Pauline’s BBQ Sauce: "It was just God, my two-wheeled dolly and me"
On any given day an unmistakable scent wafts through the town of Drummond. If you’re passing down Broad Street on your way to get the mail, you might just find yourself floating into the Community Hall to find its source.
Inside you’ll find a petite woman of 82, tirelessly working away at creating a Montana staple – Pauline’s BBQ Sauce.
Discovered in 1980 and marketed just two years later, the 39-year legend of this Big Sky product took a new turn July 31. That’s the day that Pauline Mininger sold her company to a new owner.
Mininger is still as bubbly as she was when she started cooking the sauce back in the 80s. Having found the sauce during a dinner at a friend’s ranch, she began making it for family, friends and every community function there was. And as people do, they started telling her repeatedly that she should license and label the stuff for sale.
“At that time I’m raising two children and working three to five jobs and nine hour days in the office,” reflected Pauline of her early days. “In 1982, with the help of a coworker’s husband, I was able to get the license and the labels and we made the introduction of the sauce at the Stampede in Helena.”
It was July 23, 1982 when the public got its first taste of Pauline’s BBQ Sauce. She served it on thinly sliced roast beef piled high in a bun, with a side of baked beans and a small glass of lemonade.
“People loved it,” she laughed. “Of course, I went in the hole because it cost me a lot to put that all together. But (that reaction) has been happening ever since.”
On this day after the sale, Pauline is in the Drummond Senior’s kitchen making another eight batches of her pride and joy. She agreed to continue manufacturing the sauce for two months after the sale, but to her it’s almost as much a labor of love as an obligation. No one else is there that day, but faithfully she pushes on.
“You can’t sell out of an empty wagon,” she exclaims! “So shut up and get to cookin!”
In her early days, Pauline ran the business by herself with her two small children – Jeannie and Cheré – in tow. She made the sauce the best way she knew how, and what she didn’t know she learned along the way.
“It was just God, my two-wheeled dolly and me,” she said smiling. “I’m computer inept, so I do everything by hand. What I didn’t know I just took one step at a time. We would pack up pillows, blankets and toys and go cook, That’s just what we did and the girls loved it and grew up with it.”
Each label says that one of the ingredients in ‘Pauline’s Special Touch’, and when it comes to truth in labeling it could not be more precise. Pauline has not only cooked every single ounce of sauce she starting the business (over 16,000 gallons and counting), but she affixes every label and sticker to every bottle by hand. Of course those come after she has filled and sealed every bottle in the same fashion.
Later in 1982 Pauline entered her first BBQ competition, something she was told she’d need to do to prove her sauce. That competition was at the Silos in Helena, where the rookie chef walked away with second in Commercial and first on People’s Choice. She won the former category the next year and has won the latter every year she’s competed.
Over the years, Pauline has made the sauce in various kitchens, from Charlie B’s in Missoula to Joey’s Café in Helena to the Bull’s End in Drummond. She finally settled into the Drummond Senior Center in the 2000’s, working her culinary magic four days a week when the hall isn’t rented out for an event.
And in those years she has received help from people who, well … just love helping her.
Some of those folks were Casey and Bonnie Weaver, who came along side to help out when Pauline had abdominal surgery in 2011. The recovery left her on a walker, but with orders and customers that still needed to be fulfilled. The Weavers helped her cook batch after batch, but also provided the feisty 75 year old with some much needed direction.
“While we're making several batches, I was labeling and Bonnie with filling and cooking with Casey,” Pauline recalled. “Casey pointed at me with a big, long, steel spoon and said, ‘You better sit down young lady!’
“I’m just surrounded by so many wonderful people. All my people are my guardian angles.”
Another of those people has been Bradley Anderson, a 17 year old junior at Drummond High School this year. He came to know Pauline as a sixth grader and she quickly became his surrogate grandma.
“My friend and I went in one day and saw she needed help,” said Anderson of his relationship with Pauline, “and she let us help. She was just so great that I started calling her grandma.”
“He has been my knight in shining armor,” said Pauline. “I don’t allow any negative energy in my kitchen and he never brings any of that with him. He is just such an awesome young man. I think his working in here with me has taught him the value of things like hygiene, cleanliness and the importance of doing things according to a process.”
Throughout the conversation, Pauline repeatedly mentions and reflects on God’s influence on how her business has played out. Including when doctors told her she needed to quit making the BBQ sauce to improve her health.
“I told him there’s God, my two-wheeled dolly and me. I’m number three on the triangle,” she said. “The doctor said, ‘Pauline, you’re going to have to stop doing the BBQ Sauce because of your back.’ I’m not a candidate for back surgery. I said, ‘You can’t judge me as an 81 or 82 year old. I deserve a quality of life and there is no go.”
“I said ‘It’s God, my two-wheeled dolly and me.’ And he said, “God has let you down.” I said, “Oh no! How do you think I got this far? It’s so totally awesome.”
“It’s so beautiful to have all these people here and up in heaven,” Pauline continued. “And if I ever get there, there will be all these people on either side of St. Peter, ‘It’s OK Pete! Let her in!”
As the batch making continues, Pauline muscles each 45 lbs. pot into place. As each jar is filled, she takes the sterilized tops, bangs them on the counter to remove excess moisture and then twists each one tightly onto its intended jar of sauce. Being of very slight build, she holds each one into her stomach to secure the seal and she turns them.
While we’re chatting, three men come in from Huson, Montana. They are there for what just about everyone else is there for – BBQ sauce.
Pat Sanderlin, along with his son Patrick and fellow veteran Paul Heinemann, are there to buy three gallons of Pauline’s magic elixir for a wedding/family reunion he’s holding later this summer. He first found Pauline’s BBQ Sauce in North Dakota and has been hooked ever since.
“Probably the best I’ve ever had,” said Sanderlin matter of factly. “A lot of BBQ sauce when you have it on the grill, like on ribs, it runs off and you have keep brushing it on. When you brush on Pauline’s it sticks and doesn’t burn black and soaks into the meat. Her recipe is the key to it.”
Sanderlin and his wife made an effort to buy the business from Pauline in 2018, but had potential funding fall through and were unable to complete the process.
His son Franklin and friend Paul have yet to taste Pauline’s BBQ Sauce, but their reactions were exactly what Pat expected.
“Oooo! That’s really good. Yeah, really good,” said an obviously please Franklin.
“Oh. My. Gosh. That is amazing. I have never tasted anything like that,” said Paul.
The vote was in and the results, as usual, were a landslide.
When asked about what she may do when the ties to her sauce are finally broken completely, Pauline really didn’t answer.
“When I stop selling my sauce I’ll just be a regular person. I won’t have anything to bribe my way through anymore,” she laughed.
“People come in and say, ‘Wouldn’t you like to just take a weekend and get in the car and go?’ and I say, ‘That’s what I do every weekend. I do everything I love to do because of the BBQ sauce. There’s no work that’s toil.’”
But in truth, Pauline is the epitome of the adage about finding what you love and doing it. Pauline Mininger found what she loved doing in this world and it was making people smile and finding joy. For her, the secret has truly been in the sauce.