If Brian Wiggins makes it big in the barbecue-sauce business, it will be value added to the primary reason he taught himself to cook in high school: “to impress girls.”
Ironically, Wiggins, now 39 and with a fledgling line of sauces and spice rubs to make grilled burgers and chicken even tastier, wound up marrying a vegetarian. To boot, she has a number of food allergies that preclude her from eating her husband’s Saint Brian’s BBQ sauces.
“I told him, ‘Go on and give it a try, as long as it doesn’t break the bank,’ ” Joanne McTamney said, recalling the moment when the man she married 11 years ago made his entrepreneurial intentions known.
And so he did, investing about $10,000 since 2014 to turn the flavors family and friends have long raved about into a small business he hopes will ultimately enable him to quit his management job at a staffing company.
To get closer to that goal, Wiggins wants to get on ABC’s Shark Tank for national exposure and a $50,000 investment to grow production — currently a laborious and limiting one-person handmade process.
“Now it’s time to blow it up,” he said while waiting to pitch to a casting producer for the show late last month. The low-key, invitation-only event was held in a classroom at Cheyney University’s Center City campus.
Wiggins has sold more than 1,200 bottles of sauce, currently available in five flavors, along with two spice rubs at http://www.saintbriansbbq.com. (The company name? It’s from how Wiggins refers to his January birthday.) Sauces also are offered at Whole Foods stores in Marlton and Cherry Hill and on South Street in Philadelphia, as well as the Reading Terminal Market, Swarthmore CO-OP, and Haddonfield Farmers Market.
“Everyone’s dining table” — that was Wiggins’ answer when I asked where he next wants to see his sauces, retailing for $6.99 per 16-ounce bottle. It was the day before his June 29 Shark Tank pitch, as Wiggins grilled burgers and chicken thighs in his Northeast Philadelphia backyard.
Three years earlier, a sick Labrador nearly derailed the business, with money needed to market the sauces and grow their distribution spent on keeping the dog alive.
Wiggins and McTamney had adopted Owen two days after returning from their honeymoon in Ireland in 2006. Eight years later, the Labrador was diagnosed with lymphoma. By then, Saint Brian’s BBQ Sauce was gaining traction, helped, in part, by McTamney's uncle Ira Guttman, who was featuring a Saint Brian’s burger at his Cool Dog Cafe on Route 70 in Cherry Hill. Wiggins was using the kitchen there to make his sauces.
Contributing, too, to their growing following was Saint Brian’s inclusion in a small-business “hatchery program” at the Whole Foods store in Cherry Hill, which provided Wiggins some retail space by express checkout for $5 a day. Sales were so good that the grocery manager proposed getting the sauces on the main shelves.
But that’s when Owen’s cancer was detected, and his owners opted to extend his life with chemotherapy. He died in February 2015, after about $12,000 in treatments. During the dog’s illness, the sauce business “took a back seat,” Wiggins said. With Owen’s chemo treatments an hour away in West Chester and the demands of a day job, Wiggins had little time to focus on anything else.
Whole Foods, however, stayed interested in carrying Saint Brian’s products. By late spring 2015, sauces were finally added there, and at the Haddonfield Farmers Market.
Then came another hurdle to clear: Guttman closed Cool Dog Cafe to open Moon Dog Grill at Moorestown Mall. Wiggins had to find another kitchen where he could make his sauces. Declaring the inspection fees in Philadelphia prohibitive, he moved his cooking to the Artisan Exchange in West Chester, where Wiggins creates from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Though it’s a hot dog place, Moon Dog Grill still occasionally features Saint Brian’s BBQ Burger (it will be the August burger of the month). First dredged with a Saint Brian’s rub, it is then grilled and topped with cheddar cheese, coleslaw, two onion rings, and Saint Brian’s Original sauce.
“There is a very distinctive flavor running through all of his sauces that’s phenomenal,” said Guttman, who has been in the restaurant business 50 years.
Jackie Kreterfield, the Shark Tank casting associate producer who listened to a seven-minute pitch by Wiggins, didn’t taste his sauces or accept any for the plane ride back to California.
“I have very bad luck with glass and sauce,” she said. Wearing all black, right down to her fingernail polish, Kreterfield sipped from a La Colombe cup as Wiggins stood before her, answering questions about sales and what makes his sauces different from the many others out there. (No corn syrup or artificial ingredients, not watered down, and strong flavor, he said.)
Other than a few “hm-hms” and one “cool,” she did not let on what her recommendation will be. If Wiggins is wanted for the September taping of the second half of Shark Tank‘s Season 9, he will hear in a couple of weeks.
If he doesn’t make it, he plans to spend three days that month at the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore, looking for buyers and distributors. Viewing it as possibly a make-or-break event, Wiggins said, “It’s either grow it or stop doing it.”