It all started with a confounding gift that led to a hobby. Kevin Schmitt never imagined his pastime would lead to a business.
Schmitt’s foray into the world of barbecue sauce began simply, with a present from his son, Ben, who had flipped a house, done well and wanted to do something nice for his dad.
When Schmitt opened the package, he was perplexed. “I get this big stainless steel thing and I said (to my son) ‘What is it?’” says Schmitt. “He said, ‘It’s a smoker,’ and I said, ‘well, I don’t know what a smoker is.’”
Schmitt’s skepticism soon gave way to curiosity as he began to experiment with the smoker, which cooks meat “low and slow” and infuses it with a smoky flavor. Schmitt took to it, decided to form a competition barbecue team, Smoking Addiction, and began traveling around the Midwest.
Team Schmitt found the competitions at once fun and vexing. The commitment is intense, says Schmitt, with teams arriving on Friday evening and staying up all night to cook for the Saturday judging.
“It’s more humbling than anything,” Schmitt says, recalling times when he and his team had been sure they’d submitted their best-ever offering only to wind up in the middle of the pack.
Having learned the art of smoking meat, the Manitowoc man’s focus soon turned to finding the ideal barbecue sauce. Nailing down the winning formula was no easy task.
Schmitt, a retired firefighter and paramedic, tried mixing commercial sauces to get the flavor he wanted, but that proved overwhelming. “You go to the grocery store and there’s 30 of them,” he says. “We couldn’t find one that we could win with.”
In addition, Ben Schmitt, who competes with his dad, says buying commercial sauce became expensive. Many barbecue sauces come from Missouri and tend to be thick and hot, he says, and those attributes don’t necessarily fit Midwestern tastes as well.
Wisconsinites tend to have a low tolerance for spiciness, says Ben Schmitt, whose day job is working in security for a tech company. “Anything more than black pepper will light them up.”
Finally, the senior Schmitt and his team decided to make their own sauce — and began winning with it. They sought to create one that would be universally appealing, and Ben Schmitt thinks they’ve achieved that.
Others seemed to agree, and they began asking if they could buy Schmitt’s sauce. Always ready for a challenge, Schmitt decided to begin bottling his sauce. Operations began in a decidedly rustic fashion, with Schmitt preparing 10 gallons at a time and putting it in mason jars.
The next part of the journey proved to be an education. Schmitt soon discovered that the process was more complicated than he’d initially thought and that he would need to obtain a license and take a canning class to learn about food safety.
Schmitt, who also runs SA Catering LLC, started an incubator kitchen, an approved space to experiment and tinker with recipes in Algoma, and submitted his formula, bottle and process to Barbara Ingham, “the god of getting to process food in Wisconsin.”
Ingham is a UW-Madison professor and a food safety specialist for the UW-Extension. It’s her job to ensure that food can be produced safely and consistently.
Federal regulations for canned items, which include containers that are shelf-stable and hold anything moist, are comprehensive, Ingham says. “Because of that we have to handle those products safely.”
Ingham works with each processor to review the recipe and formulation. For shelf-stable products like barbecue sauce, it’s vital to make sure that they contain enough acid and are cooked with sufficient heat, she says.
“It’s not an easy process (for producers),” Ingham says. “It’s a huge amount of work.”
Schmitt persevered, however, and his efforts paid off when Kwik Trip came calling. The convenience store juggernaut was looking to add a new barbecue sauce and turned to Schmitt. Today, Schmitt Bros. Barbecue Sauce is sold in about 400 Kwik Trips, 16 Woodman’s and 10 Sendik’s, as well as a handful of other retailers.
The road to success has been paved with revelations and frustrations, including navigating decisions like product pricing and distribution. Schmitt, who now works with a co-packer to produce his sauce, has learned much, including what it takes to sell a product.
“Really, what sells a product is brand recognition,” Schmitt says, and to achieve that, people need to taste it first.
Schmitt, who sells about 10,000 bottles of sauce a year, demos his product in grocery stores. Success to him is when he hears people say, “Wow, I just found my new sauce.”
With just one type of sauce, Schmitt says he’s working on creating more varieties, including a hotter version. He’d also like to sell more of his rub, which hasn’t caught on as quickly as the sauce, and get into more stores.
Really, though, it comes back to the fans. “What we’re most proud of is that we have a product that people like,” he says. “And we have a following of people.”