When you come into West Michigan, or more accurately, Hudsonville Michigan, you find a quaint, small community situated just southwest of Grand Rapids. The population here hovers around 8,500 people. If you follow the BBQ aroma, you’ll find Jack Groot, owner of Jack’s Blend Rubs & Seasonings. I caught up with Jack and had a great interview. Here are the highlights.
Lang: “So, Jack tell me how things are going in Hudsonville?”
JG: There’s lots of growth in our little city, but we are still known as Salad Bowl City (lots of great muck for growing celery and onions) and The Hudsonville Fair each summer with 4H animals, vegetable growing competitions, motocross and tractor pulls.
Just follow the BBQ aroma to Jack’s
Lang: How did you came up with the name, Jack’s Blend Rubs & Seasonings?
JG: I owned a coffee bar for 20+ years…our house blend coffee was “Jack’s Blend.” I was also a monthly columnist for a coffee magazine…my column was titled “Jack’s Blend.” When I was throwing around names for my new product line my wife said, “Call it Jack’s Blend”. She was right.
Bacon wrapped on a Jack’s Lang 48” Patio Deluxe version.
Lang: What exactly drove you to start the business?
JG: My Toyota 4-Runner (Jack laughs at his answer– (that was a joke…get it? What drove me?…hahahaha).
Ready for the road
Lang: Ah, so you’re a comedian as well, I joke back.
JG: Seriously though, I drove to Georgia to pick up my Lang smoker in my 4-Runner. I took the BBQ class with Paul Kirk, and from that class created my Original BBQ Rub…and it ended up being the best rub I’d ever used. Once I got home I shared it with friends and demand had me making more and more of it. As much as I love my friends, at some point they had to start paying for it…and so the business began.
Jack picking up his 48 at Lang in Georgia
Lang: Did you cook/BBQ before you started the business?
JG: I’ve pretty much been in the food business my whole life. I earned a degree in Food Service Management from Ferris State University in Michigan and cooked in various hotel and independent restaurants back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I’ve been an at-home backyard BBQ/Griller for decades and always love to prepare and serve anything and everything that benefits from fire and/or smoke!
Ribs on the smoker and the selection of Jack’s rubs ready to go
Lang: Do you have a partner?
JG: Not in the traditional sense of partner, but my wife of 32+ years is my partner and a great sounding board for everything I do… and some would say she’s the only reason I get invited to parties.
Lang: In terms of differentiation, what would you say makes your business unique?
JG: When I worked in restaurants I would always experiment with flavors, upgrading a house sauce by adding spices to improve it. I spiced foods differently than I was trained and made them to my own liking. I created recipes for foods and make them wherever I could. When opening our coffee bar, I used the same process with coffee as I did with foods in restaurants – I ordered a bunch of coffees, experimented, tasted, and then created my own blends. “Jack’s Blend” was our house blend coffee and it gained a cult following. That process is my process for creating my rubs and seasonings, and thus the name, and the process, is Jack’s Blend.
Pork belly ready to smoke
Lang: Can you talk a bit about your focus when starting the business?
JG: Once the original BBQ Rub was created and I knew I wanted to package, label and sell it, other ideas popped up. What about a spicy version, or a smoky version? What about those who smoke beef ribs and beef brisket and those who want sugarless rub? What about poultry and steak and veggies? These questions led to the creation of recipes to serve the category we’ve tag lined as “Rubs and Seasonings for Smoking, Grilling and Cooking!”
Lang: So, you came up with a series of recipes?
JG: Yes, once the recipes were created, it was testing time. And when you have a fabulous quality Lang smoker, a back yard for entertaining and lots of friends, feedback was easy to get!! Each of the rubs and seasonings were created, tested, tweaked, tested again and again, and then finalized. Once the recipes were complete and we felt comfortable with each, labels were created, packaging products purchased and the process of selling product began. Currently, each jar of our product is created, packaged, labeled and distributed from our home facility.
Variety pack on the smoke
Lang: Do you mind sharing some more about your business with some detail?
JG: Like many entrepreneurs, I have a drive to create new things, to bring products to market and love to serve people. When in the coffee business one thing that set us apart is summed up with a mantra I repeated over and over; “It’s not all about the coffee, it’s all about the people.” Don’t misunderstand…quality coffee is critical if you are in the specialty coffee business, but our focus had to be more on people than the product. Probably the easiest way to describe it is this: rather than inviting a customer to look at the coffee we had made them, we would look them in the eye while handing them a coffee made for them. Maybe a subtle difference, but it was about them, pleasing them, making them smile and serving them well. And my hope was the great coffee we made them brightened their day!
Jack at an Ace Hardware event
Lang: The philosophy then, is key to your way of business?
JG: Yes, with this as the motivation for our fledgling rubs and seasoning business, we have a great foundation. We currently sell them at the local farmer’s market and in person. We are not commercially licensed (yet) and operate within the limits that put on us. I am doing some catering of pulled pork, ribs, brisket and sides, but at this time it is only for friends. I love doing it; I just don’t have the facilities to do more at this time.
I also enjoy growing the business slower, letting word of mouth get out there, and talking with all of our customers. I plan to have everything licensed to sell commercially in the next couple of months. Once that’s complete, we can sell in local stores and online.
Lang: What were the pitfalls you didn’t expect when you went in business?
JG: On the business side I didn’t have any unexpected pitfalls. There were definitely challenges with getting started, but not unexpected ones. Previous business creation and ownership prepared me for the process and especially being in food service for so many years. As an example of a challenge I faced I didn’t want to do large runs of labels. What if I needed to change something? I didn’t want to have thousands of labels I would have to throw away. The price of labels can be more than the product itself, especially if only small runs are printed. Another example is the price of spice jars can vary greatly based on whom I purchase from. One time I found an amazing deal on a particular jar I use so I purchased a bunch of cartons. I just had to store the extra cartons but knew the cost savings were worth it.
Jack on the smoke with Black Betty
There’s one thing that sticks out as an “I never thought of that” moment when I started. The first time I blended a large batch of rub, the herb and spice dust in the air made me sneeze terribly. I felt like I had an allergic reaction, like I had a cold. My nose stuffed up and I was miserable. Before I made another batch, I went to the store and purchased a high-quality particle filtration mask. What a difference. I wear it every time from the moment I start to the moment I walk out of the room. It does the job wonderfully and I have no ill effect from floating spice dust.
Lang: What would you recommend to someone new getting in the business?
JG: Talk to people in the business, go to trade shows, read magazines, listen to podcasts, evaluate other businesses and products, and test and try things. Then, do it your way. I don’t mean to suggest that you don’t listen to or learn from others, but if you only do what someone else does, one of you is irrelevant. Be yourself, create your own niche and take the risk! Make it a small enough risk that you don’t lose everything if you fail but be willing to “risk it for the biscuit”.
Lang: Where you experienced at managing people?
JG: When I opened JP’s Coffee in 1993, I had never managed or supervised another human being. Fast forward ten years and I had 60 employees, 2 stores and 3 businesses. You never know what you can do until you try. I made mistakes, lots of mistakes…mistakes with lots of zeros on the end. But I never gave up. I kept pressing on, learning, changing, growing and adapting. Perseverance is probably the most important personal trait a business owner can have.
For some people, working for someone else is their gift. They don’t want the responsibility of ownership, managing people, taking financial risks. For others, risk is part of their DNA. But it’s still something one must decide to do and then put action behind it. No doubt though that in business you have no choice but to risk things.
Lang: Do you have a favorite quote?
JG: One of my favorite quotes is by William Hutchison Murray, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” When you decide, things happen.
Lang: When did you first purchase a Lang?
JG: I purchased “Black Betty” (if you own a Lang, you must name it), in April of 2018. My friend Phil came with me and I pulled a trailer down to bring it home. We arranged our pick-up trip to coincide with Paul Kirk’s BBQ class for newbies I highly recommend the class. For a mere pittance, you will not only learn from an award-winning BBQ guru, you will get trained on and use your own Lang smoker for the class. You’ll learn the basics of rubs and sauces, trimming and preparing all different meats, fire management in your Lang and much more.
Graduating with Chef Paul Kirk
Lang: What model Lang did you purchase and why?
JG: The model I purchased is the 48” Patio Deluxe version. I had a hard time deciding on patio vs. mobile, but with my current layout at home, patio was the best decision. The smoker would be on my patio 98 percent of the time and not be moved. If I do need to bring it somewhere, I can do so easily. I have the pneumatic tire option, added a winch to my trailer to get it up and down, and simply strap it on, grab wood, accessories and meats, and drive.
I use my Lang 48” Patio for home use, parties and limited friend-only catering. Most meat in one smoke? 120 lbs. (3 briskets, 14 pork butts) and 140 lbs. (18 pork butts). I may upgrade in the future…but that would probably only happen if I get more serious about catering and need a larger size. Not sure if I would replace the 48” or get a second rig. The majority of my smoking is ribs and pork butt followed by kielbasa. I’ve smoked salmon and lake trout (I live close to Lake Michigan), brisket and venison. I’ve smoked sides and they so benefit from the real smoke flavor you can’t get any other way!
Before ordering my Lang, I consulted about added features with those on the Facebook Lang Smoker Owners page and asked everyone’s opinions on them. One of the main things was whether to order the deluxe model, with the warmer box. After getting lots of feedback and thinking through my own potential usage, I pulled the trigger and ordered the deluxe. If you can afford it, I recommend it – very helpful in several ways; added smoking space, great for side dishes and lower temp smoke when needed.
Lang: Did you go with any additional features?
JG: Here’s is what I added: stainless steel sliding grates; “wagon wheel” option, they are the large pneumatic tires – a must if rolling anywhere but flat concrete, additional temperature gauge, additional probe port, additional vent from firebox to warmer. I ordered the fire basket but changed my mind and cancelled that. As for everything else, I’d do it the same again. To see my smoker and features I chose go
A customization I did myself was adding firebricks to the bottom of the firebox (some owners also line the sides of the firebox with firebricks). I did so to add insulation to it, extend the life of the firebox and hopefully contain more heat from the burning wood. I also saw that some owners do not use the grate at all, so I tried this also. I found that the fire burns just as good directly on the firebricks as it did in a grate. It’s also easier to clean because once the ash is cooled, I simply use my mini shovel and remove it to my ash can.
Pork butt coming up. Even the photo makes your mouth water.
Lang: What features do you like best about Lang?
JG: When I was researching Lang and asking questions in the Facebook group I kept hearing, “Whatever size you are gonna order, go bigger.” I heard it so many times I figured there was as least some measure of importance for me to reevaluate what size I was going to order. As most people, I was balancing budget and size trying to figure out whether ordering a larger model was worth it.
I was originally going to order the 36” patio. After much thought, discussion and a budget meeting with my wife, I ordered the 48” deluxe patio. Budget is a constraint for almost everyone, and for those who have experience, going up in size is less relevant. But, for those who are newer, have little or no experience in this type of smoker, going up a size is more often than not a good thing. It was for me, for sure!
Where there’s smoke, there’s flavor and Jack working his magic!
Lang: What is your main goal as a chef?
JG: Excellence. Creating and tasting the “perfect rib” is an amazing experience but getting there takes practice. And then even when you turn out perfection, you have to repeat it, which is not always easy. There are many aspects to creating perfect ribs and investing time in learning about each makes me better at smoking ribs. Such things as; meat selection, rub choice, meat preparation process, understanding the smoker, wood choice, fire management, serving process and more.
Lang: So, there’s a lot to learn if you want to be excellent?
JG: Absolutely. As an example, I learned about dry bringing last year. For those of you who don’t know, it is basically the process of pre-salting meat to enhance moisture and flavor in the end result. As a result of me learning about this, I now dry brine most meats that I grill or smoke. It’s no different than a world-famous chef who has techniques proven to enhance and improve the end result. My wife is an amazing cook and baker and as I mentioned is known by all her friends as the person who always brings a dish you want to eat and get the recipe for. But it’s not just the ingredients she uses it is her process in the creation of the recipe. When I blog about something I make, ingredients are a part of it, but process is critical.
Smoky good salmon
Lang: What are the favorite meals you like to prepare and why?
JG: As we talk about all this, it’s overcast, snowing and cold. Not long from now, it will be sunny, green and warm. The somewhat short Michigan outdoor entertainment season begins! In a couple months we will invite a bunch of people over and celebrate warmth by firing up Black Betty and getting our smoke on. Here’s the menu:
- Pulled Pork – my spicy rub, 6-8 hour smoke, minimum 1-2 hour rest.
- St Louis Ribs – my smoky rub, 3.5 – 4 hours smoke.
- Kielbasa – purchased from Frank’s Market in Grand Rapids…the ONLY kielbasa there is. Purchase raw, smoke to 150 degrees, approximately 1.5 – 2 hours (more popular than my ribs!)
- Homemade Sauerkraut, smoked to perfection. Can be plain smoked, or we also have a recipe for kapusta (braised sauerkraut) that is amazing!
- Dutch’s Wicked Beans – I have the recipe on my blog. BEST BEANS EVER and maybe even the BEST FOOD ITEM EVER! I could eat these till I burst.
- Homemade Mac’n Cheese – of course.
- Cheesy Grits Casserole – my wife’s recipe. Stupid good.
- Cornbread – Gotta have some…again wife’s recipe.
- Coleslaw – a must!! And must be a GREAT recipe. Must have a great balance of vinegar and sweet.
- Texas Sheet Cake – Seriously…when we have guests over, they’ll go for 3 or 4 pieces of this before a 3rd helping of ribs. My wife kills it.
- THE SAUCE! – The recipe is on my blog and at the bottom of this article. This sauce, Championship Memphis Red Sauce, beat out 500 recipes in 1997 to be crowned Best Red Sauce in the World. And it is. My wife and I make it in batches and can it. It is a No Exception Must Have at every BBQ meal (jacksblend.com/bbq-red-sauce-recipe)
Lang: Are you in competition?
JG: I don’t compete…except with myself.
Lang: What projects are you currently working on?
JG: I am going to be adding a few more rub and seasoning offerings to my lineup. Likely additions: Coffee Rub, Cocoa Chipotle Rub, Lemon Pepper Seasoning, No Salt Seasoning. Possible Additions: Cajun Seasoning, Mesquite Seasoning, Hickory Salt, Pecan Rub. I am also working on getting licensed so I can sell meats at my local Farmer’s Market. My home smoked bacon is the number one thing I want to sell, followed by pulled pork, ribs and fish (bacon recipe is also on my blog). My plan is to bring Black Betty to the market and smoke something fresh. Then the other items I would have smoked, vacuum-sealed, labeled and frozen, ready for sale.
Lang: What can you share about the BBQ community as a whole?
JG: I think the BBQ community is very much like the coffee community was to me years ago. Friendly, good folk who love to share recipes, processes and more. There are some good and some bad folk, as in any community, but for the most part it is a fun industry which attracts outgoing and generous people. The first time I went to the NBBQA I met a guy competing in the Steak Cookoff competition. After talking with him for less than 10 minutes about food and drink, he said, “Wait here”, went to vehicle and grabbed a brand-new sealed bottle of one of the best mescals available and gave it to me. He wasn’t selling anything, just had an extra bottle and wanted to share it with me. That’s cool.
Lang: Can you share a recipe with us?
MEMPHIS-STYLE CHAMPIONSHIP RED SAUCE
Makes 4 cups
- 1 1/4 cups ketchup
- 1 cup water
- 3/4 cup vinegar
- 3/4 cup tomato paste
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 2/3 cup corn sugar
- 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
- 4 tablespoons honey
- 3 tablespoons molasses
- 4 teaspoons salt
- 4 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tablespoon apple sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 1 1/2 teaspoons liquid smoke
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 3/4 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon dried mustard powder
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder (I used a little more)
- 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon celery seed
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
Combine all of the ingredients in a saucepan and blend well. Bring it to a boil and then reduce to a simmer over a medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Allow the sauce to cool. Store in refrigerator.
Check out Jack’s website – www.jacksblend.com
You can also email Jack at firstname.lastname@example.org