Salem farm's barbecue sauce sees instant success

Salem — Six months after it was first bottled, a barbecue sauce out of Syman Says Farm on Buckley Road has won a national competition.

The spicy sauce, dubbed "Swanky Sauce" by farm owners Aaron and Liz Syman, was named the grand champion of the Saucekers, an annual barbecue sauce competition dedicated to promoting small-label sauce makers and held this year on August 14.

The Symans said Swanky Sauce first came out of a home recipe created after their first garden in 2013 produced a substantial crop of habañero peppers. As a self-proclaimed "tinkerer" with a restaurant background and an interest in smoking foods, Aaron Syman started developing a recipe for a sauce that was all-natural and had the right amount of heat. They debuted it at a summer party with their homemade pulled pork, which was already a perennial favorite among family and friends.

"If I'm going to spend 12 hours cooking the protein and spend all that time and all that effort, I'm not going to throw a $2 bottle of barbecue sauce on it," he said. "We put it out with the pulled pork and everybody loved it."

That year, they spent a lot of time canning tomato sauce, pickles and other items, and they spent more than a year and a half researching how to produce and can their sauce on a larger scale. They signed with Onofrio's Ultimate Foods this past winter to make the sauce at their facility in New Haven.

The first batch of 1,200 bottles of Swanky Sauce was produced in February, packed to FDA standards with a two-year shelf life.

"My goal: get rid of it in two years so I don't lose money. We got rid of it in two months," Aaron Syman said.

Despite its success, the Symans' love of heat initially posed a problem for some distributors.

"The grocery companies that we were working with really said, 'You know, you're losing half of your market,'" Liz Syman said. "It's hot, and not everybody does hot."

The second production run included a mild version that met the same standards of natural ingredients as the original formula, though she joked that a mild sauce is "kind of against our religion."

Brian Henderson, who created the Saucekers competition as an extension of his barbecue sauce reviewing website, said he enjoys seeing new sauces like Swanky Sauce enter the competition. He tasted all of the finalists in the five categories of the competition, which includes spicy tomato, mild tomato, vinegar, mustard and specialty sauces.

"It was just a really, really nice blend," he said, adding that Swanky Sauce was the kind of sauce you could put on anything. "You could taste the habañeros, you could taste the honey."

Aaron Syman said the barbecue sauce industry is starting to look like the craft beer industry as more producers look to make smaller batches of a higher quality product for a niche market. He prides himself on a sauce that gets its flavor from home-smoked peppers and other ingredients his 7-year-old son Tyler can pronounce.

Swanky Sauce is available online and in more than 50 stores throughout the state, including the Norwich and Niantic branches of Stop & Shop and Fiddleheads Food Co-Op in New London. A full listing is available at getswankysauce.com.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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