Antonio Mays is an experienced butcher, barbecue master and founder of The Original Scratch Companya southeast San Diego company that makes all-natural barbecue sauce.
But none of those titles came easily to Mays. Throughout his life, he found ways to turn obstacles into opportunities.
That’s exactly what happened when the pandemic shut down all the farmers markets and events he worked at to sell his Scratch barbecue sauce. Instead of traveling across the state to serve fresh barbecue, Mays invested her time and money in figuring out how to get her sauce to retail stores.
And it paid off. He applied to Gelson’s “Local Discovery Contest” – an annual search for new local products – and beat out hundreds of applicants for a spot on the grocer’s store shelves. Now people can buy Mays’ barbecue sauce at all 27 Gelson locations across Southern California.
The 46-year-old entrepreneur said it meant everything to see his product on the shelves. When he took the leap to start his business, getting his product on the shelves of any local grocery store was one of his first goals.
The San Diego native runs the business with his 9-year-old daughter, Feven, who he says loves the business and even has her own little sales pitch. They sell two flavors of Scratch BBQ Sauce, Original and Spicy, for $8.99 a jar.
Mays describes their barbecue sauce as a balance of sweet, salty and vinegary flavors with a thicker consistency thanks to the raw ingredients they use like whole tomatoes and onions. He opted for just one type of sweetener because he said using too much “clouds the flavor.”
The spicy variation is made with scotch bonnet peppers, which he says are hotter than jalapenos, but “they’re not overdone like Carolina Reaper peppers.” The flavor is also a nod to the spices used in Jamaican jerk chicken, something he grew up eating.
Mays has been working on his sauce for nearly 30 years, and it all started with him making store-bought barbecue sauces. He always made it for his family and friends at parties. Their positive feedback encouraged him to find a recipe that was his from scratch.
Much of his life experience is defined by his willingness to learn by trial and error, which Mays says was the case when he started his business nearly 10 years ago. His work ethic is something he credits to his parents, who were both full-fledged entrepreneurs.
For him, the barbecue helped bridge family divisions. Mays and his brother were raised by a single dad who, he jokes, couldn’t cook in the kitchen without burning something, but he could “throw” it on the barbecue.
Although they were poor and moved around a lot, he said “barbecue became part of the childhood experience”.
And it’s that love for barbecue sauce – and family – that has fueled his long road to success.
While working on the sidelines perfecting his barbecue sauce, Mays needed a full-time job. So he managed to get a job as a butcher at a local grocery store, even though he had no work experience. At the time, he was a single father with a one-year-old son and that year they experienced a period of homelessness.
Mays ended up running the grocery store’s meat department for several years and now he can tell you all about cooking times and what is good about different cuts of meat.
After the housing market crashed in 2008, he lost his job as head of the meat department. Mays shifted gears to get certified and work as a physician assistant at Kaiser Permanente.
All the while, he continued to showcase his homemade barbecue sauce at farmers markets all over the county, from Hillcrest to Rancho Santa Fe to Escondido. When the sauce started to come off, he worked overtime in the hospital. Mays saved that money to buy an investment property in Los Angeles and pooled that income to turn her sauce into her full-time business in 2013.
“If you don’t believe in what you have, or if you don’t have the guts to jump out there, those two things will haunt you forever,” he said.
Mays was adamant when they ramped up production of his homemade sauce so the Anaheim maker would learn how to make it without any additives.
“If it’s not made from scratch I can’t call it zero and if I can’t call it zero I can’t go into business because I don’t feel good in what I give to a client,” he said. says the manufacturer.
Although it may cost him extra money to make the product his own way, Mays said it was worth it. Recently, Mays and her daughter visited 21 Gelson grocery stores to demonstrate their sauce and share their story.
He added that winning the Gelson contest was a blessing because it allows him to sell directly to customers without compromising the quality of his products or his profits by going through a distributor. Mays said the business has been profitable and going forward he sees the business growing with his daughter in the long term.
“She’s got a long life ahead of her and the fact that she loves the business…she has the opportunity to go to college and take the classes that I didn’t take to bring this business to a level of production that I ‘I can’t stand it because I have to be the single dad,’ he said.
Another overall goal for him is to one day create a non-profit arm of the company that promotes access to healthy food for underserved communities.