Iowa guys find zing for nationally celebrated sauce

Russ Cerniglia spreads some of his Russ & Frank's BBQ Sauce on ribs he cooks at his West Des Moines home.


4 pounds hamburger, 80 percent lean
1 white onion, chopped fine
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
1/2 cup applesauce
2 eggs
1 cup Russ & Frank's BBQ Sauce, plus more for topping

Mix ingredients in large bowl. Press into loaf pan. Top with thin layer of Russ & Frank's BBQ Sauce and score meat. Bake at 375 degrees for one hour. Cover pan with foil the first 45 minutes; remove to brown topping the last 15 minutes. While cooking, periodically pour off grease.

Serve hot, or refrigerate and when cold cut into thick slices for sandwiches.

Can be sealed in foil and frozen before cooking; let thaw overnight in refrigerator and then cook as above.

Iowa guys find zing for nationally celebrated sauce
Iowa guys find zing for nationally celebrated sauce
Cerniglia helped develop an award-winning barbecue sauce, which is available for $5 a pint all over the state.

Citrus Pork Kabobs

1 pound pork tenderloin, cut in 3/4-inch pieces
1/3 cup Russ & Frank's BBQ Sauce
1/3 cup orange marmalade
2 tablespoons prepared horseradish

Thread tenderloin cubes onto skewers. Stir together remaining ingredients for basting sauce. Grill kabobs, brushing generously with basting sauce. Turn to brown evenly, brushing frequently with sauce.

Iowa guys find zing for nationally celebrated sauce
A brush evenly distributes tasty barbecue sauce to add more flavor to favorite cuts of meat.
Iowa guys find zing for nationally celebrated sauce

Russ & Frank's BBQ racks up national awards and lots of fans.


April 18, 2007

Molasses brought them their eureka moment.

Before that, Russ Cerniglia and Frank Ksiazak had careened on the road of trial and error between "really bad" and "good but not quite there."

Cerniglia estimates they made "between 50 and 75" batches, adding and subtracting varying ingredients in different combinations, in their quest to build a better barbecue sauce.

"It was molasses that put us over the top," Cerniglia said, referring back a few years ago to the "we've found it" moment shared by the two West Des Moines neighbors.

Molasses or whatever, the sauce concocted sometime in late 2002 has moved well beyond the point of winning polite praise from friends and neighbors.

In 2003, Russ & Frank's BBQ Sauce won its first award at the Iowa State Fair.

Most recently, two of their sauces finished third and fourth out of a field of 95 in the 2007 National Barbecue Association's Award of Excellence sauce contest.

Unlike national brands that sell for less than $2 a bottle, Russ & Frank's is a gourmet sauce that sells for $5 a pint.

"What makes it very good is that it has flavor, but it is not an overpowering sauce," said Wendell Garretson of Uncle Wendell's BBQ and Bakery, 607 17th St., Des Moines.

Garretson offers Russ & Frank's and Cookies' sauces for the barbecue that he sells to his customers.

Now, three varieties of Russ & Frank's BBQ Sauce - mild, sassy and fiery - are on the market

Cerniglia works with a co-packer in Shenandoah, producing sauces in a minimum of 240 gallons for retail sales and online at

He has seven awards behind him, and his sauces have impressed retailers enough that they can be purchased in six states, including in Iowa at more than 50 locations.

But he could probably work around the clock promoting his product and still gain only a slight foothold in the barbecue-sauce marketplace.

The fact that familiar national brands such as Hunt's and Kraft have moved aggressively to place different flavor combinations on their labels hasn't discouraged entrepreneurs like Cerniglia, who believe their designer, small-batch sauces can find a niche even if they cost a few dollars more per jar.

"Yes, some people just look at the price," Cerniglia said. "But there are people who don't mind paying extra for quality."

With that in mind, Cerniglia and Ksiazak went to work.

"We both like to barbecue," Cerniglia said. "When we'd go out of town, we'd come back with another barbecue sauce we'd bought, and we just weren't ever happy with anything."

Finally, they had to deal with their frustration.

"We were drinking beer one night on the deck and got talking smart and finally said we should come up with something a lot better than what we've had," Cerniglia said.

"It took us about a year to come up with the recipe."

Russ & Frank's sauces are thick, traditional Midwest tomato-based gourmet sauces. Triple K Manufacturing Inc. in Shenandoah produces Russ & Frank's, along with about 60 barbecue sauces for companies from 15 states, said the company's Brian Maxine.

A 1995 graduate of Iowa State University, Maxine has been working for his family's company for 12 years.

He said he couldn't begin to guess how many barbecue sauces are available nationwide, but he felt comfortable saying that in the past decade "the number has grown exponentially."

One thing is sure, Maxine said. When it comes to barbecue sauces, it's no longer a one-taste-fits-all world.

"It's all about personal tastes," he said.

"There are some sauces we make that I don't like, but that doesn't mean it isn't a great sauce."

Speed Herrig is owner of Cookies Food Products, the Wall Lake company and granddaddy of Iowa barbecue-sauce makers.

Herrig, 69, has been in the barbecue-sauce business for 30 years.

He offered an estimate that the number of companies making barbecue sauce nationwide has increased from "about 60 to probably more than 170" since 1977.

The enthusiasm for richer, more flavorful sauces and an increase in grilling and cooking out are pushing sauce producers, Herrig said.

Big Daddy's Bar-B-Q of Des Moines has been helping people satisfy the hanker for heat since the 1980s, when the late Ike Seymour and his wife, Amzie, began selling barbecue sauce in small batches.

Today, Big Daddy's reputation lives on, and the barbecue sauce bearing his name is widely available at major supermarkets in the Des Moines metro area.

The sauce is also available at Big Daddy's Bar-B-Q restaurant, 1000 E. 14th St., which recently reopened for business from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Amzie Seymour said the family's product has been available in stores for about 15 years, and "now we ship all over the country," she said.

Being able to sell via the Internet has helped because store shelves seem more crowded than ever with barbecue sauces, Seymour said.

The amount of sauce they sell in a year is a family secret.

"All I can say is we're not rich yet," she said.

Cerniglia said he's not getting rich selling barbecue sauce, either. He estimates he sold about 1,500 gallons of sauce last year.

"This is something I enjoy doing," Cerniglia said, adding that from time to time he'll go to barbecue events or stores to sell his product "and talk about barbecue sauces."

More than anything, the idea to launch a small, on-the-side business seemed to make sense after he and his neighbor had their eureka moment.

Call it fan pressure.

As Cerniglia said, "After people would try the sauce, they'd say you should sell this."

Reporter Tom Perry can be reached at (515) 284-8224 or
2011 Cerniglia Enterprises LLC Do you have a question or comment? Contact Us!