The tale behind Soul Mountain’s critically acclaimed Doc’s BBQ sauce

Gary Kearney, chef and owner of Soul Mountain Cafe in Front Royal, is marketing his Doc's BBQ sauce. The sauce is the same that he serves in his restaurant on Main Street. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – When Gary Kearney, executive chef and owner of Soul Mountain on Main Street, was a little boy he once told his grandfather, James ‘Doc” Kearney, he had a dream of putting his name in lights. Not only was Kearney’s grandfather an intricate part of his childhood but he was the inspiration behind the critically acclaimed Doc’s BBQ Sauce Kearney began bottling last year for mass consumption around the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

“My goal is for every refrigerator across America to have a bottle of Doc’s BBQ sitting on the shelf. And then some,” Kearney said. “That was and still remains my plan.”

Still true to his grandfather’s original recipe, Kearney said his initial vision was to share the sauce with friends and family only. But in true “Doc” fashion, Kearney said instead he decided to share it with the whole world.

“Today he’s in those lights I promised him,” Kearney said. 

When Kearney was 19, his grandfather died. But he never broke his promise because, as Kearney always says, “family is everything.” His determination led him to culinary school when he was 28 and in 2005 Kearney opened the popular Soul Mountain American-Caribbean restaurant in downtown Front Royal where residents and tourists alike have had the privilege of enjoying Doc’s BBQ Sauce long before its celebrity status.

“Once I recreated his recipe for the restaurant, it just continued to become more and more popular as time went on,” he said. “It’s come a long way but I know my grandfather would be proud.”

Pulled-pork and chicken, the soul and black bean burgers, baby back ribs and wings are among the popular menu items that include Doc’s BBQ Sauce.

“It’s a pretty diverse sauce,” he said. “You can dip fries in it or pour it over your favorite meat. There’s really nothing it can’t go with. Truly, that’s what makes it so great.”

In bottling Doc’s, Kearney said he tried to keep it as natural as possible, adding “what you see it what you get.” A few minor tweaks were made during the bottling process, but Kearney said it’s 99.9 percent true to his grandfather’s original recipe. Ingredients include ketchup, sugar, apple cider and balsamic vinegar, red pepper and liquid smoke. Doc’s BBQ Sauce is also vegan and gluten-free.

“I really wanted it to remain true to his North Carolinian roots,” he said. “His sauce catches people in-between. It isn’t too spicy nor too sweet. It’s just right.”

Kearney added: “There are so many variations of barbecue sauces on the market. It really just comes down to personal preference and taste.”

Kearney said he made the jump into bottling Doc’s because he believed his grandfather’s product to be one of the best sauces on the market and he wanted people to be able to experience it for themselves, no matter their location.

“Here in Front Royal we see so many tourists from not only the United States but from around the whole world,” he said. “The idea that my grandfather’s sauce is being enjoyed internationally just brings the whole concept full circle for me.”

Before owning and running a successful restaurant, Kearney worked in promotions and advertising, something he said dramatically helped him during his bottling journey.

After the decision to officially bottle Doc’s, Kearney said it took a lot of hitting the pavement, cold-calling and emailing before he was able to get one big box retailer, let alone three, to agree to sell it. Now barbecue sauce lovers can pick up their own bottle or two of Doc’s BBQ Sauce at Soul Mountain, Rural King or Shop-n-Save in Front Royal and Food Maxx in Winchester.

Kearney said this is just the beginning. He hopes to see more retailers pick up his grandfather’s sauce and offer it to their own customers. He want people to appreciate not only his grandfather’s barbecue sauce but also his legacy.

“When you get people to hear his story, where he started from and where he ended up, it’s really such a blessing to be able to share it with the public,” he said. “Sometimes I still can’t believe I did it.”

In the near future, Kearney said he plans on adding other family recipes to his retail venture, including cornbread and hot sauce in honor of other family members that include his mother, father, brother, grandmother and his oldest son. To differentiate their stories, Kearney said, he uses old photographs, like the one that graces Doc’s BBQ Sauce- a photograph of Doc as a young man.

“They were all intricate people in my life. They shaped who I am today. I want their legacies to continue on,” he said. “And what a better way than sharing their faces on something that’s really good.”