Bob Overholser has co-owned Gold Rush BBQ in Venice for 18 years. But as a diabetic, he’s not able to safely enjoy a plate of chopped pork or baby back ribs slathered in barbecue sauce the way many of his diners do.
Until now, that is.
Over the past year, 59-year-old Overholser has been developing a barbecue sauce that’s much lower in sugar and carbohydrates than the usual options. The end result, Stevia Sweet BBQ Sauce, boasts 1 gram of sugar and 2 grams of carbohydrates per a two-tablespoon serving size. It’s been available at the restaurant for several months, and recently began being sold and distributed by Sysco.
“It occurred to me that if I have this need, many of my customers would also have the need,” says Overholser. “I thought I would just buy [a low-sugar sauce], but for the restaurant industry it did not exist. So I had to make one.”
That’s when he realized why he couldn’t find a low-sugar sauce made without artificial ingredients: the cost. Standard barbecue sauces, says Overholser, are about 65% sugar. But Stevia Sweet is about 80% tomatoes, combined with Worcestershire sauce, apple cider vinegar, various spices, and a small amount of stevia extract, a natural sugar substitute, for sweetness.
‘What we bottle we simply cannot keep on the shelves. We sell 6 to 12 bottles a day.’ Bob Overholser
Overholser has found that tomatoes cost, per pound, more than two times the price of sugar per pound. “So the costs will never match up,” says Overholser. “It’s sugar against tomato, and one’s a lot cheaper than the other. This is not something (the big guys) are going to waste their time with right now. But for the little guy like me it’s perfect, because there’s a big niche for it.”
Stevia Sweet has a higher price point than traditional barbecue sauces, but Overholser thinks people will be willing to pay more for a low-sugar option that tastes good and doesn’t contain artificial ingredients.
Serving the sauce at Gold Rush proved a great test market for the product. It’s also helped bring new customers into the restaurant, which does almost $3 million in total sales annually.
“I’ve had people say they’ve driven by this restaurant for 18 years because they didn’t want to be tempted by the sauce,” says Overholser. “Now they’re coming in because they can actually eat it. The barbecue industry has the perfect center plate for people watching their carbohydrate intake. It’s unprocessed meat that’s freshly smoked — and then we’re just pouring sugar on it.”
Overholser has formed a new side company with his restaurant partner, Patrick Caudill, focused on Stevia Sweet. Though distributing the sauce was always a goal, it happened a lot faster than Overholser envisioned. A Sysco rep collecting a check at Gold Rush tasted the sauce. “Then I got a phone call a week later saying they wanted to distribute the sauce and take it nationwide,” he says.
Stevia Sweet costs $16 a gallon for wholesale clients through Sysco, which Overholser says is about 30% more than traditional barbecue sauces. Sysco, which started selling the sauce in April, has already booked preorders from hospitals, restaurants, sports academies and food trucks.
On the retail front, the sauce is sold for $6.99 a bottle at specialty shops and online, and for $5.99 at Gold Rush. “What we bottle we simply cannot keep on the shelves,” says Overholser. “We sell six to 12 bottles a day (at Gold Rush). Next to our house sauce, it’s the No. 1 most-used sauce at the restaurant.”
He’s holding off on approaching grocery stores about carrying the sauce until he’s sure he can fill larger orders. Another concern: confusing nutrition labeling practices that could make it hard for customers to accurately compare Stevia Sweet to other sauces on the shelves. “People need to read the labels and understand that the serving size for barbecue sauce should be two tablespoons,” he says.
Overholser plans to hire a public relations firm, attend trade shows and conduct in-store demonstrations to spread the word about the sauce. He’s also looking forward to seeing what Sysco’s reps can do with it. “The restaurant was such a struggle the first eight years,” he says. “The past 10 years have been great. I’m hoping this can just be an incredible way to retire down the road.”