Mom’s Secret Barbecue Sauce Inspires KC Entrepreneur’s Next Business during COVID-19David Cawthon
Earstin Sanders has been an entrepreneur as long as he can remember.
“I was the kid in junior high who would take my lunch money and stop at the store before school,” he says. “I’d buy candy, then take it to school and sell it. I was in business before I even knew what an entrepreneur was!”
That business acumen didn’t fade—and has propelled Earstin on a varied entrepreneurial path.
An idea is born
As an adult, Earstin’s first serious business was a pet store. He and a friend launched the shop in a mall in Rockford, Illinois. But as the mall went downhill, the entrepreneurs listened to the mall manager’s promises instead of watching their balance sheet. After a few years of good business, the venture went under.
“It was a learning experience,” Earstin says. “We licked our wounds for a few months and then got back up and said, ‘OK! Now on to the next venture!’”
Earstin moved to Kansas City. He worked as a youth worker for the Circuit Court of Jackson County. And in 2008, he launched E-Sand Lawn Service and Property Preservation. Earstin became so busy maintaining lawns, remodeling and flipping homes that he was able to leave his full-time job in 2010.
Working with ScaleUP! Kansas City and securing a microloan helped Earstin grow his business. But there was a ticking time bomb in a lockbox in Earstin’s home—and another business idea that he just couldn’t shake.
Sauce and serendipity
Earstin comes from a long line of folks who make things happen. His grandfather McArthur Williams had a strong work ethic—and a way with food. Earstin’s mom, Mildred, was no different.
When Mildred relocated to Rockford, Illinois, with her three children, she took her dad’s barbeque sauce recipe with her. Soon, she married and helped in raising eight stepchildren. In the years that followed, Mildred gave birth to seven more children.
“We have a really big family, and we’re really close—because we have to be,” Earstin says. “We lived in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom. I remember up to 15 people at the house at one time.”
Not only did Mildred feed all those people, she did it well. Her dishes were famous at church dinners, and her coworkers would have her cook their holiday meals. She eventually opened a restaurant—and gave Earstin her secret barbecue recipe.
“My mother gave me the recipe about 30 years ago, and I put it in my lockbox, where I have old baseball cards and things like that,” Earstin says.
The recipe sat there until early 2019.
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“I woke up at about 2 o’clock in the morning and sat straight up: ‘It’s time to do the barbecue sauce,’” Earstin says. “It sounds like a good idea—but I have no idea how to bottle or market sauce!”
As fate would have it, Earstin was a guest at a networking lunch a few weeks later. One of the other guests happened to specialize in helping people bottle sauce.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Earstin says. “After the meeting, we talked. Come to find out, someone asked her to sit in at the very last minute. Fate had it that we were both there on the same day.”
Earstin hired the consultant. After months of work, Aunt Mildred’s #10 Southern Style Barbecue Sauce launched on Sept. 19, 2019, on what would have been Mildred’s birthday.
Honing the hustle, learning to bootstrap
There’s more to the story than a recipe and a fated meeting. A lot of research and work have gone into Earstin’s businesses.
“If you’re bootstrapping a business, you’re growing it from the ground up, and you’re wearing a lot of different hats,” Earstin says. “It’s more of a hustle. Then, you get to this point in business where, ‘OK, I have to transition out of a hustle to more of a business mentality.’”
Earstin got help taking E-Sand Lawn Service and Property Preservation to the next level with ScaleUP! Kansas City. This program helps business owners shift from running their businesses to growing their businesses. Cohorts of business owners immerse themselves in four months of training. They come out of the program with the strategic skills needed to succeed.
“That was a really good course,” Earstin says. “Focusing on the business plan and learning more insight on the business side of things was important. I’m more of a hands-on guy and so making more business connections and finding the sources like the SBA helped me focus more on growing the business instead of working in the business.”
ScaleUP! Kansas City let Earstin focus on creating the culture of E-Sand. And he was able to apply those learnings from the very beginning of Aunt Mildred’s #10 Southern Style Barbecue Sauce.
In business with the community
Aunt Mildred’s isn’t just a love letter to an amazing mom.
“I want to carry on her legacy and build the business and help other people achieve their goals,” says Earstin. “My mother was a person who even if she didn’t have anything, she would make a way to help others.”
Mildred did a lot of cooking for the church, particularly for fundraisers. So giving back to the community is part of Earstin’s business plan.
“When I started out in business, I always wanted to become successful to help someone else become successful. That’s always been my motto,” he says. “And that’s where the fundraising comes in.”
Community groups can partner with Aunt Mildred’s to get a percentage of sales revenue. The fundraising program doesn’t require delivering bottles of sauce—people just use a code when ordering online and Aunt Mildred’s does the rest.
Earstin was also prepping to launch a food truck in mid-July 2020. Serving up barbecue brisket, pulled pork, sausage and wings, Aunt Mildred’s will be on Truman Road, just west of Sterling. It’s another way to get the word out about the sauce—and make the world a better place with good cooking.
Secret sauce of success
Having started several businesses, Earstin has a few words of wisdom for people who have the entrepreneurial itch—especially during the pandemic.
“Don’t let anything stop you,” he says. “Despite all that’s going on in society right now, you still have to remain focused on your goal.”
Earstin had the opportunity to present his sauce to the producers of “Shark Tank.” Although he wasn’t called back, the producers encouraged him to keep at it. That’s a message Earstin takes to heart.
“Success is like being on a mountaintop,” he says. “Another person may get airlifted to the top of the mountain, but that has nothing to do with you getting to the top of the mountain. Maybe that person beat you to the top, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get there. Whatever it takes to get you there, that’s what you have to do. Focus on what you’re doing and the determination to get there.”
Earstin values the support that’s helped him on his entrepreneurial journey. ScaleUP! Kansas City has been a big help. And his wife, Penelope, has been instrumental in his success.
“She’s supported all my crazy ideas,” he says. “She’s been there to help me, and she does a lot behind the scenes, keeping me organized. We all need someone who believes in us.”