In mid-January, Lamar Jones might be hailed as an overnight success when his Jank Gourmet BBQ sauces debut in 169 H-E-Bs. But Jones, a musician and special ed teacher’s aide in Weslaco, began development of his barbeque sauce in 2009. He and a friend coined the word “Jank” to describe a taste beyond awesome.
“I can’t believe it’s been about a year since I got the Innovation Grant from the McAllen Chamber of Commerce,” Jones said. That $10,000 grant was used to trademark The Jank, to get FDA approval of the sauces’ contents, pay for Go Texan membership, obtain product liability insurance, and finalize packaging and label design. The bottle included a glass loop on the neck, similar to old-fashioned syrup bottles.
In spring 2015, Jones entered The Jank in H-E-B’s Primo Pick contest, which brings new Texas-made products to supermarket shelves. Jones became the Valley’s entrant, one of 25 statewide winners invited to showcase their product in front of a panel of judges in Houston. Jones credited the packaging with first getting the attention of H-E-B.
Jones’s sauce didn’t win first prize or even place, but The Jank barbecue sauce was a big hit with the judges and other contestants. The Jank was also a hit with an H-E-B’s product development manager, Mark Bradshaw, who handled sauces and called Jones a week later. “He said, ‘I hope you guys are ready to work. Let’s get the process rolling,’” Jones recalled.
So in August Jones began tweaking the labeling, the shrink wrap top and myriad other details for the original and spicy versions of the sauce. That included the GO Texan logo, no MSG and gluten-free labels, and keeping the Jankometer, which indicates the level left in the bottle. “We wanted to make the packaging fun. The brand in general is family oriented,” Jones said. “There are reasons behind every little thing on the package, including the space that says ‘Your Name Here.’” People had told him their Jank bottles disappeared at parties.
H-E-B introduced Jones to a co-packer in Buda, which has been beneficial and has enabled Jones to open a line of credit for the production runs. “I worked with the R&D department at Jardine Foods to make sure I was happy with the flavor and the viscosity. I couldn’t compromise on that,” he said. H-E-B said the Jank rollout would take place on Jan. 22 and start with 600 cases holding six bottles.
In mid-December, Jones got the official purchase order, which instead specified 504 cases each of the original and the spicy Jank. “I don’t know what they base their projections on,” Jones said. “I know I’m not driving this. I don’t have control over what’s happening.”
Not that he’s complaining. “I’m blessed, humbled and excited at the same time. I also know there is still a lot of work to be done. The end goal is to create an empire and provide opportunities. I pray I’m able to deal with it and people benefit.”
Meanwhile Jones continues to work with special ed classes at Weslaco East High School. “It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever done, by far.” He’s halfway to an education degree with a special ed concentration. “It’s necessary for what I want to get done,” and that is helping children. His long-running mentoring program includes a talent show, the FRESH year-end celebration, open to kids around the Valley. “Kids get a chance to get positive feedback on what they do. It’s a confidence builder for kids. Once you take pride in the things you do, the sky’s the limit.
“I never wanted anything handed to me, but I know how far an opportunity can get you when someone opens the odor,” Jones said.
Jones recognizes no limits himself. He plans to be doing product demos at a McAllen H-E-B launch on Jan. 22, since the McAllen innovation grant was critical to achieving greater success. He dresses as Sir Jankster, in a white top hat and white formal jacket, to push the brand and the product. He will be doing demos several weekends a month around the state as time permits. Jones will continue to sell Jank sauces at Earthborn Market, small specialty groceries and Valley farmers markets.
The next product will be a Jank kettle-cooked potato chip, and Jones has many more product ideas and recipes in mind. “I’ve had it on desserts, salads, bread pudding, casserole and pancakes.”
Jones recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to fund additional marketing and commercials. A restaurant chain has come calling, too. “So many things are going on. I have to pace myself and make sure I’m making the right move.”