The recipe for a good barbecue sauce is fairly simple. It starts with a good tomato base, then combines sweet, salty, spicy, smokey and acidic flavours—with the precise balance determined by your individual preference. The goal is to complement and enhance the overall flavour of grilled meat.
For Joe Semack, owner of Edmonton-based barbecue sauce-and-seasonings brand Motley Que, there’s an additional key to success. “It’s all about smiles,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re cooking for family or friends or at an event, there’s something about seeing people covered from ear-to-ear in barbecue sauce and just loving it.”
Lately, Semack and his wife, Jess, have been putting smiles on a lot of Albertans’ faces. Their company has been growing steadily over the past couple of years. This past spring, however, Motley Que got a major boost: Its signature Sticky Fixx sauce was named “best sauce on the planet” at the 2021 American Royal World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri.
It was a long road to the top. Originally from Grande Prairie, Semack says he started Motley Que almost out of necessity. “In 2009, I had the bright idea to open a sports bar. It seemed like a safe bet, but ended up being just about the worst decision I could’ve made. Most people only seemed to care about hockey, so we struggled in the summer.”
So the barbecue lover started focusing more on food—first buying a cart to sell burgers and smoked meats at events, then graduating to a food truck, and eventually a small, bricks-and-mortar space for takeout and catering.
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Through all those changes, one thing was constant: Semack’s homemade sauces, including the original Sticky Fixx. “We made it fresh daily, and we were constantly tweaking it to make it better,” he says. ”With our food truck, we had a nice focus group to give us feedback almost every day.” Eventually, he landed on a winning recipe, a luscious mix of sweet and cidery—with a hit of smokey heat from chipotle peppers—that’s perfect on everything from grilled chicken and beef to ice cream.
A move to Edmonton in late 2017 allowed Semack to focus full time on creating and bottling his barbecue sauces and spices. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic—which brought personal and professional challenges, but also created opportunities. Laid off from her job, Jess began devoting more time to the business side of Motley Que. And with more people cooking at home more often, Semack says sales started to increase.
They’ve continued their upward trajectory following Motley Que’s American Royal triumph. Sticky Fixx won the “mild tomato” category with a perfect score, leading it to claim the competition’s overall title, beating 363 other entries. (Semack’s Motley Mustard also ended up top-20 in its category.)
That success has been years in the making. Now that it’s arrived, Joe and Jess are considering expanding their operations. They currently blend and bottle all Motley Que seasonings, but their sauces are produced at a third-party facility. Finding a bigger space of their own could enable the Semacks to bring sauce-making in-house, lowering their production costs over the long term. They’ve also started to do some co-packaging for other local barbecue start-ups. “While that creates competition for us, it helps us employ more people because we have more work to do,” Semack says. “And it’s never a bad thing to grow the Alberta barbecue community.”
MORE GREAT ALBERTA-MADE BARBECUE SAUCES AND RUBS
1908 BBQ: Based in Wainwright, Marty Yurchak and Shawn Murphy handcraft small-batch spice rubs that are tailor-made for wings, ribs and more. Try the Megaton rib rub to add some Memphis-style flavour to your next rack.
Silk Road Spice Merchant: With stores in both Calgary and Edmonton, Silk Road is a destination for everything spice, including herbs, salts, cocktail bitters and a wide variety of barbecue dry rubs. Get the Barbeque Belt Chicken and Rib Rub to add some traditional Americana flavours to your next meal, or mix it up with West African Citrus Spice for grilled pork and the Riviera Coastal Blend for a herbaceous hit of the Mediterranean on everything from fish to steak.
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Bow Valley BBQ: Like Motley Que, Canmore’s Bow Valley BBQ has made its name by earning top marks at U.S. sauce contests—such as the 2019 World Hot Sauce Awards in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the company’s Sweet Chili Corn Salsa and Winged Buffalo Sauce came out on top in their respective categories. Founder Jamie Ayles and head of product development, Chris Dean, both have culinary backgrounds, and take pride in creating restaurant-worthy sauces for home cooks.
GrewV Spice: This company’s all-natural, made-in-Alberta seasonings add amazing flavour to any meal. Its Alberta Prime Coarse blend is—you guessed it—a great all-purpose rub for local beef.
Mojo Jojo Pickles: Though not specifically designed with grilling in mind, Edmonton preserve-maker Johwanna Alleyne’s fruit condiments (including jerk peach ketchup and cherry hot sauce) make an excellent addition to burgers, sausages and hot dogs.
Find AMA’s Backyard BBQ community on Facebook to connect with Albertans, share grilling tips and recipes, and support local farmers, producers and retailers.