There is no right way out of the downward spiral. Sometimes, however, there is a moment when you realize that everything can go one way or two. For Jamal Etienne-Harrington, that moment came in the middle of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in March 2020, surrounded by a huge event that was supposed to be his breakthrough and instead collapsed due to a pandemic.
When I met Etienne Harrington, owner of 412 BBQ The Smokey City, a Pittsburgh-based company that makes Uncle Jamie’s sauces and rubs, I saw a man at peace with himself, with his business, with his trajectory. However, over a meal of chicken wings and sliders covered in his unique sauces, he shared the story of the rocky road to get to this point.
Etienne-Harrington is a “big guy” who called himself a “big guy”, cheerful and funny, but careful with his words. We met for dinner and talked at North Side Alloy 26 coworking, where his office is located, to try his Uncle Jamie sauces. The sauces are available for sale at a variety of local small stores such as Love, Pittsburgh and Tom Friday’s Market, as well as at major chains such as Whole Foods and Giant Eagle Marketplace.
The first wing I was given to try was dipped in Uncle Jamie’s classic Smile For Smokey BBQ Sauce sauce, one of his few “standard” recipes, but one that still effortlessly combines the sweetness and taste of tomato barbecue. When we tried the sauces, the business owner told us about the beginning of his journey in Connecticut, then a public college. Etienne-Harrington, who calls himself a “41-year-old freshman who only learned to party,” worked at Penn State for 10 years, where he said he began experimenting with different products.
This happened with the transformation of cocktails into cakes, and from there acquired many different forms. He started participating in online barbecue sauce competitions. He became an appointed grill guy at gatherings. Even as he paid his bills while working at Red Lobster and Olive Garden, he was discovering what he really wanted to do with his career.
However, when I tried the slider dipped in “Say It to Shrirach” – my favorite sauce of the five I’ve tried, the sauce is so perfectly cooked that it would make you believe that he’s been doing it his whole life – we delved into how his passion succeeded not immediately.
In 2017, he went into full-time business, which included his first distribution deal with Whole Foods, but it didn’t happen without hiccups. By his own admission, he “mishandled the money, I misjudged the item, and at some point I had to go back to part-time at Olive Garden”. He says there were times when bank accounts reached a breaking point, funding dried up, and Etienne-Harrington was left to think about what to do next.
He says he reached a turning point on that fateful day in March 2020 during the annual Home & Garden Show at the Convention Center, where he had plans to present and sell his product to a huge number of people. “The festival was canceled,” he says, “and it took me the last two days just to get to a dead end.”
What was next could be called a bottom for some, but for Etienne-Harrington it was just a fork in the road.
“I didn’t have the money, but I had a ton of beer from the two previous festivals I worked at,” says Etienne-Harrington. “So you just lie around and drink and then the voice in my head is just trying to figure out where I am. “Is this the end, shall we just go out, pick up COVID and finish it?” And it was wrong! I still wanted to keep going, I still wanted to do something. ”
Etienne-Harrington decided he needed to do more, and went out to prove it.
After his “Hurray for IPA,” a delicious sweet sauce made with 2X IPA Southern Tier, the story turned from a fight to success. Etienne-Harrington says it has started sending out envelopes with its product and offering to anyone and everyone in the industry. It worked. He struck a distribution deal with Giant Eagle, which evolved into deals in Maryland, Virginia and Ohio.
“In business, you get a fraction,” he says. “That’s all you need.”
When we moved on to The Gods Must be Cajun, a Southern-inspired sauce that found a great balance between sweet and sweet, we discussed its biggest breakthrough. Blind propaganda led to a meeting with GetGo, followed by a series of productive conversations (“I didn’t even know what I was doing on Zoom,” he says), and now, Jamie’s Uncle Chicken Sammy, a brand sandwich created by Etienne Harrington, will be in the GetGo menu on the fly.
So what’s next? When we tried the final sauce, aptly named the lord of spices “Your pride amuses me”, Etienne-Harrington demonstrated his other recently discovered attribute – trust in the process and in himself. He says he is in a place where he can finally take a step back, realizing that infrastructure exists for sustainable success, with a revenue target of $ 3 million by 2022.
This is a considerable turning point from two years ago, when he believes that everything could fall apart.
“I didn’t know where I came from,” says Etienne-Harrington, “but I’m not blinded by the moment.”
Uncle Jamie’s sauces and rubs. unclejammys.com