Dec 19, 2011 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
When he first started, Tom Armstrong bottled his homemade barbecue sauce in wine bottles and sold it out of his car trunk.
Now, 14 years later, Tom’s Bootleg BBQ Sauce is sold in stores across Central New York, used in multiple restaurants and recently was named one of the best barbecue sauces for chicken by the National Barbecue News.
And it originated right here in Skaneateles.
“I was working at Rosalie’s Cucina in 1997 and I decided it’s time to make something unique and different. So I started going around the kitchen and grabbing every spice I could,” Armstrong said of the inception of his sauce. He ultimately found the ingredients he wanted — which come from across the globe: England, France, Italy, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and of course the American South — mixed those with five different types of alcohol, then boiled the mixture down to evaporate the alcohol content.
“Most barbecue sauces are too sweet or too tangy. When you taste my product it’s very unique, it has lots of flavor, a little bite, a little tanginess and a long lasting flavor that stays on your palate for 30 seconds to a minute or longer,” he said.
It’s a “bootleg” barbecue sauce because for five years Armstrong sold it in wine bottles and out of his trunk. Then Skaneateles restauranteur Johnny Angel was so impressed by the sauce he told Armstrong he had to put the product on the market.
Angel gave Armstrong advice and some tricks of the trade, and then Armstrong connected with Nelson Farms in Tully, which specializes in assisting small entrepreneurs produce and market their products.
The bottles were eventually shrunk to the regular 375 ml condiment size after Armstrong received multiple comments from people saying they could not fit the wine bottle in their refrigerator.
The label, Armstrong’s design, is bright, colorful and fun: a cartoon of Armstrong in red tights and a kitchen apron, gripping cooking utensils in one hand, with a huge, gap-toothed infectiously happy smile on his face.
“The whole thing about my product is simple, easy and fun. You gotta bring out the joy in life. That’s what it’s all about,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong has lived in Skaneateles since 1995 and has more than 30 years of culinary experience, including stints at Hobart & William Smith College in Geneva, Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I., Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and Wells College in Aurora. For 14 years he has worked on and off as the day chef at Rosalie’s Cucina in Skaneateles.
Armstrong also does most of his marketing and publicity the old-fashioned way: he gets in his car and drives around Central New York, visiting shops and restaurants, attending fairs, cook-offs and music festivals and shows, looking to interest people in his product.
“There’s a lot of let-downs, people say they’re not interested, but you just smile and say thank you and keep moving forward,” Armstrong said.
Tom’s Bootleg BBQ Sauce is now sold in dozens of retail shops across CNY and used in numerous restaurants. This summer it was a hit at the State Fair, where, Armstrong said, he sold 10 cases.
Recently the sauce was ranked number 12 out of 40 national entries in the “Best Sauce on Chicken” category in the National Barbecue News annual “2011 Sauces of Honor” contest. Tom’s Bootleg BBQ Sauce was the only sauce in the entire Northeastern United States in the ranking; the rest were from the south or west.
Armstrong acknowledges that it’s tough competition to be near Syracuse, the home of the nationally-recognized Dinosaur Bar-B-Que chain, but he knows his sauce is good and he feels confident he can compete with any other sauce on the market.
“And if I had my own restaurant — watch out,” he said.
In fact, that may just happen sooner rather than later. Armstrong has various plans currently in the works, one of which is looking into the creation of his own restaurant, which would have a pavilion-style outdoor setting, and would be within 20 miles of Skaneateles, he said.
Also in the works is a new Tom’s Bootleg BBQ Dry Rub, which would contain the same ingredients as his barbecue sauce, and offerings of his famous barbecue sauce in half-gallon containers.
“I’m interested to see if people want it in this size. Next spring I’ll be doing a push to fire departments and golf courses to see if they want it in bigger sizes to use during tournaments and cookouts,” Armstrong said. “And they’ll get free delivery by me with a smile.”
Tom’s Bootleg BBQ Sauce can be found in Skaneateles at Joe’s Pasta Garage, Rosalie’s Cucina and Clarke’s Mobil gas station.
For more information visit skaneatelesbbq.com or call Tom Armstrong at 395-1810.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.