by Andrew Kenney
photographs by Chris Fowler
Sauce at its best is a culture distilled, the collected spices and secrets of a cuisine and a history. A taste of a hearty ragù or a vinegar sauce with an addictive eastern tang can be an introduction to a city, a state, or a family.
In Raleigh, a diverse scene of sauce-makers has bubbled from the Research Triangle’s influx of cultures and its new appetite for local food. Over the last few decades – and especially in the last five years – a handful of small businesses have launched spicy experiments and bottled family recipes with tasty results that have succeeded on local grocery shelves, and, in one instance, those around the globe.
Behind each of these successful sauces is a tale – a whole genre, collectively – about business and family. Sit with a saucier and you’ll hear the rediscovered recipe of an ancestral village, the travails of a chili-addicted transplant, the balancing act of a suburban chef, or maybe the traditions of a family whose product has reached some six dozen countries.
These are Raleigh’s sauce stories, from first taste to last stir.
The mother sauce
Every sauce story has to start with some inspiration – a whiff of spice, a recipe that works, a family tradition, a business opportunity.
It came for Neal McTighe, now the owner of Raleigh’s Nello’s Sauce, eight years ago in the village of Carife, Italy. He was in the picturesque hill town of 1,700 on a detour from an academic trip, and hungry for a local meal.
The town’s restaurants seemed to hide from his view, but he did find the mayor, who pointed him down one of Carife’s few tightly packed streets. As instructed, McTighe found a doorframe hung with beads; inside waited the recommended restaurateur, snacking on nuts and wine.
“I’m going to make you lunch,” the man told him, disappearing into the kitchen for a few minutes, then emerging with a simple plate of ciciatelli pasta and sauce.
The pasta looked familiar, with its scalloped edges and long, boat-like shape. So did the sauce, simple and tomato-red. But it was the taste that would become the emotional anchor for a new business and a new life.
“Just imagine a time warp. I’m like a little boy in my great-grandmother’s kitchen again,” McTighe says, his hands vigorously animating the story.
That taste was so familiar, in fact, because McTighe’s great-grandmother had learned to cook in this same tiny village. The smell of this same sauce had permeated her 1930s Philadelphia Victorian decades earlier. The sauce’s color even spilled out from her gardens in bunches of bright-red tomatoes. All of that detail returned with McTighe’s first bite.
Years later, this would become McTighe’s inspiration to cook huge batches of sauce in a tiny apartment, to quit his job in book publishing, and finally to push his product to Whole Foods markets and beyond.
It didn’t happen overnight.
He and his girlfriend Heather (now his wife), first worked to tailor his great-grandmother’s simple red sauce for the “bigger” tastes of the American palate. Then they found customers at work and among friends. And then they made a lot of sauce.
“In the beginning, I’d make four or five cases,” he says. “But then I was cooking three times a week, four times a week. Oh my God, my house smelled like tomato sauce constantly.”
By the end of 2011, McTighe had moved from Chapel Hill to Raleigh and was cooking 100 pounds of tomatoes per week in the Department of Agriculture-inspected kitchen of his new apartment. His new customers’ appetites kept pace. In 2012, he quit his book-publishing job, and he has since moved the cooking to a food production facility in Raleigh.
He needs the help – today, Nello’s, which comes in three varieties, is sold in 100 stores, including regional branches of Whole Foods, Harris Teeter and Kroger. That’s the power of sauce.
Great sauce recipes are supposed to be secrets, right?
Simple as they are, a sauce’s only protection from its competitors is the unique balance of its ingredients. And one Raleigh sauce – Benny T’s Vesta – claims to have invented a whole new way to do it.
Ben Tuorto, a New Yorker by birth, found the beginnings of his sauce when he arrived in North Carolina 20 years ago.
“The State Farmers Market had an array of peppers … bushel upon bushel, colors and shapes that I had never seen,” says Tuorto.
So he brought home a bunch, and then a bunch more, sautéing them and eating them straight. Eager to share his discovery, the father of three took his favorite new five-alarm treats to cook-outs and parties, expecting that people would love them.
Not so much.
The heat’s “a lot for normal people to handle,” his son, Paul, explains, joining his father for an interview. “And I didn’t realize that,” Ben adds. “No one could take it.”
But the elder Tuorto, a chef by nature and nurture, wasn’t content to keep these new flavors to himself.
He began cooking every night after work, “non-stop, constant cooking,” filling the house with the sharp smell of browning chilies, to some family members’ dismay.
“There’s a lot of reasons we do this,” he says of the chiles’ heat. “There’s a cliff we can go over – we’re willing to go over – because we know we can come back.”
Working through potential recipes, he remembered the way onions could cut the taste of anchovies in a pasta. So he turned on the stovetop in the family’s Cary home, sliced, diced, and caramelized a few onions, and then added a batch of chilies and toasted bread crumbs.
The result – a spicy, colorful paste – was the prototype of what would become Benny T’s Vesta sauce. But he had experimented himself into a corner: It had to be refrigerated, making it much harder for stores to stock.
So he called in a food scientist, who transformed the perishable paste into a powdery, shelf-stable “dry sauce.” But no contract crew was ready for that job.
“We couldn’t find a co-packer,” or an industrial kitchen with a staff of chefs for hire, says son Paul. “Nobody could handle the ingredients the way we were doing it.”
They were on their own. So Ben continued to roam “the Harris Teeters of the world” to buy up every chile in sight, sometimes as fellow shoppers cast a wary eye.
He eventually found Bailey Farms, in the town of Oxford, to supply them with chilies, and the family also started a garden for specialty chilies on an incongruous patch of farmland that borders their subdivision.
But the cooking of Benny T’s Vesta sauce, they concluded, would have to be done themselves. That hasn’t hurt its marketabilty: Today Benny T’s has landed in Whole Foods markets as distant as Charlotte and smaller groceries across the state.
Most of Raleigh’s sauce stories – and maybe most anywhere – involve some variation of the utterance “You could sell this stuff,” always spoken by friends or family or lucky strangers.
Jan Campana heard it quickly after she perfected the barbecue sauce that would become Dimples BBQ Sauce.
She’d started on the sweet tomato-based sauce soon after her family moved to Wake Forest in 2004, hoping to propel her husband’s competitive barbecue team out of the lower ranks.
“They were losing like crazy, coming in 48 out of 49, and No. 49 left a toothpick in so he got disqualified,” she recalls, leaning over coffee in her Dimples-logo polo shirt.
So she got to work, market-testing by way of her two picky-eater sons and with the folks in competition crowd, where she and her husband were giving it away by the bucket.
The sauce improved. But as she considered her next steps as a potential business, she faced the classic sauce-maker conundrum: While it’s easy to make sauce for a family, things change quickly on a commercial scale. High production volumes require sources of high-volume ingredients, uniform products, and some degree of bureaucratic hassle.
Campana chose a route oft-used and plenty well-respected: She had somebody else cook. In the first month of 2011, she took her beloved recipe to an industrial kitchen to cook for her.
“I’m making it on the stove in a sauce pan, and they’re making it in a vat, stirring it with a boat oar,” she says. “I wasn’t sure how I’d do it otherwise.”
She had her first pallets of North Carolina-sourced sauce soon after, leaving her with “enough barbecue sauce for the rest of our life,” or the beginnings of a business.
That left the family free to pursue the difficult tasks of marketing, fighting for shelf space, and experimenting with new flavors. First up, by popular request: the spicy version.
Today, Dimples is pushing a grassroots campaign through independent grocers and finding marketing to be its biggest challenge.
Making it big
All these steps – the experimenting, the sourcing, the cooking – are just a prelude.
“Once the demand starts building up and the order comes, you either make it or you don’t …” McTighe says, flailing his hands in a pantomime of the weekly rush.
“You have to say yes, because you have to sell a lot of jars.”
You have to sell those jars because sauce is a low-margin business, and the competition can be heated. The battlefield is the supermarket shelf, which often is the only place sauce-makers can sell enough jars to support a full-time venture.
“It’s more busy now than it was in the developing stage,” says Campana. “Now you have to go out and sell – and it doesn’t grow unless you’re out there pushing it.”
Nello’s, Benny T’s, and Dimples all have made their inroads. But all still have a long way to go – and as they bring bigger vats to simmer, they’ll have a model close at hand.
Bone Suckin’ Sauce is the big, saucy gorilla of North Carolina and perhaps even the Southeast.
In the ’70s, “people started to say you ought to bottle this,” says Phillip Ford, thinking back to the birth of his famous western North Carolina barbecue sauce. “I didn’t pay any attention to them. I figured, anybody getting a free meal…”
Now jars bearing the company’s simple, homey label are sold in 76 countries, and siblings, cousins, parents, and grandchildren buzz in and out of the family’s offices at the State Farmers Market, also home to Ford’s Produce Co.
The sauce, named for a grandmother’s end-of-meal ritual, is made by a manufacturer in Dunn that has grown practically as an extension of the company.
“I just tell people I made something that tasted good,” Ford says – but that’s far from all. The family credits its success to some combination of chance and dedication.
Their unique name won them attention and then they lobbied hard to land shelf space – Phillip, a real-estate appraiser, carried jars in his truck, and the kids earned $2.50 for each store they won over.
They also listened – always – to their customers. When the market demanded a hot sauce, the Fords tested it on the UPS man, because no one in the family liked much heat. Philip had never tasted salsa, but he learned how to make one anyway.
Mostly, they just kept cooking. They’d discovered something good, and it took them farther than they’d ever imagined.
“My dad has a saying: ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get,’” says Patrick Ford. “And my parents lead by example.”
The sauce is good
No matter the fate of their business ventures, these entrepreneurs know one thing: the sauce is good. Each of these four families uses their respective creations on an almost daily basis.
For Neal McTighe, the taste is a constant reminder of his great-grandmother’s house, a symbolic connection that animates an entire business.
“You know, you’re selling a story,” he says, crediting his humanities education for his success. “It really is a story. People buy stories.”
Jan Campana’s sauce was shaped by the people in her life, and it offers an exciting new venture as her kids leave the house.
“You meet the greatest people. Everybody loves barbecue,” she says.
And Ben Tuorto’s still obsessed with his invention – “I use it on everything except cereal.” The business will also, he hopes, be “a legacy for my family. The thing I have passion for, that could sustain them.”