Ron Griffith’s barbecue sauce and bloody mary mixes were the stuff of legend for friends who would vacation with Ron and his wife Connie near Annapolis.
But before the Bethesda man could chase his dream of making the recipes into a viable business, he grew sick with ALS, the degenerative neurological disease that led to his death in November 2011.
Now, with the help of her friend Debbie Kaufmann and the Bethesda Green business incubator, Connie is continuing Ron’s pursuit with a renewed focus. A percentage of all profits from her Gater Ron’s Zesty Sauces & Mixes will be donated to the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins. The two have started a website where people affected by ALS can find resources.
On Monday, Kaufmann, the Bethesda resident who quit her job to help grow the business, made a pitch at Startup Maryland’s bus tour stop on Cordell Avenue.
The winner and runner-up in that small business contest will get access to a number of prominent investors and potential funding sources. Kaufmann said trimming the presentation from 12 minutes to five minutes was hard enough. After her mock-pitch in front of a panel of judges that included Honest Tea CEO Seth Goldman, she was told she might need to cut it down even more.
As Kaufmann and Griffith explained the origin of the business on Thursday, they said there’s a whole lot more to tell.
The idea to make his sauce and mix recipes into a business gained steam when Ron got a favorable review from the owner of Peppers, the popular Rehoboth Beach, Del., store and home of the self-proclaimed largest collection of hot sauces in the world.
“The whole way home, he was so happy,” Connie said. “That was the start of the end.”
Ron was diagnosed with ALS in 2007 and as he began to lose strength and grow more sick, he bemoaned the fact he likely wouldn’t be able to put the company together, all the while teaching Connie how to prepare the sauces.
As Ron neared death late last year, Connie was prepared to give the recipe to all the friends who had helped during their difficult time, even going as far as making index cards with instructions.
“He made her promise she would never give out the recipe,” Kaufmann said.
She didn’t, and by January, Kaufmann had joined Connie with the goal of mass producing and marketing the product as a unique Bethesda-based startup business.
“It hasn’t even been a year and this has been a really tough month because it’s all coming back,” Connie said. “I think he’d be very happy right now to see his product in a bottle in the stores.”
Varieties of Gator Ron’s sauces are being sold locally at the Grosvenor Market, Chevy Chase Market, Bradley Food & Beverage and Snider’s Super Foods, among others. The duo is currently trying to get the product on the shelves at Whole Foods, MOM’s Organic Market and Wegman’s.
Kaufmann said in her pitch that they “want to be the Paul Newman of ALS,” referring to the Newman’s Own food company that has donated more than $330 million to charities since 1982.
To do that, they know they have a long way to go.
“There’s a lot of refining we need to do because we’re so passionate about the product,” Connie said. “But we’re committed to it. We’re getting emails from people who say their loved ones have ALS and they’re happy we’re doing this. But they want to know is their anything in the pipeline for their loves ones now and it’s just like, ‘Oh my god.’”
“It’s been difficult and emotional for Connie, but it’s also a wonderful thing she’s doing for Ron,” Kaufmann said. “She’s doing something to keep his legacy alive, doing something for other people who are going to be diagnosed with this disease. It’s a good reason to get up in the morning.”
For more information on Gator Ron’s and ALS, visit the company’s website.