The secret to getting a slice of the business from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte might not be in the pie, but in the sauce.
Two York County firms – Q2U and Outdoor Feasts Catering – recently won two of the three barbecue sauce competitions.
Q2U, the Lake Wylie-based team of Mark Cieslikowski and Brian Rich, won the vinegar-based competition.
Outdoor Feasts Catering, owned by Dan Huntley of York, won the mustard-based competition with his Carolina Pig Pucker BBQ Sauce.
Tom Montgomery and Sabra Kelley of Asheville, N.C., won the tomato-based competition.
The winning sauces are being sold together for $25 at store.charlottein2012.com, and beginning Saturday at 7th Street Public Market, to raise money for the September convention.
“South Carolina! Great cooks! Great sauces!” bragged Lake High, president of the S.C. Barbeque Association after the winners were announced. “Bragging rights? This certainly doesn’t hurt!”
South Carolina is the “inventor” of barbecue, High said, with the first feasts dating to the 16th century. He said South Carolina has the most diverse taste with four distinct sauces – vinegar and pepper, mustard, light tomato and heavy tomato.
“And we are truly the best,” High said. “You’ll be disappointed less in South Carolina when you see a barbecue sign than anywhere else in the nation.”
Ask Brian Rich and Mark Cieslikowski about the first time they cooked a whole pig, and they will smile, chuckle – and then it’s out-and-out laughter.
Cieslikowski, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and Rich, who grew up in Greenville, N.C., had grilled outdoors but never cooked the whole hog. So the co-workers at Continental Tire in Charlotte purchased a hog, rented a cooker, and fired it up on a Friday evening.
They settled down to beer and poker, anticipating the hog would be done in time for their guests Saturday afternoon.
That was until the smoker caught fire.
They responded with a garden hose.
When the water met the pork grease – boom. The resulting cloud was visible to neighbors for miles, they said.
When their guests arrived Saturday, the only thing left of the pig was its head and tail.
That debacle didn’t deter them.
While tailgating at a Carolina Panthers game, they smelled the aroma from the first Blues, Brews and BBQ festival in Charlotte. It prompted them to enter the second festival in 2003, when they finished sixth in ribs and eighth in shoulders out of 55 teams – and were hooked on competitive barbecuing.
To perfect their signature sauces, Rich boiled so much apple vinegar that you could smell it from the parking lot of his condo every time he experimented.
“We made a lot of sauce,” he said. “But we got something we liked and the judges liked.”
In 2007, they won the S.C. Barbeque Association’s master barbecue championship. The victory was based on a number of competitions throughout South Carolina.
In 2009, they opened the BBQ Pit restaurant in Lake Wylie, just south of the lake on Charlotte Highway.
They didn’t have a business plan and didn’t know how long it would take to get permits. But they had pluck and a storage unit full of used restaurant equipment purchased at auctions.
The permits arrived on a Monday, the sign and the food on Tuesday, and by Wednesday they were serving customers.
When the DNC barbecue competition was announced, they didn’t give it a second thought.
As former union officials for the United Steelworkers local at the Continental Tire plant, Cieslikowski and Rich say they lean Democratic.
But it was not politics that motivated them. It was the competition. If the Republicans or the Shriners were to come to town and want barbecue, they would be there too, they said.
They already had perfected – and had commercially bottled – a vinegar- and tomato-based sauce. They developed a mustard-based sauce in the restaurant, using their vinegar sauce as a base so they could enter the DNC competition.
They sent the trio of sauces in, expecting the winner to be a large commercial firm or a big Democratic donor.
When they got the call saying they had won, the men admit they were “giddy.” They hope the recognition will result in more customers – maybe even convince some people to cross the bridge over Lake Wylie to get some authentic barbecue, they said.
Brian Teigue of Rock Hill, a master judge for the S.C. Barbeque Association, and his wife, Sherry, assisted the DNC competition. The Teigues have placed second for the past two years in the S.C. barbecue competition.
“There were about 30 sauces. Some in commercial jars, some in mason jars,” Teigue said. “It was the good, the bad and the ugly of sauces.”
Samples of each sauce were placed in shot glasses. Each judge took less than a teaspoon to sample the sauces, he said. It was just sauce – no meat, no bread.
The other judges were Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx; host committee director Dan Murrey; Jon Fortes, executive chef at Mimosa Grill; and Charlotte Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis.
Teigue was assigned the vinegar sauces. There were about 12 entrants.
“Some vinegar sauces can really light you up,” Teigue said. “You want something with a pleasant smell, pleasant taste and something that doesn’t leave an aftertaste.
“The Q2U sauce had a middle-of-the-road taste. It tasted like red wine vinegar.”
Lake High, president of the S.C. Barbeque Association, also had high praise for the Q2U team.
As president, people are always giving him bottles of sauce to try. He receives so many samples that he gives them to his neighbors.
But not the Q2U sauce.
“I have the Q2U sauce in my house,” he said. “It’s as good as you’re going to get.”
Dan Huntley is the bard of barbecue.
As a former writer for the Charlotte Observer, Huntley knows words.
“I’m a good 30-minute expert,” he said.
He has written a book about barbecue and sometimes speaks about it.
As for barbecue the food, it’s been an obsession for Huntley since he was a 10th-grade intern with then-U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Huntley campaigned all over the state with Thurmond, sampling the barbecue at various stops.
“I never quite had barbecue like that,” Huntley recalled.
It taught him that barbecue is a communal event, one he describes as “part religion, part culture.” It’s an event that is done long and slow and largely by hand.
“No one gets rich on barbecue,” said the resident of York. “It takes time and energy. Barbecue defies capitalism.”
For the last 20 years, Huntley, as Dan the Pig Man, has been catering events.
So when the Democratic National Convention advertised a barbecue sauce competition, Huntley said, “Why not?
“I wanted to prove I could do it,” he said. Like the winning team from Q2U of Lake Wylie, Huntley entered because of the competition, not politics.
“Barbecue is nonpartisan,” he said.
Huntley won with a sauce based on a third-generation barbecue recipe he got from a family in Newport. The recipe might have been published in a cookbook by the Tirzah ARP Church, he said.
Most other sauces, he said, particularly those based on the Kansas City barbecue tradition, “are a dime a dozen.”
Out of 300 rib sauces, Huntley said, you can find “285 that are red-hot and sweet.” The sweetness comes from honey, molasses or sorghum. The heat comes from Tabasco or Texas Pete sauce, or a variety of peppers.
“It’s hard to be an original sauce,” he said.
But the sauce based on the Newport recipe is “a unique barbecue sauce,” he said. “It is equal parts mustard, vinegar and tomato paste.”
It also has seven spices and can be served on pork, ribs and chicken. It is not a grilling sauce, but one used after the meat is cooked. Huntley markets the sauce under the brand “Carolina Pig Pucker BBQ Sauce.”
The sauce, because it combines vinegar and mustard, “represents all the Carolinas,” Huntley said. “If you go 50 miles in each direction, you won’t find anything like it.”
Winning the DNC sauce competition “wasn’t like winning the lottery,” he said. “It’s cool and fun,” but it failed to impress some folks from California who were filming near Kershaw. Huntley was catering for them.
“To them, it was like bragging I’d won a go-kart race,” he said.
Huntley is waiting to see where the barbecue leads him. He said he has talked to some people about catering a convention event, but he has not signed any contracts.
He also has thought about how close he could get his food truck to the convention, but he understands that might not be possible because of security concerns.
Don Worthington 803 329-4066