Heaven’s Sauce

North Carolina is a land of friendly people. Yet there are many opportunities to disagree with one another. There are the obvious points of difference. Politics. Religion. Even basketball. In basketball, not only is there disagreement on the superiority of programs (Carolina vs. Duke, for example), but there is even disagreement over which rivalry within college hoops is the most important. (My N.C. State friends come to mind.)

But without question, the most important area of great debate in our friendly state is that age old issue of how to properly dress slow cooked barbecue. (Pork, that is. And no, I’m not speaking of a grill or the act of grilling. Barbecue is a meat and what you put on it puts you at odds with half the population of our fast growing homeland so pay attention.) There are two distinct foundations in the barbecue sauce world here. It’s either a tomato- or a vinegar-based sauce.

Eighteen years ago I had the opportunity to meet someone who had a significant impact on my life: Scott Burkhead. Scott was a founding partner of Rockett Burkhead & Winslow advertising agency. And it was Scott who opened an important career door for me, offering a chance to cut my teeth in the agency world. I had spent six years in the public sector, and through Scott, I had been given a chance to launch a new career in the world of communications.

Scott and I spent a great deal of time together traveling the state to visit clients and make pitches to prospective ones. And it was on those road trips that we would talk about a lot of things, including our differences. While we disagreed on some things, I learned early on that Scott was a tomato-based sauce guy.

And his love for the western North Carolina sauce made sense. After all Scott’s roots were planted in Asheboro. What made his story even better was the fact that his family had a significant barbecue legacy. As I recall, his family ran a barbecue joint in the town that was wildly popular. When the restaurant finally sold, the coveted sauce recipe was sold with it. (All of you Goldman Sachs analysts reading this right now should take note: when it comes to business valuations in the barbecue restaurant business, sauce recipes are where the value lives.)

Anyway, if memory serves me well, his family barbecue joint was the origin for what was later known as Blue Mist Barbecue, located on Highway 64.

And so for the next eight years while working at RBW, Scott and I would continuously banter back and forth with each other about the superiority of tomato or vinegar-based barbecue sauce. It became a game of sorts and one that we both enjoyed playing.

On one occasion, I was sent out to Kansas City on a business trip. Prior to my departure, Scott summoned me to his office. He handed me a wad of cash and requested that as soon as I landed, I had to go to Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque – the original location, of course – and pick up a case of his world famous sauce. (Even though Kansas City people consider beef their form of barbecue, they also use tomatoes in their sauce. It made sense that Scott loved it.) I did what I was asked to do of course and brought his case of sauce back to Raleigh, handled with care.

Well just last night I learned that Scott’s long battle with cancer had ended. It broke my heart. I immediately recalled so many things I had learned from him about the agency business, about good advertising and about good barbecue, even with tomato-based sauce.

I will forever be grateful to Scott Burkhead for seeing opportunity in me and providing me a chance to succeed in this industry. And now, 18 years later I’m still in love with what I do for a living. And just this year, I’ll celebrate 10 years of owning an agency of my own.

When I think of Heaven, I sometimes imagine the great banquet that the Bible describes. Lavish foods of plenty. All of my favorite dishes cooked to perfection. And I can only imagine Scott enjoying that grand buffet. I only hope however, that he is settled with that fact that St. Peter only offers vinegar-based sauce for the barbecue because after all, it is Heaven.

So rest in peace, my friend. And just for you, my next barbecue sandwich will be doused with tomato-based sauce.