The name came first. While chomping on some ribs at the old Uncle Burly's restaurant in Lutz, John Regan thought of the perfect barbecue restaurant name: "Philthy Pig." Messy, good barbecue is what he was after. Three years later, Regan, 46, has tweaked that vision a bit. He and business partner Louis Weinreb don't have a restaurant, but they are amassing a following for a line of sauces and dry rubs named — you guessed it — Philthy Pig.
In August, the sauce earned the People's Choice for Favorite Vendor award at the 10th annual I Like It Hot Festival & BBQ in Largo. The men beat out vendors from all over Central Florida.
"It was kind of surreal, I was outside of my body when we saw them marching down yelling 'Philthy Pig, Philthy Pig,' " said Weinreb, 51. "It was a real high. You work so hard to try and do something and then you're recognized."
The collaboration is a far cry from the men's first meeting in 2002 at a playground in their Villa Rosa subdivision on Lutz-Lake Fern Road. Weinreb, a father of four, was with his children when he met Regan, a father of seven. The men exchanged greetings, but not much else.
"I didn't like him," said Weinreb, a native of New Jersey. "He came across as a brash New Yorker."
A year later, the men were forced to make nice when their wives became friends. They began spending afternoons and weekends at Regan's outdoor kitchen, which included a gas grill.
In time, their friendship deepened and the men realized they had something in common: barbecue. They began experimenting with their own sauces.
They conducted research on classic ingredients, stocked their cabinets with various spices and Regan's outdoor kitchen became a mixing lab. The whole time Regan's Philthy Pig idea motivated them.
Regan and Weinreb aren't the only ones in Hillsborough who have been bitten by the sauce-making bug. Errol Bishop of Brandon makes "Hey Mon! Caribbean Magic" sauce and spice products. Michele Northrup, maker of carrot-based "Intensity Academy" sauces, is also quite popular.
The men aren't worried about the competition.
"We felt like we could do this," said Weinreb. "We didn't want this to be a flash in the pan — we wanted something people would be attracted to and want to come back to."
There were some failures along the way.
While tasting one of their first batches, the men sweated profusely. "It tasted so good, but it was way too hot," Weinreb recalled. "Too much cayenne."
Regan's wife, Jackie, and Weinreb's wife, Lauren, have also been guinea pigs to their experiments.
"I wouldn't let them cook inside," Jackie Regan said. "The peppers were so strong, they'd get in everyone's eyes."
As they perfected the blend, they also worked on coming up with the right branding image. Regan enlisted a New York-based graphic designer to come up with the perfect picture of the sauce's mascot, Capt. Phil T. Pigg.
After a year of sketches, the result was a pig-turned-pirate, with beady eyes and a mischievous smile. The going joke is that Phil is based on Regan's alter ego.
"This guy in his heart wants to be a pirate," said Weinreb, gesturing to Regan.
Weinreb, an executive at a company that provides information to hospital administrators, and Regan, who provides technical support to a financial company, don't have immediate plans of quitting their white-collar jobs for the barbecue business just yet.
It's a passion and hobby that brings in revenue, Weinreb said.
While the name Philthy Pig may evoke gritty notions, the products have a gourmet twist.
The Philthy Pig teriyaki sauce boasts chardonnay as an ingredient. And a new line of dry rubs contains green tea and pink salt from the Andes Mountains. The "splendiferous spices," which Weinreb and Regan won't divulge, give their barbecue sauce a kick.
All-natural ingredients are used, they say.
"No high-fructose corn syrup or preservatives," Regan said.
After finding the right blends, they hired a co-packing company to produce, bottle and label their products. The sauces can be purchased online, at PepperHeads in the Oldsmar and Wagon Wheel flea markets, and Harr's Surf and Turf Market on Tampa Road in Palm Harbor.
The barbecue sauce, which comes in three different levels of spiciness, costs $4.50 a bottle. The teriyaki sauce is $5.50 a bottle.
"It's the complete package, it's got a good name, the product inside the bottle is tasty and it's priced right," said Stephan Innocenzi, general manager at Harr's. "I thought it was very good."
Weinreb and Regan are working on getting the sauces in local grocery stores.
"We're both driven to make this work," Weinreb said. "I didn't want to get to my deathbed and say, 'Why didn't I try to have a business?' "
But sauces and rubs are only the beginning.
"Barbecue sauce lends itself to the right flavors and the meal to associate it with," Regan said. "I still think a restaurant is in the future. It's just a matter of getting there."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at email@example.com or (813)226-3405.