The Untold Truth Of Bone Suckin' Sauce

They say don't judge a book by its cover, but with a name like Bone Suckin' Sauce, the label matters. Many are drawn to the sauce for its name. One customer on Reddit says, "The name makes me giggle like a 12-year-old boy." The title has been good for its publicity, though the quality of this sauce speaks for itself. As per a Reddit user, "I must say this is the best tasting sauce I've tried." 

This barbecue sauce is tangy and sweet. It's one of the best to come out of North Carolina, a place that takes its barbecue seriously (they have an annual festival dedicated to it). When Bone Suckin' Sauce was launched about three decades ago, most — including the bottler and the label maker — thought that the business would fizzle out in no time. The label maker said the idea was "ridiculous," and the bottler delivered only half of the first order, foreseeing a quick failure. 

This may seem like a demoralizing approach, but it was based on experience and truth — they had seen many barbecue businesses pop like soap bubbles. However, to everyone's surprise, Bone Suckin' Sauce stayed on and even made it to the White House kitchen, in addition to 80 odd countries. Here's all you need to know about the sauce that is "serious and not delirious" about being bone-sucking good.

Bone Suckin' Sauce is based on a family recipe

Today, Bone Suckin' Sauce is available in several different versions: Hot, Thicker Style, and Hot, Thicker Style. Additionally, there are several other sauces, rubs, and seasonings that have mushroomed under the Bone Suckin' Sauce roof, such as mustards, wing sauces, teriyaki sauce, steak sauce, and more (via The Exporter Magazine). The origins of Bone Suckin' Sauce lie within the Ford family. 

The Ford family is business-oriented — the Ford's Produce Company was created by Andrew Ford and his sons, Connie Mac and Carl, in 1946. Lynn Ford and Sandi Ford took over the business in the 1980s. Lynn and Sandi's son, Patrick Ford, joined the business in 1997. Bone Suckin' Sauce was created when Phil Ford — a real estate appraiser and Lynn Ford's brother — tried to copy his mother's recipe for barbecue sauce in 1987.

As per Phil's nephew and the vice president of Ford's Gourmet Foods, Patrick Ford, "[I]t is the sauce I grew up on. It's our family recipe, my grandmother made it when I was a young kid, my uncle tried to modify it, turned it into his recipe" (via Raleigh Lifestyle TV).

In spite of the Ford family's history of business acumen, Phil Ford never thought of scooping the sauce into a bottle and selling it. Nevertheless, the sauce was too delicious to remain under wraps — word spread, and this family recipe went on to enhance the Ford family business' name. 

Bone Suckin' Sauce is made using honey and molasses

If you are someone who says "fahyr" for fire, and uses "hoofta" as a unit of measurement, then you are a grilling pro and you probably know that the barbecue sauce tastes different in different parts of the North and South Carolinas. On the eastern side, the sauce is heavy with vinegar and pepper; those in central South Carolina like their mustard sauce; and in the western part of North Carolina, the sauce pivots into having sweeter notes (via Southern Kitchen). The roots of Bone Suckin' Sauce rest in this last category — sauce developer Phil Ford's mother passed down a recipe for western North Carolina-style barbecue sauce to her son.

The credit for that dash of sweetness in the sauce goes to German immigrants who were simply trying to recreate the taste of the sweet and sour dishes of their home. As it turns out, an eastern-style sauce can be turned into a western-style one with a few squeezes of American ketchup. Ford, obviously, didn't take this shortcut. He used honey and molasses for the sweetness. Bone Suckin' Sauce also includes tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, mustard, horseradish, lemon juice, onions, garlic, peppers, natural hickory smoke, natural spices, and salt. Today, Bone Suckin' Sauce's flavors have inspired adventurous concoctions. The sauce has been incorporated into mocha and ice cream, among other adventurous dishes. 

Phil Ford started out serving the sauce to family and friends

While Phil Ford was happy just hosting guests and serving them his delicious sauce, his friends and family pushed him to go beyond. As he told Walter Magazine, "people started to say you ought to bottle this," but "I didn't pay any attention to them." While his friends were being honest, it took Ford around five years to see what others saw — that his sauce was totally sell-worthy. 

Sandi Ford, Phil's sister-in-law, was the one who encouraged him the most. "People loved it when he gave it away, but Phil never thought anyone would pay for his sauce," she said. Sandi wasn't new to the gourmet food business and knew that her brother-in-law had a winning product sitting right in his kitchen. 

Sandi and her husband, Lynn Ford expanded Ford's produce and launched Ford's Fancy Fruits and Gourmet Foods in 1986 (via Triangle Business Journal). As the business grew, the couple opened more retail stores. By 1992, they were selling as many as 300 gourmet items. 

Sandi and Lynn Ford promised hesitant sauce purveyor Phil that he wouldn't have to venture into the business alone. They assured Phil that they would handle everything from the naming to the marketing of the product. Thus, Bone Suckin' Sauce was born.

The sauce is named after Grandma Mae's post-meal ritual

Naming a sauce is no easy feat, especially considering all the catchy, exciting sauce labels out there: Bubba's Bad Ass BBQ Sauce, Browning's Pig Out BBQ Sauce, Scorned Woman Barbecue Sauce, to name a few. However, for Sandi Ford, naming her brother-in-law's delicious sauce was no trouble at all. 

Sandi Ford was on the road to South Carolina, mulling over possible names, when the idea came to her. She thought about how good the sauce was and how it had made her do something she had never done before — suck on the bones to get the last little bit of flavor. As per WRAL, the name for Bone Suckin' Sauce was, in part, inspired by Sandi Ford's mom, Maudie Mae Jackson, and her post-meal ritual of sucking on chicken bones.

The name was a hit. "That's the first thing people look at and laugh about," said Alan Bundy, owner of B & B Pecan Processor, a North Carolina-based company that is one of the sauce's distributors (via Triangle Business Journal).

Promoting the sauce was a family affair

Marketing the Bone Suckin' Sauce was key to making sure it was Ford's Gourmet Food's future star and not just a one-hit wonder. So Phil Ford and his family huddled together to promote the sauce and ensure its success. 

First, they gave Ford's recipe to a local manufacturer — one with an FDA-certified kitchen and requisite health certificates — to make 100 cases of the sauce. In October of 1992, once the bottles were ready, Phil loaded his truck with some jars and drove around North Carolina, stopping at different stores to promote the sauce. Phil's kids "earned $2.50 for each store they won over" (per Walter Magazine). 

Lynn Ford and Sandi Ford and their two sons Vaughn and Patrick helped take the product to stores located in the mountains of North Carolina. Patrick Ford sold the sauce to the first out-of-state customer Virginia Smalls, a distributor at the famous Charleston Market in South Carolina. Smalls began selling the sauce at the Charleston Market, which is a popular tourist attraction. This was a big deal — it gave the sauce wider exposure and increased publicity. 

The hot version of the sauce was taste-tested by a UPS man

Phil Ford certainly had not planned on creating a hotter version of the Bone Suckin' Sauce. Then again, Phil Ford learned to make lip-smacking salsa even though he had never tried it (per Walter Magazine). The hot barbecue sauce was developed in response to a demand in the market — one that was discovered when Patrick Ford was observing Virginia Smalls selling Bone Suckin' Sauce. He "noticed something really funny." 

As Patrick Ford notes, "She was selling Hot Bone Suckin' Sauce. But we didn't have a Hot Bone Suckin' Sauce yet. She found that she could sell two jars to the same customer" if one was regular and the other was spicier. This was an eye-opener for the Fords, who jumped in on the opportunity and gave the original sauce a hot twist in just six months. 

Phil Ford made the sauce by adding a dash of cayenne pepper, but neither he nor anyone in his family was willing to taste it. The Fords tested the hot sauce "on the UPS man because no one in the family liked much heat." Thanks to the gentleman, this hot sauce went on to become a top seller.

The sauce has a huge international presence

Today, 10-15% of Ford's Gourmet Foods' business is based on exports. Yet, it was the Bone Suckin' Sauce that kick-started it all. In 1994, the company fulfilled its first foreign order — 700 cases of Bone Suckin' Sauce to be shipped to the Fakta chain of stores in Denmark. According to Sandi Ford, "Our biggest order before that had been 10 cases. I lost many hours of sleep from the excitement and the fear of that order." In the following three years, they also shipped the sauce out to retailers in Canada, Hong Kong, and London. 

That same year, the Fords had set up a small booth at the New York Fancy Food Show. This helped the company create contacts with potential international buyers. As per Patrick Ford, "There was no brand awareness in the overseas markets, no product support, and no real marketing plan to speak of."

They sought help from organizations like the Foreign Agricultural Service, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, and the Southern U.S. Trade Association to understand the market opportunities, world trends, and the basic differences in labeling among different countries. 

Bone Suckin' Sauce has won many awards

It only took Bone Suckin' Sauce two years on the market before it received the validation it deserved. The sauce won the 1994 North Carolina Battle of the Sauces, which volleyed its name to the A-list of barbecue sauces and set things in motion for the brand. For Patrick Ford, contests, trade shows, and in-store demonstrations were key to getting a product's name out there.

Several magazines began to voice their praises of the sauce and compared it to other, similar sauces on the market. Food & Wine Magazine rated the "hot" version of the sauce as the best barbecue sauce consecutively for two years. Newsweek rated it the No. 1 sauce, and Bon Appetit recommended it as a healthy option in comparison to Kraft Thick 'n Spicy and Trader Joe's Kansas City Style sauces, among others. As nutritionist Marissa Lippert said, "It's significantly lower in sodium than the others, a bit lower in sugar and about half the calories."

All the accolades and awards the sauce received only cemented what Sandi Ford always knew. She told The Exporter Magazine: "I realized we had a winning product when customers started being repeat customers. Repeat customers are the biggest compliment you can have with any service or product."

Celebrities love Bone Suckin' Sauce

Bottles of Bone Suckin' Sauce were part of the White House pantry when Barack Obama was the president of the United States. Chef Guy Mitchell, who used to cook for Obama, said that the president preferred Bone Suckin' Sauce for his dishes. In contrast, President Joe Biden, who was Obama's vice president at the time, opted for Shed's Original Southern Sweet BBQ Sauce. "Guy (Mitchell) has come to us a long time, and he asks us for bottles as he says it's the president's favorite barbecue sauce," said Patrick Ford (via New York Daily News).

The sauce has also been endorsed by popular personalities such as television star Kristin Cavallari of "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County," competitive eater Raina Huang, and head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs Andy Reid. The sauce brand has also partnered with Operation BBQ Relief to provide post-disaster relief in the form of free meals to first responders, the unhoused, and others in need.

Customers say a recipe change has affected the sauce's quality

Those used to basting their meat with the Bone Suckin' Sauce noticed something off about the taste a few years ago. Reviews on Reddit commented that the sauce seemed thicker, sweeter, and had a little too much tomato. As one customer wrote: "The taste is completely off and it's really thick (sort of the consistency of sweet baby rays). The bone suckin that I know is very thin, almost watery and had an awesome taste. Did I get a bad one or did they change the recipe?" 

Yet another customer added: "I like many of you had come to love Bone Suckin' Sauce over the years. It had a unique flavor and went well with almost anything. That's why it pained me so much when they changed the recipe a few months ago. Now it is just another Molasses-based abomination."

As per the Redditor, there were many others who complained about the altered taste. One of them pointed out the changed ingredients: "The calories per 2 Tbsp tells you something changed, and it's likely much sweeter, which matches what seems to be one of the big complaints."