Thanks to Mom -- and the rest is barbecue history
By Gary Popp
Published in News on June 20, 2012 1:46 PM
Carl Lewis Jr. smiles while holding two bottles of his John Boy and Billy's Grillin' Sauce inside Old South Foods. Lewis began cooking the sauce at home, and now his Eastern Carolina BBQ sauce is on sale throughout the country.
Carl Lewis Jr. holds a bottle of John Boy and Billy's Grillin' Sauce after it rolled off the conveyer belt after being bottled at Old South Foods. More than 70,000 bottles are distributed each year.
FREMONT -- "It started with my mom's recipe."
With those words, Carl Lewis Jr. begins the long story that has taken him to the heights of barbecue fame as the maker of the popular John Boy and Billy's Grillin' Sauce, named after the famous talk radio hosts, and the cusp of another line of sauces for the TV show "Lizard Lick Towing."
Lewis currently operates Carl and 'Chelle's Grill Room restaurant on Corporate Drive, which he opened with his wife, Michelle, in 2011.
The restaurant is more of a hobby than a livelihood, he said, since he now reaps the benefits of his artistry with barbecue sauce, which can be found in grocery stores around the country.
But his success did not come quickly or easily.
Lewis grew up in Wayne County and like many other natives, barbecue was an important part of his family get-togethers and church functions.
He said his mother, Doris, made a sauce from a recipe that dates back nearly 70 years.
Her ketchup-based sauce was so well received that in 1992, the Lewis' began bottling the sauce in their home and selling it wherever they could.
"We got our kitchen at home inspected by the health department, and we started making it at home on the stove top," Lewis said.
The family put the sauce into mason jars and named the blend "Tongue Tingling."
The following year, Lewis offered his sauce at a booth during a food expo in Charlotte, in an attempt to get the attention of buyers from major grocery stores.
That's when he caught his first break.
"We were in a little corner away from everything," Lewis said. "We sat there all day long and hadn't seen a soul."
As the event was coming to a close, Lewis spotted Tom Smith, the then-president of Food Lion, walking by.
"I had one shot. So, I walked over and put my arm around him and said, 'Mr. Smith I have seen you on TV. I know you don't have a clue who I am. Please come over here. I would like for you to try something.'"
Lewis guided the grocery magnate over to his booth and gave him a sample of chopped barbecue turkey cooked with his family's sauce.
After Smith tasted the barbecue, he called his sauce buyer over to Lewis' booth.
"He told (the buyer), 'I want this in my stores immediately,"' Lewis said.
A short time later, Tongue Tingling was put into a Food Lion warehouse in Dunn that delivered the product to nearly 100 Food Lion groceries.
More confident, Lewis was then motivated to go to other buyers across the state. But he soon found that reaching more shoppers would be an insurmountable task, as grocery chain after grocery chain told him that he would have to provide an upfront slotting fee of nearly $35,000 to get his product on the shelf.
"I had to regroup," Lewis said.
Over the next six to eight months he continued to contact major grocers, and time after time he was told he would have to come up with a high slotting fee to essentially rent the shelve space. A year after the Charlotte expo, Lewis still had not found a way to get his sauce to a wider array of buyers.
In 1994, he found himself with a couple hundred cases of barbecue sauce and no way to move them.
Then, while watching a NASCAR race, he had an epiphany.
"I said, 'Daggone, if I could get one of these race car boys to endorse (my sauce), I might be OK,'" he said.
Reinvigorated, Lewis sent packages of his sauce to a handful of NASCAR teams. Several weeks later, his phone rang.
On the other end of the line was Dale Earnhardt's business manager.
"He said that Dale Earnhardt really enjoyed the sauce and would like to meet with me," Lewis said. "So I got an opportunity to go meet my race hero."
Lewis traveled to Welcome, N.C., for a meeting with Earnhardt.
He said Earnhardt was interested in a business deal, but that he would only get behind the sauce if Lewis could provide an upfront endorsement fee of $400,000.
"I just laughed," Lewis said. "I said, 'Four hundred thousand dollars? If I had $400,000, no offense, but I wouldn't need you.' He just laughed."
While the business deal never solidified, Lewis said it was an honor to spend about an hour with the iconic race car driver. He walked away with an armful of autographed memorabilia and a piece of advice that would change his life forever.
"He asked me if I had ever heard of John Boy and Billy," Lewis said.
Lewis told Earnhardt he was not familiar with the Charlotte-based radio program, "The Big Show."
Earnhardt told Lewis that he should contact the radio duo and see if they would be interested in endorsing his sauce.
After listening in to the program, Lewis took Earnhardt's advice and sent a few cases of his sauce to the talk show hosts. Not a week had gone by when Lewis returned home to find a message on his answering machine from The Big Show's on-air personality Jackie.
Lewis said Jackie's message asked that he call her immediately.
When he called back, she told him that John Boy loved his sauce and wanted him to come to Charlotte to cook for the show's hosts and crew during a live broadcast.
Lewis knew grilling for the hosts was a great opportunity. Before making the trip, he carefully placed some of John Boy's popular sayings on the sides of a trailer and loaded up a few new grills that he purchased to make the right impression.
While setting up grilling equipment early in the morning in the parking lot outside of the studio, Lewis said John Boy approached him. He said John Boy was so impressed with the trailer and cooking station that he told the show's producer to move everything outside so they could do the show around the grills.
"They set up all their microphones and everything up out around the grill and they did the show ride outside in the parking lot," Lewis said. "We cooked wings. We cooked ribs. We cooked pork chops. We cooked turkey. We just cooked and cooked and cooked. And they just loved it."
After the show, Lewis was again approached by John Boy, who told him how much he loved his product. He made an offer to endorse the sauce.
Lewis was pleased but he found himself in familiar territory, knowing he didn't have the money to pay to get the endorsement.
"I asked, 'What do you want upfront?'" Lewis said.
He was shocked to hear John Boy tell him he didn't want initial fees, only a percentage of the sales.
"He said you make it and sell it, and I will market it on air," Lewis said.
After doing some calculating, Lewis made John Boy an offer.
"I came up with what I thought was a pretty good deal for both of us, and I told him, and he stuck out his hand and he said, 'You got a deal,'" Lewis said. "And we shook hands, and that is the way it has been for 17 years."
Since that fateful handshake, the Lewis family recipe is now offered at all of the Food Lions in the country, 1,300 Walmarts and nearly every grocery store in the southeast, including Harris Teeter, Winn-Dixie, Publix, Buy-Low Foods and Ingles Markets.
Along with his mother's Tongue Tingling recipe, which became John Boy and Billy's original sauce, Lewis also created three additional sauces, Hot and Spicy, Sweet and Mild and Eastern North Carolina, for the show.
"We move about 70,000 cases a year, now," he said. "All the major players, we are there. And it is still growing today."
The notoriety led Lewis to begin entering barbecue competitions, which he proudly said earned him quite a few first-place ribbons.
In 2004, after 10 years of partnering with "The Big Show," Lewis opened The Rib Hut in Wilson, which closed in 2011 after a seven-year stretch.
Lewis then switched from barbecue to a different type of grilling when he started offering steaks at Carl & 'Chelle's Grill Room.
He also recently signed a contract to begin making sauces for the truTV program "Lizard Lick Towing," which is based in North Carolina.
Lewis said he created the five different sauces for the show at a test kitchen in his home.
"These sauces I did for Lizard Lick, man, I probably got about 75 hours in each sauce," he said. "(The cast) tells me about what they want, what kind of flavor profile, and I just get in there with ketchup, vinegar and mustard and all your spices that you can even imagine."
He said the sauces that he has created for the radio and TV programs are not the typical barbecue, which he says can be bland and over simplified.
"I don't just fix hopped-up ketchup," Lewis said, adding that one of the sauces he made for "Lizard Lick Towing" included precise measurements of 19 ingredients.
To this day, Lewis said he still looks back at disbelief at how his mother's barbecue sauce, once known only around his family's dinner table and church potlucks, is now a national product.
And he said he never forgets the most important ingredient to his success.
"I always give the recognition to my mom," he said, "always."