By M.K. Luther - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- If anyone told local businessman Richard "Rick" Rutherford two years ago that his barbecue sauce would take off like wildfire, he wouldn't have believed it.
Now, the locally manufactured Rivers West Bar-B-Q sauce is stocked by 11 Martin's Food Markets locations from Martinsburg, W.Va., to Waynesboro, sharing shelf space with nationally known, top-selling brand names.
In 2008, Rutherford, 54, had set up shop in nearby Luray, selling pulled pork barbecue from his own smoker. While the barbecue sales boomed, what Rutherford eventually learned from his customers was that when it comes to barbecue, nothing can compare to homemade sauce.
"We were literally running out of food every day in a six-hour period of time," Rutherford said.
Customers began taking the small bottle of the sauce from the tables and calling Rutherford, asking for more for their own cooking, he said.
"People called and wanted extra sauce for their family reunions and Fourth of July," Rutherford said.
Taking note of the overwhelmingly positive response and increasing demand, Rutherford decided to produce and market his own special recipe for a homemade sweet hickory sauce.
Recognizing the love for good, homemade barbecue sauce in the area, Rutherford worked with local manufacturers and Weathervane graphics to create his brand label, and started selling to roadside markets and country stores.
Rivers West Bar-B-Q was already being carried by about 40 country stores, farm markets and small specialty stores when Rutherford approached larger retail outlets. Giant, the owner of Martin's, "jumped on it," he said.
"[They] had an interest in my barbecue sauce because it is not mass-produced," Rutherford said. "It is selling amazingly well."
The sauce costs $4.79 for an 18-ounce bottle at Martin's and is stocked in the Made in Virginia and grilling sections, Rutherford said.
The sweet hickory flavoring of his "gourmet" sauce -- made with fine ingredients, and tweaked and honed to perfection -- can appeal to barbecue lovers and the amateur chef alike, Rutherford said.
"It is not necessarily just a grilling sauce," he said. "People have told me that they are using it on grilled salmon, they are adding it to their baked beans."
South Street Grill in Front Royal uses the Rivers West B-B-Q sauce for the restaurant's chicken and ribs, Rutherford said.
Currently, Rutherford stocks area stores with cases of 12 bottles and 128-ounce containers that can fill larger orders, he said.
Rutherford started producing the sauce in gallon jugs in response to demand from repeat customers wanting bigger quantities of the sauce to serve at events like family reunions and pig roasts.
"When people are doing those larger events, they need more than just a couple of bottles," he said.
The former owner of a Northern Virginia-based nightclub and restaurant, Rutherford said he had been looking for a way to get back into the food business, and ultimately wants to open a barbecue restaurant that will be connected with his brand.
"With the response to this, I really want to have a barbecue restaurant associated with Rivers West Bar-B-Q," he said.
Rutherford, who worked in the construction field for years, also said he wants to build his barbecue business so he can eventually pass it on to his three sons.
"To me, this is a tangible business that I can leave them, if it takes off," Rutherford said.
Viewing the business venture as a "poor man's Paul Newman," Rutherford said if he can place the sauce in larger markets, he would like to put proceeds from sales to St. Jude's cancer research and possibly build a foster home for children at the site of his horse farm in Linden.
Rutherford is also planning to introduce a second line of the Rivers West Bar-B-Q sauce brand -- his own special recipe for a spicy North Carolina sauce. Rutherford is continuing to work with Giant to have the sauce carried in its locations.
Locally, Stokes General Store, the Apple House in Linden, Cooks Country Store in Woodstock, and various country stores and farmers markets stock the sauce.
For more information, visit riverswestbar-b-q.com.