This article will appear in the April/May 2012 edition of Macon Magazine.
By Matt Miller
Aside from a slight, tangy aroma in the air, there is nothing about the nondescript building on Roff Avenue that hints at the culinary alchemy taking place within.
Entering through a side door into a production room abuzz with humming machinery and men working busily at a bottling machine, the scent envelopes — a vinegar punch amid the abiding warmth of mustard — and for any dyed-in-the-wool Middle Georgian, sets off an inevitable cascade of equally warm associations: spring picnics, long, languid summer days, and 4th of July fireworks.
For over 75 years, Mrs. Griffin’s has been in the business of spicing up smokey entrees in backyards, kitchens, and restaurants in Macon, and throughout the country, with a singular sauce that has garnered a devoted following. “We’re in the good-time business,” owner Roland Neel remarked on his product’s ability to lubricate any southern shindig. “Every one of these bottles is probably going to a good time somewhere.”
As the story goes, the company got its start in the early-1930s when Macon resident Mangham Edward Griffin decided to bottle some of his popular homemade barbecue sauce to sell at his brother’s grocery store in Warner Robins. Customers quickly cleared the shelves, and by 1935, Griffin decided to make the sauce his full-time vocation. Figuring that a woman’s name on the bottle would increase sales, Griffin named the sauce for his wife, Etta Busby Griffin, and Mrs. Griffin’s Barbecue Sauce was officially born.
Over the ensuing decades — as the company was passed on to Griffin’s daughters upon his retirement, then sold to Macon-resident Jim Wilcox in the 1990s, who in turn sold it to the current owner Roland Neel in 2010– the sauce and business model have stayed remarkably true to Mr. Griffin’s original intent. Indeed, since taking over the company two years ago, Neel has removed a number of ingredients that found their way into the sauce over the years, in order to make it as natural possible, in keeping with M.E. Griffin’s original kitchen recipe.
“It had some artificial dyes and colorations that I didn’t feel were necessary,” Neel explained recently as he placed plastic seals on the tops of 32 ounce bottles of the original sauce as they slid down the production line. “Now, it’s a very organic product,” he continued, “maybe thirty years ago that wasn’t as important in the market place, but today it is.”
Flanking him on his left and right side are Levi Crafton and Eddie Coulter, the two employees who oversee the production of every batch of Mrs. Griffin’s Barbecue Sauce from receiving the voluminous drums of powdered mustard, tomato paste, and garlic powder, to blending the ingredients in a series of stainless steel vats, all the way to packaging them for delivery to Walmart, Kroger, Ingles, Piggly Wiggly, and a host of other retailers. “These two guys are the heart of the operation,” Neel intoned over the din of the mixer and the hydraulic hiss of the bottling machine. “Levi has been here for a year and is really good at overseeing things, and Eddie has all of the history and the knowledge.”
Watching them expertly bottle and package the marigold-colored sauce, it’s easy to see why Neel insists the pair could do their jobs blindfolded. Eddie Coulter has worked at Mrs. Griffins for sixteen years — he was originally hired by Mr. Griffin’s daughters Jeanette Griffin Stevenson and Betty Griffin Barfield — and works from memory as he blends spices, programs machinery, and monitors PH. As he and Crafton methodically bottle and seal the sauce at a speedy clip, they trade recipes and reminisce about a visit to the factory by country star and Macon native Jason Aldean.
“The way it works,” Neel explains, turning from the bottling line to a trio of progressively larger stainless steel vats, “is the first tank has a really high performance engine, and we throw our solids in there, and it just purees them.” From there, the mix is transferred to a 300 gallon tank where it is heated slightly, and, finally, it is pumped into a massive 800 gallon tank where it is stirred vigorously. “It may take up to a week to go from start to finished batch,” he continued. Mrs. Griffin’s regulary produces 1000 gallons of sauce each week, and offer Original, Hickory Smoked, and Hot varieties that appeal to a wide range of palates.
Books have been written on the subject of barbecue sauces, their historic roots, and regional variants, and the staff of Mrs. Griffin’s have no shortage of opinions on where their sauce fits into the pantheon. The prominence of mustard in the recipe distances the sauce from its many counterparts in Macon that favor “tomatoey” tang, and firmly link it to the South Carolina school of mustard-based sauce that is invariably paired with pieces of smoked whole hog. The style is traced to German immigrants who brought centuries of success pairing all manner of pork products with mustard in Europe to their new homes in South Carolina in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It’s unclear what effect all of this history had on M.E. Griffin when he was mixing his first batch of barbecue sauce on a sweltering July day, but the initial and enduring success of Mrs. Griffin’s undoubtedly owes a debt to a centuries-old culinary tradition.
Of course, the nomenclature has evolved.
“You know what Mrs. Griffin’s truly is?” Neel asked rhetorically after a rousing discussion with his employees on glazing ability, marinade times, and meat parings: “It’s a mop sauce. It’s a real southern thing; you use it like ketchup. You put it on something after it’s cooked, or dip it in.” Eddie Coulter backed up this assertion, adding that one of his favorite uses of the sauce is as a dip for his homemade burritos.
As Roland Neel has stuck close to the classic recipe for Mrs. Griffin’s sauce, he has also been working hard to expand the company, by introducing his product into new marketplaces and diversifying the brand. “When we bought Mrs. Griffins’s, we were in one Sam’s Club in Macon,” he recalled. “Now we’re in four, and in thirty days, we’ll be in fourteen.” Neel spends much of his time on the road, hitting trade shows, and meeting with executives from national grocery chains.
In addition, he has introduced a private labeling division of the company that offers custom labels for businesses who want to sell Mrs. Griffin’s classic sauce under their own name. It is a marketing technique Neel has used successfully in his other business, a line of personal care products that are manufactured next door on Roff Avenue.
Mrs. Griffin’s private label products have sold as far away from Macon as California, Hawaii, and Alaska. Last month, the Allman Brothers Band ordered a run of Mrs. Griffin’s Original barbecue sauce with a custom “Eat A Peach” label that was handed out to VIPs at their annual run of shows at the Beacon Theater in New York City. “Bert Holman is a manager of the Allman Brothers, and he’s a barbecue freak,” Neel explained. “He loves Mrs. Griffins, and said that we have to get this for the Beacon show.”
The support of the Allman Brothers band is just the latest in a string of successes for Mrs. Griffin’s. Production and sales are up despite the economy, or as Neel surmises, because of it. When families cut back on vacations and restaurant trips, barbecue sales tend to spike, and that, along with Mrs. Griffin’s beloved status throughout the south and beyond, have led to a banner year for the company.
“The only reason we’re the oldest barbecue sauce in the southeast is because people love us,” Neel said with a smile.