By Gretchen Kurtz
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By Jamie Swinnerton
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Ten years ago, Steve Berge set out to make a better barbecue sauce. In the process, he made a better life for himself.
This month Berge celebrates his first decade as an independent sauce boss. "I make a whole lot less money than I used to," says Berge. "But I'm about four times happier. I'd say it's worked out pretty well."
Countless amateur cooks dream of marketing their kitchen concoctions, but few successfully transition into professional sauce sellers. "It's a tough way to make it," says Nick Nicholas, president of the National Barbecue Association. "There are thousands of sauces out there." And every year, hundreds more fight for hard-to-get shelf space, hoping to hit like Rich Davis, whose K.C. Masterpiece is one of the few private label brands to make the bigtime. Further stacking the odds are regional preferences and low price tags on most major brands.
But Berge wasn't thinking of the odds when he decided to devote his time to Phamous Phloyd's Phrog Hot Sauce. That move was fired by the nagging stresses of his "high-paying, high-pressure" job as a purchasing agent, as well as personal troubles. "My father had recently passed away," Berge recalls. "I was sitting at my desk one day and thought, 'I've had enough of this.' I turned in my two weeks, and away I went."
He took with him a notion that he could turn the barbecue sauce he'd been cooking up at home into a career -- a notion that soon caught fire as Phrog Hot Sauce. The spelling stems from an inside joke with Berge's wife, Marianne. "You've got to have a shtick in this business," he explains. "Ours is phonetically correct and ph-balanced."
Phrog's list of premium ingredients starts with Heinz ketchup and ends with a proprietary blend of spices and fresh, puréed jalapeños. The flavor falls somewhere between the vinegar-spiked sauces of the Deep South and the semi-sweet stuff pouring out of Texas; its restrained heat makes it accessible to mainstreamers. (In 1999, Women's Day picked it as one of America's ten best barbecue sauces.) "We think people should enjoy their food, not have to recover from it," Berge says, adding that Phrog Hot Sauce has "just the right amount of heat -- not too hot, not too sweet. And it'll hang on the meat."
For those who crave the endorphin rush of hotter sauces, Berge also makes a Phlaming Hot Sauce, with fresh habaneros, which delivers flavor and a delightful slow burn. This sauce won first-place awards in Chile Peppermagazine's Fiery Foods Challenge in 1998 and '99.
But before Berge could achieve national notoriety, he had to take the commercial plunge. To be sold commercially in this state, food products must be made in a licensed galley, not a kitchen. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has rules governing everything from labeling to product analysis and shelf life -- requirements that nearly drove Berge back to amateur status. (He says a federal Food and Drug Administration inspector once told him that Colorado's health department is the third-toughest in the nation.) The costs involved with small-scale production also shocked Berge: For what he pays per label and empty bottle, a consumer can buy a big-brand bottle filled with sauce.
Landing shelf space was the biggest challenge, however. Rather than pay the slotting fee that major supermarkets charge, Berge turned to independent operators. He makes the bulk of his sales at Esquire Market, the three Tony's Meat & Specialty Foods locations and other smaller shops; he also uses the Web (www.phloyds.com) to drive sales of over $50,000 each year. "The jury's still out on whether the Web's good for food products," he observes, "but it gets better all the time."
Many of the state's best sauce-makers will meet up at the ninth annual Coors Colorado BBQ on August 16 and 17, when 78 barbecue chefs from across the country face off along Frisco's Main Street. And while many of Colorado's cookers still make sauce as a hobby, Berge isn't the only one who's turned pro. For years Lawrence Pierre, owner of Pierre's Supper Club, has been selling his Texas Pete-style hot sauce (and his legendary catfish-frying mix) through his restaurant at 2157 Downing Street. Two years ago, Harry Robertson made the move from the kitchen to the commercial realm with a pair of sauces -- including the heavenly, highly addictive Smokey Serrano brimming with a balanced blast of heat, flavor and savory smoke -- sold under the Boulder Hot Sauce Company banner. Albertson's has stocked them for a year; Robertson just signed a deal with King Soopers this month.
Robertson's leap was prompted by his realization that he "was not interested in working for anybody else ever again," he says. And his hard work and hustling is paying off: He and his wife just purchased their first home, using the proceeds from sauce sales. "I'm absolutely sure this is going to work for me," says Robertson. "Every day when I get up, I'm more excited about this than I ever dreamed possible."
So is Berge. "There's a lot more to life than the money equation," he says. "It used to be rush, rush, rush. I had deadlines and pressures." Today, he gets to set his own schedule -- and come up with his own products, which now include a pair of gourmet mustards, a roaring hot sauce, "Pizza Dust" seasoning and a dry rub. Berge's latest creation is a Bloody Mary mix, already earning rave reviews and awards from trade groups.