When fingers started pointing, David Kleckner started worrying. Guests at a Keeneland buyers’ dinner were sampling lamb legs with his homemade barbecue sauce for the first time and fidgeting to find its creator.
“They were asking about who’s responsible for the sauce,” Kleckner, 58, said. “I just thought, ‘Man, I hope nothing’s wrong.”
Since that soiree in the early 1980s, Kleckner’s Kentucky’s Smokin’ Grill sauces have spread to shelves in chain groceries, state parks and specialty stores throughout the Bluegrass.
Fans from Oregon to Massachusetts order cases of his three varieties each year, and his spicy blend has won Jungle Jim’s International Market’s Weekend of Fire, Best in Show BBQ Sauce award for two consecutive years.
In short, Kleckner’s sauce has blazed a trail of success. But the venture started simply. Kleckner, an Ohio native, moved to Danville in the early 1970s after serving in the Navy and began cooking for his family’s July 4 pig roast in celebration of his grandfather’s birthday. He and his brother traditionally mixed spices to enhance — and smother — the flavor of the cheap barbecue sauce they used as a base.
“But it got easier just to make my own instead of trying to hide the after taste,” Kleckner said.
That is precisely what he did, quickly realizing the demand for his sauce spread beyond his family. Co-workers at Kentucky Utilities clamored for the condiment, so Kleckner, his wife, Bonnie, and children David and Danielle began cooking and jarring at home.
“Everything was done in my kitchen here in Danville,” Kleckner said. “I used to do all my labels on a copy machine and cut them out with scissors.”
The homemade look and taste of the sauce resonated with customers of Marshall’s Spirit Shop in Lawrenceburg, where state agricultural officials discovered it and asked Kleckner to become a Kentucky Proud member in the early ‘80s.
He agreed, though it meant giving up part of his home operation and contracting with a professional packaging company now based in Louisville.
More than 20 years later, Kleckner still personally hand mixes his dry spices following his original recipe.
Then, he ships the secret combination to Louisville where wet ingredients are added and the sauce is jarred and shipped to Kroger, Liquor Barn, state parks and locally-owned stores throughout Kentucky.
“It’s surprising where you will find them,” he said, humbly worrying that he’d forget a vendor and shrugging off the fact that roughly 1,000 jars ship each month.
With the exception of a logo on his shirt, it’s hard to recognize Kleckner as the brains and braun behind such a powerful brand. He continued work with Kentucky Utilities for 27 years before retiring in 2001 and refuses to be anything but modest about the success he had on the side.
Kleckner didn’t even realize he was in Jungle Jim’s Weekend of Fire flavor contest in 2010 until officials put a first-place award on his table.
He admitted the win was a happy surprise but said he has no plans of entering the contest circuit made popular by cable cooking shows.
“I’m just happy with my sauce,” he said. “The sauce speaks for itself.”
Though never one to brag, Kleckner displays pride in his products. Kentucky’s Smokin’ Grill now makes three varieties of barbecue sauce — mild, spicy and Too Hot for You — as well as a hot honey mustard, and Kleckner stresses that all are as versatile as the slogan suggests: “Could be a barbecue. Could be a spread. Pour it on a chicken. Smear it on yo’ bread. Looks great on a pig. Not bad on a cow. Got a pan of meatloaf? Better get some now!”
He also noted the condiments blend beautifully with turkey for those wishing to spruce up Thanksgiving leftovers.
The sauces’ multifaceted taste have kept sales going strong for more than three decades, but Kleckner said the greatest joy of the business isn’t the business at all.
It is responses like those of the Keeneland buyers so many years ago.
“I enjoy everybody being happy with the food,” he said. “I never get tired of people telling me how good the food is.”