SOMERSET, Ky. - The origin of Johnny B’s BBQ can be traced back to weekend cookouts in the Bogletown neighborhood in Somerset.
“My dad, grandfather, and uncles would break out the grills or dig a hole in the ground and start cooking,” said “Little John” B. Perkins, recalling childhood memories during the 1970s when his family shared barbecue with their neighbors. “It was a community event.”
The neighborhood barbecue feasts became so popular that they spawned a part-time catering business by Little John’s parents, “Big John” B. and Nellie Perkins in 1985, serving local churches and businesses. When Big John, known to his friends as “Johnny B.,” retired in 2004 as postmaster of the Somerset Post Office, the couple, along with daughters Beverly, Kathy, and Stacy, opened Johnny B’s BBQ and Grill restaurant off Highway 27. “The restaurant did really well for years,” Little John said. “But in 2007, Dad retired. He had health issues and couldn’t do it anymore.”
So the business evolved into condiment sales, marketing Johnny B’s original Wet Sauce and Dry Rub.
“I think things happen for a reason,” Little John said. “It gave us a chance to establish these products and a potential legacy for our family, friends, and community.”
'More than a barbecue sauce'
The slogan of Johnny B’s BBQ is: “It starts with the rub and ends with the sauce.”
“Johnny B’s sauce is more than a barbecue sauce,” Little John explained. “There are tons of barbecue sauces out there, so we created our own niche.
“We call ours a Wet Sauce. You can put it on anything.”
Johnny B’s website calls its Wet Sauce a combination of a barbecue, steak sauce, and a marinade that caramelizes under heat rather than sticking or burning.
Big John never wrote down his sauce recipe, so his son had to “get it out of his head,” Little John said. Then, making sure not to sacrifice the flavor, he researched sauce ingredients and made a few changes. He replaced the high-fructose corn syrup his father used with more natural sweeteners.
“Everybody loved his sauce, so I tried to make it a little healthier,” said Little John, who spent five months perfecting the new recipe with Big John’s help. “We lowered the sugar and lowered the sodium.
“Dad was diabetic and couldn’t actually tolerate his original sauce. But now he is able to enjoy our new reformulated Wet Sauce.”
“When he was able to eat it, I knew we were on to something,” said Little John.
Little John joined the business in 2009 and has worked diligently to grow the business. Johnny B’s sauce is available at Jewel-Osco, a major grocery chain in the Chicago area. It also can be found at Liquor Barn locations across Kentucky and at one of its original locations, Food Fair in Somerset, an independent grocer that has carried the Kentucky Proud product since its introduction in 2011.
The tomatoes in Johnny B’s sauce are grown in Kentucky.
“We buy 90-95 percent of our tomatoes from farmers’ markets,” Little John said. “We’ve probably used 5,500 pounds of that crucial ingredient since 2011.”
The Wet Sauce, developed by father and son, is made and distributed by another father-and-son team, Steve and Brad Hayden of Bardstown Foods Co., also a Kentucky Proud member.
“Kentucky Proud has been a blessing, especially if it helps us get in stores like Kroger,” Little John said. “It gets us exposure. We have a good product that is retail ready, and all we’re looking for is an opportunity to put our sauce on the map, and that starts in Kentucky.
“Kentucky Proud helps us acquire a little more exposure and a chance to break into the somewhat exclusive sauce game dominated by big corporations. Big companies have the ability to mass produce, buy shelf space, and drive prices down, which makes it hard for smaller companies to get a chance because of the price points. With programs like Kentucky Proud, we’re hoping to push the envelope of opportunity.”
Little John said the Kentucky Proud logo on its bottles has helped sales, particularly in Kentucky. It also gets good reviews in Illinois.
“That little logo on our bottle makes people want to try it,” he said. “Customers like to try sauces that represent different states. One of our goals is to make our Wet Sauce the brand of the Bluegrass State.”
Johnny B’s is also a member of Homegrown By Heroes. Big John, 66, served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.
“He doesn’t talk about it,” said Little John, who was born at Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka, Kansas while his dad was overseas. After growing up in Somerset, Little John now lives in Illinois.
“He’s handled it pretty well over the years,” Little John said of his father’s health and combat experiences. “It didn’t stop him from working 37 years for the Postal Service, working his way up from mail carrier to postmaster in both Stanford [Kentucky] and Somerset, while masterminding the Johnny B’s brand, but he has his days, just like a lot of combat vets.”
Looking to go national
Johnny B’s goal is to get their brand on the shelves of major supermarket chains and achieve national distribution.
The company is also planning to expand the product line soon. In addition to its Dry Rub, an all-purpose seasoning to prepare any meat for cooking, Johnny B’s will introduce another community favorite, a hot water cornbread mix called Johnny B Cake.
“It was a big hit at the restaurant,” Little John said. “Everybody asks for Johnny B Cakes, even to this day. Hopefully soon, we will compete with products like Jiffy Cornbread Mix.”
Big John makes his Johnny B Cakes for friends and parishioners to serve during quarterly bean luncheons at Davis Chapel AME Church in Somerset.
Although the business is named Johnny B’s and the operations are run by Big and Little John, Nellie remains involved in the family business.
“My father and I know who the real boss is,” Little John quipped. “We still have go through my mama to spend money.”
For more information about Johnny B’s BBQ, go to www.johnnybsbbq.net.
Video: "Little John" Perkins tells how his family's business got started.
Photo: "Big John" Perkins. (Photo submitted)