In the summer of 1991 West Texas barbecue guru C. B. "Stubb" Stubblefield got word that he'd been invited to appear on Late Night With David Letterman . Unfamiliar with the crotchety TV personality, the chef and restaurateur watched his talk show every night for three weeks to get a feel for him. His assessment of Letterman was simple. "Not a very nice man," he told musician Joe Ely, one of his best friends from Lubbock. "He treats people really bad, but I've just about got him figured out."
When the day came, Stubb's approach to dealing with Letterman was a respectful form of intimidation wrapped in old-fashioned Lone Star charm. As if his towering frame and cowboy getup weren't imposing enough, his greeting doubled as a warning. "The eyes of Texas are upon you, sir," he said, as if to suggest that the whole state was watching, so you'd better behave yourself. For the next six minutes, Stubb garnered his share of laughs, with Letterman reluctantly playing the role of straight man. When Letterman asked about the ingredients of good barbecue, he jumped at the chance to serve up his stock response: "Love and happiness."
Stubb died in May 1995 at age 64, but his food empire, Stubb's Legendary Kitchen, is still going strong. The tiny start-up that began eleven years ago with Stubb himself filling jam jars and empty whiskey bottles in the kitchen of Ely's house now sells professionally packaged sauces, marinades, rubs, and liquid smoke in thousands of supermarkets in the U.S. and the United Kingdom—each product bearing his likeness and a simple declaration: "My Life Is in These Bottles." It could just as easily be "We're Number One." In A. C. Nielsen surveys Stubb's Original Bar-B-Q Sauce has been ranked the nation's leading independent "specialty" sauce for two years running, topped only by "mainstream" brands like Kraft and K. C. Masterpiece. Sales of the entire Stubb's line have been growing at a rate of nearly 70 percent a year—the privately held business reportedly took in more than $7 million in 1999—and could grow and could soon be growing even faster, thanks to a recent merger with the Austin-based Timpone's family of organic spaghetti sauces, pastas, and salsas.
What makes the company's record impressive is that it has carved out a niche in the highly competitive condiments market. A 1997 Kraft Foods study estimates the barbecue sauce category logs $336 million in sales annually, with 60 percent of U.S. households buying sauce at least once a year. Kraft, which sells nearly 45 percent of all barbecue products, is part of a small group of major manufacturers that account for more than 70 percent of shelf space in groceries; hundreds of specialty and regional barbecue sauces battle for what's left. "It's a pretty diversified field," says Susan Friedman, the editorial director of Food Distribution Magazine. "These days, having a history behind the product helps immensely. What Stubb's has done is create a bit of theater. They've got a story and the packaging to make somebody pull their sauce off the shelf for the first time."
That history verges on genuine West Texas folklore. Stubb's father, Christopher Columbus Stubblefield, an East Texas preacher, moved his family to Lubbock in the thirties so his nine sons could earn a living picking cotton. During the Korean War, Stubb served in the all-black 96th Field Artillery Battalion and cooked for thousands of soldiers daily. His original Lubbock restaurant, Stubb's Bar-B-Q, opened in 1968 on the town's predominantly black east side; though it served a culturally diverse customer base, it was best known for playing host to jams by up-and-coming musicians like Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and intimate sets by blues mainstays like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. "He was like a father figure to us," Ely says. "He had a heart of gold. Any money he made he'd wind up giving away."
In the late eighties Stubb followed many of his musician pals to Austin. After a heart attack left him broke and nearly homeless in 1989, Ely's wife, Sharon, and singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes told him that if he bottled his sauce, they'd buy it and send it around the country as presents. Before long, 23-year-old Lubbock native John Scott—a financial analyst living in New York—and two friends, Scott Jensen and Eddie Patterson, began rounding up investors and sending Stubb checks for $5,000 and $10,000 every few months so that he could continue working out of a rented room on Ben White Boulevard. In 1991, hoping to create a steady income stream for Stubb, the trio incorporated Stubb's Legendary Kitchen. Unfortunately, the start-up was more costly than anyone imagined, partly because Stubb would buy his ingredients from supermarkets at retail prices. "As we progressively lost more and more money, we started getting serious about what it would take to make it work," says Scott, who estimates that Stubb's Legendary Kitchen sold only $8,000 worth of sauce in its first year.
In 1992 Stubb agreed to move his production facilities to a commercial plant in Dallas—where he started buying tomato paste by the truckload instead of the ounce, eventually bringing the cost of a case of sauce down from $40 to $11—and Jensen and Patterson signed on as the company's first full-time salespeople. They lived in a small four-bedroom house in Austin, working out of a small office on the second floor (Scott would fly into town on the weekends). Their initial goal was to capture 10 percent of the Texas barbecue sauce market and 1 percent of the national market, but they'd underestimated how difficult it would be just to get their product onto supermarket shelves. Texas-based H-E-B and Whole Foods initially refused to stock what was then an unproven barbecue sauce. "If we couldn't get into H-E-B, the grocer in our own back yard, how could we convince anybody else?" Scott says. "All the doors were slamming in our faces."
A letter-writing campaign finally got the trio an