I’m convinced there are things in this life that you are just meant to do, come across, have an effect on and be apart of. Some would call this fate or some sort of cosmic predestination or a series of random coincidences. I, for one, humbly believe in a much higher determining power and have always felt guided by that. The way in which we came to own a Tucker Cooker and the series of events that have unfolded since purchasing it has definitely been guided by a much higher power than I can comprehend most days. The way that one single decision to purchase a 900lb hunk of well crafted metal has so dramatically change my life, my family’s life and the future of my children still amazes me. This short story is an “around the camp fire” account of what took place before and has taken place since that fateful day back in June of 2009. Maybe I got some of the facts wrong or out of order, but this is a pretty good retelling of the story of the cooker that changed my life.
Little did I know when I made the decision to pack up and move my family from Portsmouth, Virginia back home to West Kentucky that I would finally after over 30 years be doing what I was always meant to do. I had been everything from an Intelligence Specialist in the Navy to an IT System Administrator and even a mechanic in my friend Dave Diggman’s garage for a short time. I never hated any of those jobs. In fact, though I liked several of them, I never quite felt like I was doing what I had been put on this planet to do. After a lot of sleepless nights and being downsized from an IT job, it became clear it was time to make a move. I had no idea what I was moving to, mind you, but I knew in my heart that we were no longer supposed to be in Virginia.
Not long after moving and getting settled in, I started prodding my dad to teach me what he knew about barbecuing. Some of my earliest childhood memories include me playing below the cloud of cigarette smoke that hung just above the heads of the people eating in my Grandfather’s barbecue restaurant. It was everything you would imagine a 70’s barbecue joint should be, right down to the avocado colored décor. People came from miles around to that small eatery and while I had learned a few tricks from my Grandfather before his passing I figured it was time to learn more. It was also a way for me and Dad to reconnect, mend some fences and shake off the rust a bit.
After cooking off and on for about a year I tossed out the idea of doing some competitions. I thought it would be great to resurrect the “Draper’s” name locally and have some fun at the same time. This led us to start searching online for mobile barbecue pits. I read every review, every forum and every comment I could find. I got a list of suspects that I thought would work for us and decided to take a few weekends and drive to the manufacturers and see these pits first hand. It was around that time I did a Google search for “bbq pit and Memphis” and found TuckerCooker.com. I had never heard of them at that point, but after visiting their page it looked like a pretty smart, well made product, but most importantly one I could sell “Mr. Moneybags” (a.k.a. my father) on plus it was close geographically. Alright, maybe my initial intentions were not the purest, but all’s well that ends well, right?
So I called up Tucker when this little voice answered the phone, I nearly thought I had the wrong number. A lady picked up just said “This is Tucker.” It took me a second to figure out that I had the right place and I was speaking to Holly, one of the owners. I half expected someone named Earl who sounded like he owned a junk yard and could bend sheet metal with his bare hands to answer the phone. After getting past that I peppered Holly with technical questions and minutia. She answered very directly and with certainty and I was impressed. So I decided we should take a trip and look at these Tucker Cookers first hand.
A few weeks later Dad and I headed down to Memphis for a “guys weekend.” The first stop was Tucker Cooker, of course. After all, a guy has to have his priorities straight. We could see the sights, eat at the famous places and have a good time later, but this was about seeing this pit first hand.
When we got there, we realized immediately, that Tucker was not your average large company that mass produces a product. Tucker HQ resides in a two story brick building that used to be a firehouse. It was not what we were expecting, but somehow it was better now that I think about it. Perhaps it was better because it was authentic, it was American, and it wasn’t outlandish or ostentatious.
We met George and Holly, saw the pit, went over every square inch of it and I knew within 20 minutes we would be leaving that weekend with one. It was exactly what we were looking for, but better yet it was backed by the right people. George and Holly made a distinct impression on us. They are confident in their product and are unwilling to compromise on any part of the build process. What struck me above everything else was that these pits are made a few at a time, mostly by hand by George and his small staff of fabricators.
The idea that one man in America can still have an idea, bring it to fruition, run a company and still be so intimately involved with the product, well, that just resonated with me. That was the spark that lit the fuse; even though I didn’t know it at the time.
We gladly wrote the check and brought the pit home and started cooking. Of course we got the expected reaction of shock from friends and family when we returned home, but that was half the fun honestly. My family is not known for spending fair sized sums of money on “toys” or “frivolous things.” We are more of a blue collar sort so there was some getting used to the idea that my Dad and I perhaps had just lost our marbles.
About George and Holly
I just want to take a small side road for a minute and say a word or two and George and Holly specifically. For those of you that don’t know, Holly is the glue that holds Tucker together. She does about everything except think up and build the pits. There is nothing this little lady can’t do and she is tough as nails and as sweet as ice tea. That is not to discount George. If George had an evil bone in his body he would be an evil genius, but he doesn’t so what you get is one of the smartest men I know. The only thing that rivals George’s engineering prowess is his heart, which is about the size of Alaska. Together these two are the heart and soul that keep Tucker Cooker going. I have never seen a corner cut, an easy path taken or an ounce of quit in either of them. George and Holly are committed to excellence and the values that once made America exceptional. They are two of the most amazing and genuine people you will ever meet. I am proud to consider them a part of my family, just as they welcome every new Tucker owner into their family.
Fall 2009 / Winter 2010
It was about this time that I had started getting uncomfortable with serving “Draper’s Barbecue” with sauce that was from another company. We were heading into our first competition; it was a very small event consisting exclusively of backyard cooking types, called Carlislefest. So I decided to figure out a sauce to put on ribs for the turn-in there. Some of you know the further back story of Dad more or less saying there is no way I could make a better sauce than Sweet Baby Ray’s. That was the other half of the fuel that fed the fire of my stubbornness and led to the first few batches of what would eventually become Smokin’ Sauce. In that small competition we took 2nd in ribs. I still think we got that based on sauce because I jacked up those ribs when I cooked them, they were not close to being tender enough for turn in, but something had to go into the box.
Not too long after that I got a message from Holly asking us if we wanted to come down and cook in Memphis in May. Tucker Cooker was going to pay the entry fee and invite a handful of Tucker owners down to cook in the event. Between you and me at that point in time I had no business going down there and cooking, but to be honest I knew we would regret not going. So I responded to Holly and told her to throw our names in the hat. Once the categories were divided up I sheepishly took the seafood and tomato sauce categories, thinking no one else wanted them anyway so even if I tanked not much would get said.
It was the pressure of wanting to do well at Memphis that really shaped the flavor profiles of what I worked on for the remainder of the winter. I really buckled down and tried to balance out some of the flavors. I needed something that would speak to southern sensibilities but yet come off as unique and refined. I probably spent $500 on supplies and ingredients going through about 30 gallons of ketchup before I got something that I thought was pretty darned good and would at least wash out in the middle of the pack for judging at a world class event.
During the process of finalizing the sauce I started also playing around with different flavor blocks of spices that I could use. This eventually led to what is now known as A.P. (All Purpose) Rub. I ended up with a list of spices that didn’t make the cut in the sauce, but dove-tailed nicely with the spices that are in the sauce. Think of examples like cinnamon and nutmeg. I wanted to build two products that were good on their own, but when mixed together became this whole other experience. In the beginning I honestly had no intention of marketing or selling A.P. Rub. It was just supposed to be something we made and kept for ourselves and for competitions. So after getting the rub to a point I was happy with it, I more or less tabled the product and didn’t think much about it again for almost a year.
Time marched on and before I knew it Dad and I were on our way to Memphis in May with our Tucker Cooker in tow. We had no idea what to expect, no clue what to do really other than just be ourselves and cook.
To say that we were a bit awe struck when we got there is an understatement. I mean we were shaking hands with and talking to people who we saw on TV and people whose barbecue books we had on our shelves. It was so very surreal and amazing at the same time. I think it was right then that I realized that barbecue people are a special breed. We didn’t meet one single stuck up, snobby person. They were all genuine, nice, hard working and for the most part humble. If all of America were this way we would have fewer problems as a country, let me tell you.
Our team mates for that event were all great. Most of which I would consider life long friends now. Such a great cast of characters and each deserve a whole chapter to do them justice. I will be a bit self indulgent and say a word or two about each though, so skip ahead if you wish. Capt’n Ron – Just a fine human being and one of the most talented cooks I’ve worked with. Danny – The purest barbecue guy I know. He raises pigs, barbecues them and wins. He’s forgotten more about barbecue than I will probably ever get to learn. Hoyt – Such a humble, great spirit and he makes some of the craziest concoctions in a blender for wings you have ever seen, but they are always good. Richard – yet another great cook, with many trophies and a great memory book and he gave me my first ABT. Scott and Shannan – what a crazy couple they are, each a fireball and great cooks and bartenders. Todd – Definitely dances to the tune inside himself that no one else can hear. Such a great guy that we could all learn something from, being on time is not one of those things, though.
In that event Team Tucker didn’t set the world on fire, but we did manage a 9th place in chicken from Capt’n Ron and our sauce ended up tied for 12th place if memory serves me correctly. All I truly remember is coming out of that event thinking “I just scored in the top 10% at Memphis, wow that is something.”
So we took that “something” and came home and started getting numbers together to see how much it would cost to get our sauce into bottles. We spent the rest of the summer taste testing different batches, making labels, forming a corporation and raising money to pay for all the expenses we were incurring.
All the work that was done over the summer started to pay off. We finally managed to get our first 50 gallon batch of sauce into production. The bottling company we were working with nailed the recipe and were just great to work with through the whole process. Anyone that knows me knows I can be very, well, let’s go with “exacting” here to preserve my reputation. When it comes to labels, graphics, sauces, rubs, anything I create, I accept no compromise and make no apologies. “If it’s not right, it’s not happening,” are the words I try to live by.
We took delivery of our first batch of sauce just before Carlislefest. We are quite proud of that first batch and I personally wondered if we would ever get to order a second. The sauce didn’t sell very well at Carlislefest, that was ok and we understood that crowd was not necessarily the best place for our sauce.
I figured out a few things about being a sauce seller pretty quickly. First, people don’t want to take a chance on an upper end sauce in October and November. Second, people are not as excited about your product; no matter how good it is, as you are. Third, talking to store owners in person with an honest story, a firm handshake and in a gracious, humble manner will get them to at least put a case on their shelves. Fourth, people are more interested in a complete product line than just a single sauce. So I had to get our rub into production immediately. Lastly, and most important, if Draper’s BBQ Smokin’ Sauce had a snowballs chance in Hades, I had better get good at making sales online and at Social Media because I couldn’t sell enough in my local area to keep this company alive.
The next couple of months were spent identifying and more or less stalking the people that, as best I could tell, were doing this Social Media thing well and having success. One of my quotes that have gotten around of late is that I often say “I went to the DivaQ school of Twitter.” I mean that in all seriousness and with the greatest bow of gratitude and appreciation to Danielle Dimovski I can muster. I genuinely took notes on how she did things and started emulating it and making it my own. DivaQ is more than Danielle; it is an entity on its own. Don’t get me wrong it does encapsulate Danielle’s personality and is driven by her, but DivaQ has life outside of who Danielle is. It is a brand. Draper’s BBQ (or DBQ as I had dubbed it) had to become a brand as well.
I also spent time finding a spice company that was willing to start packaging our product in small batches. Thankfully getting the labels complete and all the graphics went along much faster this time since I could now borrow heavily from the work that was done for Smokin’ Sauce. We were very fortunate and found a wonderful company to work with that helped launch several barbecue rub brands. We were pushing very hard for a pre-Christmas launch date for the rub and I wanted to do a specialty gift box of the sauce, rub and a personal recipe that we had been using out on the competition circuit for the “Any Thing Butt” category. The rub company was able to oblige us with fifty, one pound foil packs of our rub just in time. I put together the boxes, hand numbered and signed each and every recipe and note that went in there and they were a hit. We sold out very quickly and I managed to stick a couple back to send out for review boxes. That turned out to be a very good thing and helped us during the next phase.
After the Social Media engine started rolling I moved to the next phase, which was getting the sauce and rub into anyone’s hand that had working taste buds, access to the internet and who was willing to write an honest and fair review. Remember the first part of the story where I mentioned there are some people you are just meant to come across and me feeling guided by a higher power, so goes the story of the first national review of Smokin’ Sauce by Brian and Marilyn Meagher of HotSauceDaily.com.
I never intended for HotSauceDaily.com to review our products first. In fact I had already contacted another very well known sauce site to review Smokin’ Sauce, but after emailing back and forth I realized we would be very far down on their schedule. So I started looking around for other review sites and literally stumbled onto HotSauceDaily.com. While reading their reviews I listened to a podcast that included none other than Danielle Dimovski and thought, “if it’s good enough for her to be on then why not.” So I made contact with Brian and shipped him one of the Christmas gift boxes.
I was impressed by how Brian and Marilyn really took time with not just the product but took time to get to know me as a manufacturer. It’s not many reviewers that want to talk to you on the phone and basically do an interview with you prior to doing a product review. In fact, more times than not many review sites and blogs come off as just wanting some free stuff more so than trying to really get to know the product. How much Brian and Marilyn care really shows through in every review they do. They are very genuine and caring people and since the review they have become good friends and people I hold in very high regard. They have a lock on being the first reviewers of anything that Draper’s BBQ does.
The mailing out of review boxes became a weekly thing for a few months. We did our best to blanket the market. Along the way we continued to make new friends very much like Brian and Marilyn. To quickly name a few of my personal favorites in the review blog-o-sphere, in no particular order: Grilling With Rich – Rich is just a great guy, big heart and fun to be around and a die hard fan of the products. Patio Daddio – I never miss John Dawson’s blog. He has fantastic recipes and is a very honest and highly respected reviewer. Big Wayne – Wayne is a great guy and fellow IT guy. Hard working, highly motivated and die-hard lover of all things barbecue. Kevin’s BBQ Joints – Kevin has the best restaurant listing of any blog, period. Great guy, he and his family are very staunch DBQ lovers. OshawaOgre – Wilfred has one of the best Canadian blogs. To top it off he’s a fantastic guy with such a good spirit about barbecue. NibbleMeThis – Chris is not only an amazing cook and Big Green Egg fanatic, he is also an amazing photographer. I could go on for days about the blogger friends. If you were not mentioned specifically it was not intentional. I could literally fill two pages with my thoughts on each of my blogger friends. These are just a very quick list of those that happened by my Twitter feed while writing this.
From my chance encounter with HotSauceDaily.com I came to learn about Greg Rempe and his BBQ Central Radio Show. To be honest I thought it was a bit silly at first, I mean a radio show about barbecue, who would bother to listen to that? Well, barbecue people, of course, and die hard ones at that. After listening to a few episodes and then being in the chat room of a live show once I was hooked. Greg does a fantastic job as a radio host and is just a riot most days. It was listening to his show one night that Scott Roberts, a well known hot sauce blogger, was slated to be on. I was listening to it in the living room from my laptop, I happened to be in the kitchen when my son said “dad they just said our name on your computer.” I, being the much more smart and rational one, told him that he must have been mistaken. By that time I had came back to the living room to hear Scott Roberts reviewing Smokin’ Sauce. I had no idea he was going to be reviewing our products, much less doing so on the radio show. I had sent Scott a review package a couple of months earlier and had no idea of when we would fall into his review cycle of products. Well, I found out right then, live on the air for all to hear. To say that I was equal parts mortified and excited would be fair. Thankfully as my turn came in the barrel Scott was very gracious, gave us a very high review and liked our products very, very much.
Stuff like that you just can’t make up. What a crazy series of events that had to line up to make that one moment of me, my wife and my son all gathered around my laptop eagerly listening to what Scott and Greg would say next. It was an almost unreal moment but very rewarding at the same time.
Over the winter Tucker Cooker contacted us again and we were invited to Memphis in May again. I of course said “yes” to the invitation again and I decided this time would be different. The previous year I did my best impersonation of a wall flower and stayed out of the way and did what I could to absorb and learn everything I could from everyone around me. This time I wanted to go down there and really do the work and see how well we could do. This year we had entered what I consider to be the pinnacle of all cook off categories, whole hog. This is where the big kids go play. Most teams won’t enter the whole hog category. It takes a different breed of team to do well there.
For that years MIM I was on the hook for the tomato sauce category again, vinegar sauce, seafood again, doing the presentation for on site judging and helping Capt’n Ron cook the whole hog with direction from Danny. It was a fairly full plate, especially considering I have never done ANY on site presenting for MBN. I had seen it done, not exceptionally well might I add, a time or two. I figured I used to brief Officers in the Navy the daily intelligence summary, I’ve been to the Persian Gulf twice and been in real world messes where people’s lives were on the line, this MBN presenting thing shouldn’t be that hard. Besides, I can bs with the best of them and talk about barbecue to anyone, so why not do this too? What I didn’t do that I wish I had done though was practice. I did fine and we even managed a couple of 10s on our presentation from the judges. The first judge gave us a 9 because Ron and I weren’t quite polished enough. The second and third judges I was ready for and did a much better job, as did Ron. We deserved the scores we got and I knew I could have helped our team more had I not let my ego get in the way by not practicing. It was a lesson that needed relearning at that time. I am still very proud of what Ron and I were able to do that day on no sleep and next year we will do even better, that I can promise.
For that year’s MIM I decided not to turn in Smokin’ Sauce again. It would be easy enough to do and to hope we did even better than the previous year, but I just wanted to honestly challenge myself and see if I could put lightening into a bottle twice. What I settled on for the next sauce was something inspired by the idea of honey barbecue, but tangy and not just sweet. After several rounds of testing I came up with what I thought to be a very solid offering. This sauce wound up taking 6th place overall, which we were very proud of. After eating the sauce a few more times and doing some more thinking I decided to change up the recipe. I knew I had a good sauce, I mean the judges at Memphis in May told me that much, but I didn’t feel I had a great sauce. At least I thought I could make it better. My wife told me I was crazy to nix a sauce that had done so well in favor of a revamped version. Once I was done revamping she quickly became a fan. This is nice, because to be honest I don’t think to this day she cares for Smokin’ Sauce very much. The newest offering was dubbed “Sweet Tang” first and foremost as a play on words but also because it very much described what we had. It was a sticky, sauce that was sweetened only by honey that had a fair amount of tanginess to it but also maintained some of the layers that made Smokin’ Sauce famous.
The Bottom of the 1st Bottle
I could continue on writing what has happened through this past summer and even what is about to happen going into this fall. I prefer however to leave those chapters unwritten at this point. I think that stories like this are best written from the softly lit vantage point of retrospect versus the harsher light of the moment. It is true that we always remember things better than they were, I like it that way. I also like being able to include the points in a story that really show the series of oddly placed dominos that get a person from one point in time to another. Along the way those dominos may not seem interconnected or related at all, but in the clarity of hindsight it’s much easier to see how it was a meant to be.
From being a downsized IT guy in Virginia to innocently buying a barbecue pit to now being a CEO of a budding sauce company. Never, in my wildest dreams would I have thought buying a barbecue pit would have led me down this path. It’s my path though, the one I was meant to be on and I am humbled and thankful to be on it.
Thanks for reading…