On the outside, Catawba College Public Safety Officer Ralph Michael seems a tall, quiet, unassuming man with a ready smile, intent on doing his job. On the inside and when he's off-duty, Ralph Michael is a man serious about his barbecue and dipping sauce — so serious that he's started producing his own version for retail sale.
The retired Lexington police officer and native of North Carolina's barbecue capital admits he's been making his Ralph's BBQ and Dipping Sauce for more than 25 years. But, it was only with the prompting of his wife, Thelma, and at the urging of his friends and relatives, that he's gotten down to business with it.
"I started making it to please myself and when other people liked it as well as I do, it really surprised me," Michael says. "I originally starting making it because I was having to go to the store, buy some sauce, and then doctor that store-bought sauce to suit me. I came across my basic recipe and I started tweaking it, and over the years, I probably changed my recipe eight to ten times. About six years ago, Thelma said, 'That's it. Leave it alone.' "
Ralph did leave his recipe alone, but he kept giving it away — jars of it to his wife's family members at Christmastime. One year, he decided he had been giving away jars of his sauce as gifts for too long and opted to give something else. He was met with plenty of protest from upset family members and their question: "Where's the sauce?"
This past October, again at wife Thelma's urging, he says, "I decided to stop dangling my feet in the water and just dive in." He applied for his N.C. license to make and sell the sauce and he got a tax ID number and now, he explains, "The rest is history."
"Since I got set up in business, I stopped eye-balling it and started measuring my ingredients for consistency," he explains. "It has become a science. I do it in two-gallon batches, usually four gallons at a time in two different pots. I'm in the process of getting a bottler, but I wanted to see if it would sell before I jumped out there with a bottler."
Michael says he was wary of putting his sauce on the market because the market is so saturated with various sauces. Then, he realized that his sauce wasn't like all of the others on the market — his is vinegar-based.
"When I was younger here in Salisbury, there used to be a chicken place called Frank's Chicken Shack over near Livingstone College. I used to look forward to the weekend — I'd get paid on Friday and come over to Frank's to get chicken on Saturday. The chicken there was fried and then dipped. It was so good that you had to put the chicken in the back seat of the car until you got home — that's the only way you wouldn't eat it," he remembers.
"I guess in the back of my mind, that sauce at Frank's was what I really enjoyed and I was trying to get back to that in my sauce, but I was doing it unconsciously. To this day, I don't think that mine is like Frank's sauce, but I've had people tell me that it is or that it's close."
If you want some of Ralph's BBQ and Dipping Sauce, you have to shop at the right store for it. His website has a complete listing of outlets, mostly small mom and pop type stores in Lexington, East Spencer, Salisbury and Thomasville.
If you need some suggestions on exactly how to use the sauce or some nice food pictures for inspiration, Michael's website (www.ralphsbbqsauce.com) has that too. Listening to Michael just talking about cooking with his sauce can make one want to try it and his descriptive litany goes something like this:
"It is really good with fried chicken dipped over into the sauce. Or BBQ ribs — I loved doing ribs on the grill with it. I also do pieces of Boston Butt — I cook the butt partially with just my rub on it (and I have considered marketing my rub). When I do Boston Butts or pork shoulders, that's when I use it as a dipping sauce — I pour it on after the fact.
"My wife likes to have a little of the sauce on her rice when we have pork," Michael continues. "I do utilize it in my chili recipe. I mix it in with ground beef while it's cooking and that way incorporate it in my recipe. You can marinate with my sauce since it's vinegar base and that tenderizes the meat. You can dip fried chicken, fried pork chops. I like doing wings on the grill — sometimes the wings look like they're burnt, but the sauce on them is actually caramelized. I always wait until the meat is almost completely done and then mop it with the sauce a couple of times to let the meat absorb it."
Michael is quick to credit two women in his life with his success — his wife, Thelma, and his late mother, Martha Michael. "My wife keeps me grounded because she is an accountant. I see the big picture and the end, but when she sees things, she sees all the steps in between. She keeps me focused — like the tamper-proof seal that goes around the top of the sauce jar, even though the jars are self-sealing. Her mind just works differently than mine.
"My mother was a scratch cooker and baker — I watched and talked to her — she never really said, now this is the way I do this. She had recipe books but none of the recipes in those books did she follow verbatim. I would watch her and how she measured from the palm of her hand, and I started doing that. I know that she would be proud of the fact that I've got it (BBQ sauce) on the market and that others enjoy it as much as we do."
Although Michael is new into the business of marketing and selling his sauce, he has plenty of experience seeing people enjoy it. He notes that his wife's family and his church family at Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church actually served as his unofficial focus group. And the happiness that his sauce brings to others is something about which he marvels.
"When I see joy in other people's faces when they're eating my food that has my sauce and before they wipe their fingers with the napkins they lick them — that's the coup de grâce right there. It is really gratifying for people to say, 'I use the sauce now and I love it' -- that just gives me goose bumps. And my sauce, the sweetness hits the front of your tongue and then there's a little heat on the back side."