There are some barbecue places in Texas where asking for sauce is basically equivalent to walking in and saying, “I don’t even know what barbecue is.” Try that at Kreuz Market, in Lockhart, for instance, and you can season your ribs with extra scorn. (Tip for sauce lovers: bring a bottle of sauce, get your meal to go, and enjoy it at the square in Lockhart instead.) But the fact that Texas barbecue isn’t defined by its sauce didn’t stop Stubb’s—the sixth-largest barbecue sauce brand in the country—from fetching a cool $100 million for its sale to the spice-and-seasoning giant McCormick’s last week.
That’s a lot of money for barbecue sauce, although sauce is a serious business. Stubb’s, according to a 2012 story in the Austin American-Statesman, posted annual sales of $20 million in 2011, and the largest barbecue sauce retail brand—Chicago-based Sweet Baby Ray’s—had an estimated sales figure of $151 million, according to the website Statista.
There’s a lot of money in barbecue sauce, in other words, but the top brands on the market all have one thing in common: Sweet Baby Ray’s, Kraft, KC Masterpiece, Jack Daniel’s, and private-label brands at stores like Walmart and other chains all sell barbecue sauce as a cheap kitchen staple, a slightly smokier ketchup in a plastic bottle. Stubb’s, meanwhile, aims for an artisanal, homegrown authenticity—or, at least, the appearance of it, with glass bottles proudly emblazoned with the face of Christopher B. Stubblefield, an ingredients list free of things like high-fructose corn syrup, and a flagship restaurant in Austin with national renown because of its associated music venue.
All of those things are desirable elements of the Stubb’s brand. But the state of Texas is a brand too, and that might do for barbecue-related things a little bit of what Switzerland does for chocolate. Texas barbecue is a brand that’s risen in the national—and international—consciousness as the celebrity of Aaron Franklin has risen, who is constantly featured on food and travel shows (and who sells his own sauce exclusively at H-E-B), and, if we may say so ourselves, as our very own barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn, has become more well known, who keeps all pitmasters on their toes over at TMBBQ. Plus, every March SXSW sends home thousands of slow-smoked meat converts.
So when customers opt for Stubb’s—which is pretty good barbecue sauce, but not noticeably better than most of its competitors—they’re likely buying into the cool that is Texas barbecue. And that’s a cool that McCormick is banking a hundred million bucks on.