WHEATON – In 2007, Wheaton resident Cary Kerger was looking for something.
He had just bought the Abbey Resort at Lake Geneva, Wis. as part of an investment group, and was seeking a signature atmosphere for the restaurant, the Waterfront. One day, Kerger was invited to Matthew Whiteford’s birthday party.
“My youngest son and his middle son go to school together and are very good friends,” Kerger said. “I came in a little bit late and all of Matt’s barbecue was out on the kitchen table and on the way downstairs I grabbed a plate and started eating.”
By the time Kerger got to him, Whiteford said, his “eyes were glazed over, mouth covered with sauce.”
Kerger didn’t know that Whiteford was part of a world-competitive barbecue team, the Clark Kent Super Smokers – named after team founders Brian Clark and Kent Harms. They have cooked all over the country and ranked highly, taking 38th place at the Kansas City American Royal, one of the premier cook-offs in the world. The team even competed against the cooks from the television show “Pit Master.”
Kerger invited Whiteford to become the pitmaster at the Waterfront, creating food and teaching his techniques to the cooks in his kitchen. The partnership spawned a new brand: Whiteford’s Barbecue. Thanks to the exposure and support, Whiteford – who is a sales representative for a furniture company by day – has been able to create his own line of sauces, rubs and even an award-winning bloody mary mix.
All that success didn’t come easily, nor was it planned, Whiteford said. He bought a smoker on a whim so he could share his love of cooking with his family.
He eventually was introduced to Harms through a mutual friend, who invited him to join in a barbecue competition, where the team finished fourth from last, Whiteford said. Ever since, he has been working on his craft and trying to improve. The Super Smokers eventually began placing highly enough to attract sponsorship from Jim Beam.
“There were a lot of sauces that went straight down the drain,” he said with a laugh. “But I had people come up to me and rave, and I thought that if I can replicate this a few hundred times, I could build a brand around it. My wife said I was crazy, and I said ‘I know I am.’”
Whiteford said he soon will offer his sauces and meat for national mail order delivery, making appearances on WGN for a fifth year to talk about his barbecue and selling his bloody mary in all AMC Dinner and Bar theaters across the U.S. His products are featured in hundreds of stores around the country, including Wheaton Meat Market and Ivy restaurant in Wheaton.
“We tasted a bunch of different sauces, but his was just the best,” said David Overstreet, head chef at Ivy. “His sauce is what makes our ribs what they are.”
This success was surprising, Whiteford said, but came from a commitment to quality.
“I tried to use things I would grab from the stove top,” he said of his sauce-making process.
While it has preservatives, Whiteford said using as many natural ingredients as possible and not compromising taste for profit is what separates his brand from the rest.
“It’s sad. Most of the world doesn’t know what great rib is,” he said. “One of the best foods ever is brisket burnt ends. When you get to taste that, it’s like nothing else. Some love filet mignon, prime rib, lobster, but a good burnt end or rib is the best.”