Ken Davis: the face of success for Minnesota Black business

Grandmother’s recipe generates millions of dollars across the Midwest


First in a muli-part series


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


After Ken Davis closed his take-out restaurant in Edina after owning it for a year, he physically took his homemade barbecue sauce on the road to local supermarkets to sell it.

“There was more than one discouraging word” when Davis made his decision to market his sauce, recalls Barbara Davis. “We did receive lots of discouraging words. It was hard to market barbecue sauce. [Some] people said they don’t eat barbecue sauce – it’s like eating hot sauce to them and they weren’t interested.”

Her late husband’s bio on www.ken says that the discouragers included the Small Business Administration that “thought he was crazy,” and banks and financiers resisted his requests as well. “They didn’t believe we OriginalRGBwebcould go up against four major national brands.”

Despite those who decried that it couldn’t survive, Ken Davis Bar-B-Q-Sauce soon became a top seller through his unique marketing efforts — first by selling his product out of his car then mass marketing it to stores and distributors. Mrs. Davis, a 20-year marketing and home economist veteran at General Mills, got involved in the business when Ken Davis hired his future wife to help him and his staff perfect his grandmother’s barbecue sauce and eventually document the recipe.

Photos courtesy of Barbara Davis
Photos courtesy of Barbara Davis

“The first thing that happened [was] that somebody sued us, saying that we’d stolen the formula and the recipe from him,” remembers Barbara Davis. “We won the suit of course because it was [Ken Davis’] grandmother’s recipe. Then when we tried to sell it — Ken would go to various venues and they would just laugh at him.

“We were able to find a manufacturer that was willing to take a chance on us. We did not have any money; we didn’t have an angel. We didn’t get any loans. If we hadn’t gotten help, we would have been making it out of our house and selling it on the black market. If that manufacturer had not agreed to try to make it for us, we wouldn’t have gotten it made.”

Nonetheless, he incorporated Ken Davis Products, Inc. in 1972 and its annual revenues grew to several million dollars and was sold in five Upper-Midwest states. “Ken’s original plan was to make enough money to sustain him;  [he didn’t] expect to get rich on it,” admits Barbara. “He wanted it to pay for itself and make us enough money to pay the bills.

“Ken would go door-to-door, store-to-store trying to sell it. I think it took three-to-four years before we really were making any money on it. And [after] five or six years we started to really see the fruits of our labor. It was about that time when we were able to sell the barbecue sauce in major warehouses that supply the grocery stores. We also sold to distributors that sold to restaurants, hospitals, hotels and all these institutions that buy large qualities.”

Some store owners after arguing that they didn’t want or need another barbecue sauce instead offered Ken Davis “to set up a few cases…and come in on the weekend and give us a demo and see if you can sell some of these,” describes Barbara. “Then [Ken] would say, ‘If it does not sell, I’ll take it away. And if it sells, I will bring some more.’

“Nobody makes it in this life by themselves, even if you think you can,” surmises Davis on the help she and her husband received in their business’ formative years. “We didn’t have any money to research trademarks but [what] we decided to do was come up with something nobody else had.

“That was the reason why we went with Ken’s picture and signature [on the label] because no one else had that face and signature. We had a lot of people helping us along the way, either in helping us get the word out or helping us by letting us set up in their stores so people could try it, or giving us lots of advice from other entrepreneurs and free advice from lawyers and accountants.”

Ken Davis died in 1991, and Barbara Davis, who became company president in 1988, continued to run it until she sold the business in 2010. Yet still today it remains one of the state’s most successful Black businesses ever.


Next week: What is the biggest challenge to Black-owned businesses in Minnesota?

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