PLANT CITY — Like a lot of backyard barbecuers, Tim Lawson thinks his homemade sauce is the best.
But unlike the raft of self-proclaimed grill masters, Lawson can lay claim to something most can't: The Plant City man sells his sauce in supermarkets.
Lawson's Dip-n-Q sauce is in 103 Sweetbays across Florida. It's on shelves at Felton's Market in downtown Plant City and scores of Tampa Bay specialty shops.
An avid barbecuer — Lawson barbecues three times a week and owns two smokers — he started making his sauce four years ago at his home on Fulwood Drive as an alternative to store-bought brands.
"We were sitting here one day and kind of just stood up and said we don't want to buy this mass-produced stuff. It overpowered the food we were eating," he said. "We'd try one, then another. It got to the point where we weren't buying any sauce."
Lawson and his wife, Michelle, pulled out a stainless steel stock pot and pored over ingredients. A couple of hours later, they hit on a recipe for Dip-n-Q, which refers to "dipping" and "barbecuing."
"We almost had it on the first try," Michelle, 44, said.
They gave it to friends during a hunting trip in Georgia and were offered money. Relatives suggested they bottle it and go into business. Little by little, Lawson's gained a following.
"At first, we made it in gallon jugs," Lawson said.
He started by selling locally at Lawson Hardware, owned by an aunt, at 3217 N Cork Road in Plant City.
Along the way, the couple got serious, securing Food and Drug Administration approval and signing a contract with Hot Wachula's, a dip and salsa maker in Bartow, to bottle it on a mass scale.
Throughout, the couple's marketing plan stayed simple: Word of mouth and tastings, which is how the sauce ended up in Sweetbay.
Two years ago, Lawson strode into the Alexander Street store with some bottles and asked for the manager. A week later, Lawson called back and was told to bring over a couple of cases and talk pricing, he said.
A few months after that, he took an order from another Sweetbay. Then this past fall the sauce was expanded to all of the Florida stores. Nearly 1,200 cases, or 14,400 bottles. All delivered personally.
For weeks, Lawson, his father, Bill Lawson Sr., and a friend, Jeff West, crisscrossed the state from Gainesville to Naples, dropping off cases of sauce.
"For two weeks, that's all they did," Michelle Lawson said.
The couple also do in-store tastings for customers. They bring a fryer and dip french fries into the sauce.
Lawson, 47, owns Southern Site Restoration Inc., which performs tree trimming and concrete repair along highways. That remains his main business, but lately sauce delivery is taking up more time. He has a climate-controlled storage building in the back yard. The couple have three grown children.
"Our youngest (Kailyn Lawson) uses it on the Publix hard rolls. She puts a hole in it and fills it up. A sauce eclair," Lawson said.
They were approached to sell the business, but turned down the offer, sensing the potential. They don't want to reveal earnings or sales but claim the sauce, which retails for $4.19 a bottle in Sweetbay, is a top seller among high-end competitors.
"It you want a 99-cent bottle of sauce that's what you're going to get," he said. "I've heard people eat it on top of eggs and as a salad dressing.
"One of the ladies at work uses the hot sauce as a bloody Mary mix," Lawson's father-in-law, Wayne Alward, 65, of Lansing, Mich., said. "I like it on Fritos."
They haven't turned a profit yet, but expect to do so this year. The couple have distribution deals pending, including with global restaurant distributor Sysco Corp. Publix is waiting until the company gets bigger, Lawson said.
The sauce comes in three types — original, hot and honey. More are planned, including extra hot and mustard. Depending on the store, prices range from $3.99 to $4.95.
"He had a demo early on," Felton's general manager Mike Mondsini said. "He's getting a following. It sells well. We're almost out again. I'll have to give him a call."
Eventually, the company plans to make regular giving to veterans and first responder groups part of their business plan. In particular, the company aims to support the Thin Blue Line, which helps families of injured or deceased police officers.
"That's one thing we're very passionate about," Lawson said. "We want Americans to take care of Americans."
Contact Rich Shopes at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.