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The Naked Rib

Montrose, Minn. — Dan Conroy and Gary Sterner prefer to eat their barbecue bare naked.

The two entrepreneurs market smoked pork ribs sans barbecue sauce. Their product, deBarbeque, is finding a niche at Minnesota meat counters, where it is the only “bare naked” ready-to-eat pork rib.

Conroy and Sterner introduced deBarbeque in December and are on track to sell 500,000 pounds of product this year. The fully-cooked ribs are available at major Twin Cities supermarkets, including Rainbow Foods, Cub, County Market, Jerry’s, Lunds and Byerly’s.

“People like our ribs because you can throw them right on the grill” without worrying about burning the sauce or making a mess, says Conroy, president of deBarbeque, Inc. Besides, “most people would rather put on their own barbecue sauce. … One day I invited 25 people over for barbecued ribs and told them all to bring their favorite sauce. … They brought 25 different sauces.”

A 30-year veteran of the wholesale food business, Conroy says Minnesota is ready for bare-naked barbecue, long popular in the South. He heard frequent requests for a good smoked rib when he was sales manager at U.S. Food Service and Food Service of America. “But there was nothing available without a sauce. I saw a need.”

Conroy, who lives in Wayzata, left the corporate world three years ago. A little bored with retirement, he called up his friend, Gary Sterner, and said, “ ‘Do you want to go into the rib business?’ … And that’s how this all started.”

Smoking in a brick house

Sterner, of Winsted, has been smoking ribs for more than 20 years. His father, Joe Sterner, a retired dairy-equipment manufacturer, had an old brick smokehouse. “He used his own dry seasoning rub, and he’d go out to the smokehouse for the better part of a day and smoke the ribs, and everybody loved them.” Gary Sterner continued his dad’s smokehouse tradition, making pork barbecue “people went wild about,” he says.

Duplicating the Sterner family’s homemade ribs using modern commercial food processing methods took a lot of technical know-how, however. So Sterner and Conroy came to AURI for help.

Scientists Darrell Bartholomew, Ted Gillett and Brian Reuter of AURI’s Marshall meat lab adjusted Sterner’s recipes. Using a commercial smoker, they experimented with cooking times and temperature, oven humidity, types of wood smoke and other variables. AURI also helped the pair develop food safety procedures and navigate the complex licensing process. It took more than two years to get everything set, Sterner says.

Late last year, deBarbeque opened a 5,000-square-foot, USDA-inspected processing plant, financed by local lenders and tax incentives from the city of Montrose.

Starting with small, lean ribs, deBarbeque uses computerized equipment controls for each production step, from marinating and seasoning to the eight hours of slow cooking that produces tender, flavorful meat.

Dry-rubbed demos

DeBarbeque ribs “took off right away,” says Conroy, who thought up the “bare-naked” marketing angle. While grocers like the 90-day shelf life, consumers are drawn by deBarbeque’s distinction: ready-to-eat ribs. “We’re the only one without sauce that I see in the major stores.”

The ribs retail for $9.95 to $12.95 per pound, comparable to deBarbeque’s main competitor. Although the ribs are marketed through a food broker and distributed by Royal Foods and J and B Group, “I do a lot of the sales myself,” says Conroy, who makes store calls five mornings a week.

The company markets with weekly in-store demonstrations, spending about $5,000 a month on free samples and store discounts. “Either you give it away in product demos or on discounts, to get people to try it,” Conroy says.

He and Sterner do most in-store demos themselves. Though demos consume their weekends, they are fun, too, Sterner says. “You meet a lot of people. And I love seeing their reactions. They’ll stop and talk and say, ‘That’s good.’ ”

Taking time for success

Sterner, 46, says the long hours that go into a new venture can be “tough on family life.” He has been in business for himself since he was 22, founding and selling several companies. He grew up in Winsted and Waverly, trained as a professional chef, then ran a nursery and later a landscaping company before returning to the food business. “In a way, I’m back where I started.”

Conroy, 55, also trained as a chef. He grew up in Wheaton, working briefly in the restaurant business before making a career in institutional food sales. He agrees that time is a big challenge in starting a business: “Gary and I were putting in 18-plus hours a day at first.” That’s gotten better, he says, though there are still plenty of six- and seven-day workweeks.

But deBarbeque sales are ahead of projections, Conroy says. “And I’ve never had more fun in my life.”