Behind Uncle Jammy’s Sauce company’s road to success | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Behind Uncle Jammy’s Sauce company’s road to success

click to enlarge Behind Uncle Jammy’s Sauce company’s road to success
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Jamal Etienne-Harrigan, owner of Uncle Jammy’s Sauces
There’s no right way to fight your way out of a downward spiral. Sometimes, however, there is a moment where you understand that things can go one of two ways. For Jamal Etienne-Harrigan, 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 fell apart due to the pandemic.

When I met with Etienne-Harrigan, the owner of The Smokey City’s 412 BBQ, a Pittsburgh company which produces Uncle Jammy’s Sauces and Rubs, I saw a man at peace with himself, with his business, with his trajectory. Yet, over a meal of chicken wings and sliders coated in his unique sauces, he shared the story of the rocky road to get to this point.

Etienne-Harrigan is a self-described “big guy,” jovial and funny but careful with his words, taking the time to make sure he gets his point across the way he wants. We met for dinner and a conversation in North Side’s Alloy 26 coworking space, where his office is located, to try his Uncle Jammy’s Sauces. The sauces are available for sale at a wide variety of local small shops like love, Pittsburgh and Tom Friday’s Market, and large chains like Whole Foods and Giant Eagle Marketplace.

The first wing I was given to try was dipped in Uncle Jammy’s classic Smile For Smokey BBQ Sauce, one of his few “standard” recipes, but one that still effortlessly marries sweetness and tomato BBQ flavor. As we sampled the sauces, the business owner shared the beginnings of his journey, which took shape in Connecticut, then State College. Etienne-Harrigan, who calls himself a “41-year old freshman who only learned how to party,” was at Penn State for 10 years, where he says he began experimenting with different food creations.

This originated with turning cocktails into cakes, and took many different shapes from there. He started entering online BBQ sauce competitions. He’d become the designated grill guy at gatherings. Even as he was paying the bills working at Red Lobster and Olive Garden, he was discovering what he really wanted to do for a career.
click to enlarge Behind Uncle Jammy’s Sauce company’s road to success
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
A variety of Uncle Jammy’s sauces
Yet, as I tried a slider dipped in his Say Yes to Sriracha — my favorite sauce of the five I tried, a sauce so perfectly crafted, it would make you believe he’d been in this business his whole life — we dove into how his passion didn’t manifest success right away.

He took the business full-time in 2017, which included his first distribution deal with Whole Foods, but that didn’t come without hiccups. By his own admission, he ”mishandled the money, I didn’t price the product correctly, and, at one point, had to go back to serving part-time at the Olive Garden.” He says there were moments where the bank accounts had reached their breaking point, the funding had dried up, and Etienne-Harrigan was left wondering what to do next.

He says he reached its breaking point on that fateful day in March 2020 during the annual Home & Garden Show at the Convention Center, where he had plans to introduce and sell his product to a massive amount of people. “The festival got canceled,” he says, “and I needed those last two days just to break even.”

What followed could be called rock bottom for some, but for Etienne-Harrigan, it was just a fork in the road.

“I had no money, but I had a ton of beer from two previous festivals I had worked,” says Etienne-Harrigan. “So you just wallow and drink, and then the voice in my head is just trying to gauge where I’m at. ‘Is this the end, are we just going out and catching COVID and ending it?’ And that wasn’t the case! I still wanted to go on, I still wanted to do something.”

Etienne-Harrigan decided he had more to do, and he went out to prove it.

Over his Hooray For IPA, a delicious sweet sauce brewed with Southern Tier’s 2X IPA, the story turned from struggle to success. Etienne-Harrigan says he began sending out envelopes with his product and pitch to anyone and everyone in the industry. It worked. He landed a distribution deal with Giant Eagle, which turned into deals in Maryland, Virginia, and Ohio.

“In business, you’re going to hit a fraction,” he says. “That’s all you need.”

As we moved onto The Gods Must be Cajun, a Southern-inspired sauce that found a great balance of kick and sweet, we discussed his biggest breakthrough. The blind outreach led to a meeting with GetGo, followed by a series of productive conversations (“I didn’t know what I was even doing on Zoom,” he says), and now, Uncle Jammy’s Chicken Sammy, a signature sandwich created by Etienne-Harrigan, will be on GetGo’s menu for the summer.

So what’s next? As we sampled the final sauce, the aptly named spice lord Your Arrogance Amuses Me, Etienne-Harrigan showcased his other recently found attribute, a trust in the process and in himself. He says he’s in a place where he can finally take a step back, understanding that the infrastructure is there for sustained success, with a 2022 goal of $3 million in revenue to match.

It’s quite the turnaround from two years ago, where he believes it all could’ve fallen apart.

“I’m blindsided on where I’ve come to,” says Etienne-Harrigan, “but I’m not blindsided by the moment.”
Uncle Jammy’s Sauces and Rubs.