In the 1980s, brothers Larry and Danny Williamson opened a roadside barbecue shack in Sylacauga, Alabama. Turned out, people really liked the barbecue, and the brothers decided to give up their day jobs, one as a truck driver and the other working in a concrete factory. They went looking for a bigger audience.
That search brought them to metro Atlanta. Driving around Marietta, they happened upon a vacant storefront at 1425 Roswell Road. They signed a lease, and in March 1990, opened Williamson Bros. Bar-B-Q in the first of what would become three restaurant locations.
“Early on, there was a grocery store manager who loved our sauce,” said Sawyer Williamson, Larry’s son and now the company’s vice president of operations and general manager of the sauce-making side of the business. “He told us if we could make it in a shelf-stable form, he’d carry it in his store. We took our dishwasher and put him on making sauce full time. That was in 1992, and we haven’t taken him off the job. He’s one of the only people who know how to make the sauce, and, when he goes on vacation, we don’t produce.”
That original barbecue sauce was spun off into five other flavors. The company also makes hot sauce, and sells rub, spice mixes, seasoning salt, spices like chili powder and granulated garlic, and beef jerky in three flavors.
For many years, they made their sauce in a 9,000-square-foot facility. In 2015, they moved to the 25,000-square-foot plant they operate today.
The smell of barbecue sauce permeates the air at the facility, in an industrial park off Cobb Parkway. Inside, there are 650-gallon stainless steel tanks in which they cook the 275 batches of sauce they make each year.
The vinegar comes in 250-gallon totes. In a year, they’ll need 15,000 gallons. Williamson said they go through a million pounds of tomato puree and 130,000 pounds of cane sugar each year, as well as 80,000 pounds of onions.
“We’re the only barbecue sauce maker putting a fresh produce puree in our sauce,” he said. “Tip our bottle, and you’ll see the bits of onion and garlic and the black pepper suspended in the sauce. We think it’s our ingredients that make our sauce so good, and that we stew our sauce for over five hours.”
Williamson noted that the sauce isn’t just used at barbecue joints. “Barbecue sauce is used in all world cuisines,” he said. “Our business is almost 40 percent food service now, because the sauce is used by chefs for Korean and other Asian cuisines, and in French and Italian cooking.”
The second biggest use after traditional American barbecue? Mexican food.
So, thanks to the suggestion from that original grocery manager back in the 1990s, you can enjoy the Williamsons’ sauce at the three restaurants, but you also can find it in bottles on the shelves of Kroger, Publix, Walmart, Whole Foods, Ingles, Food Lion, Little Giant, Target, Piggly Wiggly and Sam’s Club. Their products are sold in 2,000 grocery stores and used in 500 restaurants. And, last year was the first time they shipped their sauce to independent grocers west of the Rockies, and exported sauce to Korea.
They also make sauce for other barbecue places in town. “We’ve become a full-scale manufacturer,” Williamson said. “Our sauce allows somebody to start with our 5-hour base, and then make it their own. I’d describe the flavor as ‘great for kids and great for grandmothers.’ It’s a good all-purpose sauce, not too spicy, not too sweet, slightly tangy. We take our sauce to festivals, and there are very few people who don’t end up telling us it’s delicious.”
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