The Story of Stubb’s Barbecue Sauce–And Why We Love It
When most people plan a trip to Austin, Texas, they end up dreaming about barbecue. After all the city is home to some famous rib joints, including Franklin, Iron Works, and just outside the city, Salt Lick. The most famous Austin barbecue outpost, though, may be Stubb's. While their two restaurant/venue locations in Austin serve up some mean pulled pork, it's their sauce that has made them a household name across the South—even in cities that think sauce has nothing to do with real barbecue.
The barbecue sauce company, which like Stubb's the venue and restaurant, is named after the late C.B. Stubblefield, makes barbecue sauces, rubs, and marinades that are sold across the country in every major grocery chain.
It all started when Stubblefield, known as "Stubb" to his friends, returned home to Lubbock, Texas, after a stint serving as a mess sergeant in an all-black infantry unit during the Korean War. After honing his culinary skills in the army, Stubb returned to the States and opened Stubb's Bar-B-Que in Lubbock in 1968. The tiny restaurant could only fit 75 patrons, but each night Stubb packed ‘em in for barbecue and blues (or rock or country), feeding patrons and hosting rising music stars like Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Muddy Waters, and Johnny Cash.
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By 1984, Stubb's was forced to close, because as Texas Monthly puts it, "Stubblefield was a great cook and amiable host… but he wasn't a great businessman." Stubb's packed up his life and headed to Austin. Encouraged by friends and looking for a new chapter, Stubb started bottling the barbecue sauce that he used to serve at the Lubbock restaurant. Stubblefield bottled the sauce in old jam jars and Jack Daniel's bottles with the labels scraped off, corking them with a jalapeño. The early orders came with a cassette tape featuring an audio cookbook called "Stubb's Blues Cookbook Cassette." (Find out more about that here on the Kitchen Sisters podcast.)
As word of his sauce spread, Stubb became a bit of a celebrity thanks to his friend country singer Joe Ely bringing David Letterman a bottle of Stubb's Bar-B-Q sauce when he performed on Late Night. Letterman was smitten and in 1991, he invited Stubb himself to come on the show and cook for him. (You can watch it here)
The celebrity gave his brand a boost and in 1992, Stubb started selling the Original and Spicy versions of his sauces in grocery stores. As the Stubb's website notes, delivering the goods to grocery stores was a tall order, because at the time, "Stubb was still making everything by hand using a 60 gallon cooker and a paddleboat oar to stir the sauce!" By 1993, Stubb had no choice but to start out-sourcing production, handing over his secret recipe to a small-batch manufacturer. With a little more time on his hands, Stubb started to come up with new products including marinades and rubs, which soon wound up on grocery store shelves, too.
In May 1995, Stubb passed away, headed to "the smoker in the sky" to spread love, happiness, and barbecue. He left a little too soon to see Stubb's re-open in Austin, and while it's a separate entity from the sauce company, it is once again packing ‘em in for barbecue and blues (or rock or country). He also left too soon to see his sauce sold overseas, his company become a multi-million dollar operation and one of the largest barbecue sauce brands in the world, or reap the benefits of Stubb's Bar-B-Q selling for a cool $100 million to the spice-and-seasoning giant McCormick's. While it may been strange for Stubb to see his face become an icon and his name become synonymous with sauce, there's little doubt that the man who frequently told friends that he wanted to feed the world would be pleased by the outcome.