Sometimes the greatest ideas arise at the most unexpected moments. That’s exactly how longtime friends Rob Clabaugh and Greg Kelley perfected the recipe for Silverback Gorill’n Sauce, which they have been selling in area Kroger stores since 2014.
Best friends since age 13, Clabaugh and Kelley were returning from a Willie Nelson concert on Kelley’s 50th birthday when they visited a Plano barbecue joint and were underwhelmed by their sauce. They knew they could make something better, so they did. After experimenting with their own recipes for years, Clabaugh, who lives in Reno, Nevada, added two ingredients and the current formula for Silverback Gorill’n Sauce was born.
“There’s one thing about barbecue sauce, everybody’s got that same taste,” Clabaugh quipped. “Ours has such a unique flavor. I sent it [the new sauce] to Kelley and he loved it. He barbecued with it, started doing stuff with it.”
And after the sauce was a hit at a May 2014 Jimmy Buffett concert at Frisco’s Toyota Stadium, Clabaugh and Kelley got a good feeling. “We did some sliders, which we gave away. We were there for two days and 99.9 percent of the people were going ‘this is the best sauce ever’,” Clabaugh beamed.
Clabaugh and Kelley are quick to point out that what makes Silverback Gorill’n Sauce different from the competition is its versatility. It’s more of a grilling sauce, which is also perfect as a glaze and marinade for all meats, and it’s also great on wings. Spurred on by their success, Silverback has added a barbecue sauce, a hot sauce and a seafood sauce to their line-up.
But that’s not the only interesting story surrounding this uniquely tasty sauce. The backstory behind the name is equally intriguing and funny. Clabaugh is a California native who met Kelley when he and his family had relocated from Texas. However, Kelley’s mother got so homesick for Texas that she threatened a divorce if they didn’t return, so the Kelleys returned to Texas after three years.
And despite being separated by several states, the two have remained close friends over the years, a friendship featuring plenty of ribbing at each other’s expense, joking and having a good time. Clabaugh even inspired the Silverback name, a tale Kelley tells with a huge smile. “Rob was a bodybuilder back in the day, maybe had a little bit of a hairy back, I don’t know,” Kelley joked. “But that’s where the name came from because he always wore his hat backwards. If you look at the monkey and look at the bottle, that’s Rob back in the day.”
Since that Buffett concert, business has taken off. After being invited to Kroger food shows in downtown Dallas, Silverback was overwhelmed with orders. But Clabaugh and Kelley chose not to grow quickly because they wanted to ensure they maintained a high level of quality and customer service even as they expanded.
But above all, this remains a family business. Kelley, a Plano resident, handles the day-to-day operations. His wife and four children do in-store demonstrations and also occasionally wear a gorilla suit to promote the sauces, which Silverback also does on their Facebook page, answering questions about their products and posting funny videos featuring Clabaugh, Kelley, their families and their products, aptly titled “Silverback Sundays.”
Early on, Silverback put their sauce in Mason jars, an effective strategy until the jars were opened. But Clabaugh and Kelley recently found someone to bottle and someone else to distribute their sauce, a big step since Kelley used to personally deliver their sauce to stores.
Silverback attended the 2016 Texas State Fair as part of the Go Texan campaign to promote Texas-made products and their sauce was well-received by the fair-going masses. The State Fair was their latest opportunity to expose their sauce to a new batch of potential customers, but whether it’s doing an in-store demo at Kroger, hocking their sauce at the State Fair or exposing their sauces to potential new customers at a different venue, Clabaugh and Kelley will continue to adhere to one simple adage with their business venture-above all else, have fun with it.
“We were doing our own things for such a long period of time. I don’t think that I have smiled and laughed as much as I have in the last two years of doing this,” Clabaugh said. “We’re like a couple of dumb kids sometimes, laughing and giggling really bad. We’re just having the best time in the world doing it. It makes me smile. I jump on a plane and come down here from Reno, it’s just fun.”