Donald Hill would like to do for the humble sloppy Joe sandwich what Starbucks has done for coffee, or what private-label beverage makers have done for soft drinks.
That is, raise the expectations.
Using an old family recipe, Mr. Hill, a Toledoan and University of Toledo graduate, began making a gourmet sloppy Joe sauce that he believes upgrades a food category that’s been sadly neglected for nearly 50 years.
During the past three months, interest in his Brickyard-brand sloppy Joe sauce from local retailers has been growing steadily. Currently, 26 retailers in northwest Ohio — including local retailers Walt Churchill’s Markets, Sautter’s Five-Star Markets, Kazmaier’s, House of Meats, and Monnette’s — are carrying Brickyard.
He’s also had discussions with The Andersons about carrying his sauce and recently got a call from Walmart about placing Brickyard Sloppy Joe sauce in some of its local stores. “Once people taste it — if they taste it, they like it,” said Mr. Hill, 36.
However, most people don’t think of sloppy Joe sandwiches, which consist of ground beef cooked in a tomato-like sauce, as something worth making a fuss over.
“It’s really a poor man’s meal,” Mr. Hill said.
But with Brickyard, he is trying to change the perception of the humble sloppy Joe.
“It’s just kind of an evolution of the food. That’s exactly how we looked at it,” said Mr. Hill, who formed a company, Traditions Sauces LLC, to market his product. The sauce is full of robust flavors and packed in a glass jar instead of a can.
Another local company, Hirzel Canning of Northwood, sells cans of sloppy Joe sauce under its Dei Fratelli brand.
Although the formula for Mr. Hill’s sloppy Joe sauce is a family-owned recipe that dates to 1963, Brickyard’s origins begin in the combat zones of southern Afghanistan.
Two years ago while serving as a Navy corpsman assigned to a Marine combat unit in Marjeh, Afghanistan, Mr. Hill picked up a military MRE — meal ready-to-eat — that contained a sloppy Joe sandwich.
“I ate it. And it was awful,” Mr. Hill said.
But the experience made him long for the sloppy Joes he enjoyed growing up — sandwiches prepared using a recipe that his grandmother, JoAnne, had created and served to patients while working as a nurse in 1963.
“I resolved that when I got back, I was going to recreate this memory,” Mr. Hill said.
When he returned to Toledo in 2012, he retrieved the family recipe, mixed up a batch, and wondered if it might be good enough to sell commercially.
Mr. Hill began doing market research, experimenting with production, and eventually contacted the Center for Innovative Food Technology, which runs the Northwest Ohio Cooperative Kitchen in Bowling Green.
“They said, ‘You’re into some serious competition. Sauces and salsas are kind of played out,’ ” Mr. Hill said.
But while barbecue sauces, spaghetti sauces, and salsas fill grocery shelves by the dozens, the military veteran noticed that sloppy Joe sauces hadn’t changed much in 50 years.
“I found a niche. The first place I took it to, [Walt] Churchill’s, they looked at me and said, ‘Sloppy Joe sauce? Wow. Who would have thought?’ ”
Mr. Hill said the biggest seller is Hunt’s Manwich, “but that’s nearly 50 years old. I’m in a virtually untouched category.”
After a few months of product testing, he began producing Brickyard — a named chosen because it reminded the Hill family of a hearty lunch-pail-type food — in the cooperative kitchen in June. He makes about 500 jars every two weeks. Depending on the store, it sells for between $5 and $6 a jar.
Kunal Dawar, a product buyer and assistant manager for Walt Churchill’s Markets, said the retailer likes to carry locally made products, and Brickyard fit the bill.
“When I sat down with Don and his mom and they were telling us where this recipe was from and what their whole idea was … I said, ‘I’m not your final judge; our customers will be,’ ” Mr. Dawar said. “But it turned out that on the first [customer demonstration] they did, they got a very good response.”
Subsequent customer demonstrations also brought a good response, and Mr. Dawar said he decided to carry the product not only for its taste, but also for “the story behind it.”
“Everybody who has tried it so far seems to like it,” he said. “It’s a little pricier, but our customers, I believe, see a value in it. As the old saying goes, if it looks good you’ll try it once. If it tastes good, you’ll pay the fair price for it and buy it again.”
Mr. Hill had been pursuing a master’s degree in health education at the University of Toledo, but decided to take a semester off following the burgeoning success of his Brickyard sauce.
“I figured, sometimes you have to strike while the iron is hot. And let’s face it, three months of production and Walmart is calling? It really was something I had to do,” he said.
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