. Illinois’ largest crop is corn, and Chicago has a commodity-driven economy, so we figured corn would be an identifier.

Also, looking to partner with breweries. I’ve made sauces in the past using beer and it comes out great. We’d like to engage in a co-branding exchange with a brewery where they showcase our barbecue sauce using one of their beers on their menu and we promote them on our website and our labels as well.

The other thing, and the most important thing here from a marketing standpoint, I look at barbecue sauce as a very social consumer item. It’s similar to alcohol, it brings people together. But I don’t see any barbecue sauce companies out there really positioning themselves as such. I think that’s really going to be what separates us from the pack is creating that social environment. Hey, you’ve got good barbecue sauce, you get everybody together, you’re outside, everybody in the Midwest likes to grill. Enjoy yourselves.

Q: And starting from the Chicago base, as you’re planning down the road, you can develop a Philadelphia style or an LA style...

A: Another idea, similar to the brewery idea, is using coffee. I’ve used coffee in making barbecue sauce before. There are local coffee places around here and I’m sure they’d be interested in some kind of partnership and co-marketing arrangement as well...

I’ve used Guinness before. That can compete with your Jack Daniels barbecue sauce and their contemporaries.

Q: Along with the beer, you might be able to leverage something with some of the microdistillers. There already are a lot of bourbon-flavored and Jack Daniels-flavored sauces out on the market. You could do a local distillers’ product.

A: That would be ideal. Eventually, we hope to get to scale where we can be tapping more into all the local producers. The habaneros, for example, I’d really like to start sourcing from local farmers, tomatoes, sugar, etc. Right now, that’s a little outside our budget, we probably need to do a bit more research into how to make that possible. But we hope to have everything as local and green as possible. For example, one of the changes with my recipe involves removing the Worcestershire because that contains anchovies, and we want to make it gluten-free and all organic....

I usually had a garden, growing tomatoes, we had snow peas. At my second place, we had an atrium outside, with a glass ceiling that was perfect.... It would be very cool to grow our habaneros, grow our tomatoes, herbs.

Q: Are there any huge obstacles you’re finding in terms of licensing, getting the city to approve?

A: Not yet. Right now, we’re operating under the Illinois cottage foods law. So as long as we produce under the required volume, we should be okay. But at some point we’re going to have to get USDA approval, and city approval, which will require more research. But we’re taking it step by step at this point...

It’s going to get tricky when we reach volume and we’re going to have to work with a co-producer or if we’re going to have to rent kitchen space or hire people to do labeling for us. That will be a decision made when we get there. I don’t think we can calculate anything right now.

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