Andrew Holes of J. Wilbur foods has a lot of enthusiasm for his brand, but it wasn’t an easy start. As a part-time entrepreneur and full-time stay-at-home father, he spent the first five years of the company’s launch in self-taught research and development mixed with building the brand.
“I was in the mortgage business, a loan originator. I lost my job in late 2008, just like everybody else,” Holes said.
His wife managed to find a job, but since he didn’t have any immediate prospects, he began to pursue bringing his father’s barbecue sauce to market as a part-time launch. Building the barbecue sauce was a challenge, because the big-box brands had low-price markets cornered — so to build a place for his own sauce, he decided to push quality to the forefront. J. Wilbur’s sauces are gluten free, Holes took additional steps to make sure that the barbecue sauce no longer has high fructose corn syrup.
He has the barbecue sauce and Bloody Mary mix made at outside food services providers and keeps a warehouse for the product. That allows him to focus on marketing from his home in Bothell.
The barbecue sauce itself has a story, spelled out on J. Wilbur Foods’ website. Andrew’s father, James Wilbur Holes, had cultivated a homemade barbecue with bite after a career as a travelling salesman through Memphis, and shared it with friends and family. The namesake of the barbecue died in 2002, before his son had really considered bringing the zingy sauce to market.
There are now three flavors in the J. Wilbur brand — the original, an Applewood Smoked flavor that is sweeter and little less intense, a spice rub in keepsake tins and a Bloody Mary mix that Andrew and his father never saw coming.
Holes and his wife had some friends and family on a retreat in Walla Walla back in 2008. Andrew, of course, made baby back ribs with his father’s recipe, which went over quite famously with his friends.
“I was sitting on the deck, having a beer, when one of my friends came out of the kitchen with a hand behind his back.” His friend presented a Bloody Mary made with the barbecue sauce garnished with a pork rib, of course, and the rest is history.
“I’ve built my business around the idea that if I could get it in people’s mouths, they would buy it again.”
Holes visited trade shows, county fairs, and other venues to make it happen. Without direct retail marketing experience, he found that there was a lot to challenge him in learning a new trade.
“I think that if I had to do it over, I think I would have worked in the industry first. It’s not just about supply and demand. It’s a great product, it’s just so good. And then you find a retailer to pick it up – that’s supply and demand.”
“But once you’re in there,” he continues, “you gotta grease the wheels. You have to pay for shelf space where you are, because most of the prime spots are already paid for.”
But he’s certainly found his way into shelf space now — slotting fees and free fills, free product to test at new markets — are now things that he budgets.
According to Holes, there are more than 600 locations carrying his barbecue sauce or other products, including some locations in California, Oregon, and Alaska. The J. Wilbur brand barbecue sauce can be found at various locations such as Safeway, Fred Meyer, Albertson’s, QFC, and Whole Foods, just to name a few.
Wilbur continues to believe that his father’s legacy will spread, working on early concepts for a twist on the current spice rub, and exploring new markets in northern California. Additionally, J. Wilbur has sponsored two charities, MDA Passport to a Cure, and 10 cents of every barbecue sauce purchase goes to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Seattle Guild in honor of the namesake of the brand.
His advice to share with other would-be entrepreneurs entering a busy market: “There’s always someone there to tell you there’s no place for you, you’ll never make it. If you have a quality enough product and you do a good enough job — you have that ‘it’ factor — you can do it.”