Jeff Greenberg's excited about the 2013 Scovie Awards his barbecue sauce took home in March — second-place honors in the American Style Mild, Diet Friendly and Specialty Chile categories — but not that excited. After all, he'd already taken a pair of firsts in 2012; a second and third in 2011; a third in 2010.
It's his Golden Chile Awards, two earned in January 2012 and one in 2013, at Chile Pepper magazine's ZestFest in Irving, Texas, that have his attention. "I'm glad that I got my Scovie Awards, and they are, they're huge," says Greenberg of one of the major food competitions in the country. "But when I finally got my first Golden Chile Award, I just freaked out.
"I got three of them; I'm looking at them now," he says, his voice lowering reverently. "They must stand about 6 inches. And they're clear acrylic, with a golden chile inside."
All that hardware's to recognize what's clearly one of the best small-batch condiments around: Grumpy's Private Reserve, a four-version series of barbecue sauces made with love, and no small amount of frustration, by the one-man Thornton company (grumpysbbq.com).
The Kansas City-style Bold XX is the masterful flagship — all thick, smoky tang, with spikes of cayenne and cracked black pepper smoothed out with brown sugar. In naming it 2012's Best BBQ Sauce, the-q-review.com wrote, "Every time I think I've found sauce perfection something new comes along and changes my perspective."
Also earning recognition are Greenberg's sweeter Not So Bold sauce; his Texas-style Goodnight Loving (named after the cattle trail that used to run through Denver); and his Black Label version, which adds habañero peppers to the mix.
"It's my business, my recipes, started on the stove top here in the kitchen," says the 53-year-old Colorado native. Turned off by generic, commercial sauce offerings — many of which are loaded with MSG, preservatives, corn syrup or salt — he kept tinkering. "I just kept it in my mind, and then it's like, 'Wow, I better write this down. People seem to like this.'"
And more do every year. When he first began in 2004, Greenberg says, he sold roughly $6,000 in sauce. Last year, he sold 25,000 bottles — mainly from the shelves of regional Whole Foods, small boutiques across the country, and barbecue stores like North Academy Boulevard's Colorado BBQ Outfitters — to gross $71,000. But despite recently adding 45 area King Soopers to his list of distributors, Greenberg's doubtful about the future of a company whose delivery fleet consists of a 2001 Hyundai Sonata.
"Everybody's making money off of my sauce but me," he says with resignation. "Right now, like I said, I'm just breaking even; it doesn't pay any of my bills."
For that, Greenberg turns to his gig with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 7 — stage-hand work that often has him breaking down sets at 4:30 in the morning at places like Red Rocks Amphitheatre. "It's brutal, it is," he says. "I've had knee surgeries, wrist surgeries, you know, it's tough. It's a young man's profession."
It's also where the self-avowed perfectionist gained his longtime nickname: Grumpy.
So it's sauce that must send salvation, one $5 bottle at a time. To that end, Greenberg's saving money to try to attend trade events in the Northwest. He also hopes to land a spot on the popular investment show Shark Tank.
"[When] I started this business, I didn't even have — I still don't have — a business plan," he says, laughing. "I make sauces that I like, and really that's what it's about. And I don't know if that's a weird way of looking at things, but ..."