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Do you ever meet a business owner and think, “There’s got to be an interesting story behind this business”? I do. I love learning about the passion people have for what they do—especially when it comes to local, family-owned businesses.
Over the past couple of years, my family and I have crossed paths with a family whose children attend the same school as my son. I had a feeling their business story was an interesting one. My hunch was right.
If you like amazing barbecue, ribs, and homemade rubs and barbecue sauces that will knock your socks off, you’re going to want to learn more about Sheepdog BBQ. Read on, hungry friends, for my interview with John Banuelos, founder and owner of Sheepdog BBQ.
FresYes: What made you want to start Sheepdog BBQ?
John Banuelos: It all began in 2008 when my wife and I were on vacation in Lake Tahoe. We attended a cooking class that was being offered at the resort we were staying at, and they taught us how to cook the “perfect” steak. The class planted a seed, which grew into a passion for me.
A few months later, I attended a training class that offered barbecue food as their lunch they prepared for us. They had a barbecue sauce which was excellent. I’d asked the caterer what brand the sauce was and they told me they made their own. It never occurred to me before that you can make your own barbecue sauce.
After that class, I went home and started putting some ingredients together to come up with my own homemade barbecue sauce. I had gone through about 15 different versions and finally came up with the one that I have today. I started to make it in small batches and would give it as gifts during the holidays. Everyone who had tried the barbecue sauce kept suggesting to me that I should sell it. At the time it didn’t interest me because I didn’t think of myself as a business person. I was just a cop.
In 2012, word got around on my shift about my barbecue sauce. People started asking me to bring them some the next time I made it, so I did. After a while I was making batch after batch and giving it away. I finally decided that I needed to stop making it for free and start making money from it. I sat down and began to break down the costs to make it and to see if it would be profitable. It took about six months to figure it out, and in September of 2013, I officially launched Sheepdog BBQ.
What was your first product?
Okay, I have to know: Where did the name Sheepdog come from?
When I started the business, the term “sheepdog” was not very well known outside of the law enforcement arena. However, within it, the term sheepdog refers to people in law enforcement and military. Sheepdogs (law enforcement/military) protect the “sheep” (law-abiding citizens) from the wolves (non-law-abiding citizens).
So I knew naming my business this would appeal to the law enforcement community, while the non-law enforcement community would think it was just a cool sounding name because the term sheepdog also relates to the old cowboy days of herding sheep with actual sheepdogs, and what cowboys did to prepare food—barbecue!
You’ve just celebrated your fifth year in business. What is your product line like now?
A year after launch, I created my second barbecue seasoning, which was inspired by the cooking class that we’d taken in Lake Tahoe. Garlic Dog is an all-purpose seasoning, great for steak, chicken, and vegetables.
A year after that, in 2016, I created my third rub which was a Mexican-inspired seasoning. This rub goes great on carne asada, chicken, shrimp, and corn on the cob.
What are your most popular products, and do you have a personal favorite?
I always get asked which seasoning is most popular; honestly, they all seem to have their own amazing following. I wouldn’t say I have a favorite, but the one I use the most is the Smokin’ Sweet Rub. I use it on my tri-tip, ribs, and pulled pork.
So, in addition to being a law enforcement officer and making great barbecue sauces and seasonings, you also do catering?
Catering was never in the plans at first, but the more I cooked and the more I posted my food on social media, people became intrigued. I had friends ask if I could make food for them, so I did, then word of mouth got around and the catering branch of my company took off.
There are a lot of barbecue caterers here in Fresno. I will never say my food is better than someone else’s, but what separates my food is everything on my menu is flavored with my own products.
Being an LEO and owning a business has to be challenging. What makes both possible, and what advice do you have for others who have demanding jobs, but also really feel called to entrepreneurship?
I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. I never set out to be one. I refer to myself as the “accidental entrepreneur.” I began my business for two reasons:
One, to have an outlet from my job. I’ve been a police officer for 15 1/2 years. The last 5 or so years have been tough for law enforcement. So, I needed something outside of the crazy cop world to occupy my mind. I have definitely done that (with Sheepdog BBQ). While I love my job, I try not to let it consume me like it started to, so I focus on my family and business.
Which brings me to the second reason I started Sheepdog BBQ: I wanted to build a family business, something my kids could grow into and maybe get involved with as they get older. Already, my oldest, Darren, loves to help me. He’ll go shopping for ingredients with me or watch as I prepare food. Even my youngest, Audrina, likes to peel labels for me so I can label my bottles of sauce.
It has been difficult at times, juggling a full-time job, side business, and raising a family, but it’s all about making time and working as a team. My wife is a huge help when it comes to promoting the business and keeping me organized.
You have a rib competition coming up. Tell us about that. Can the public attend/buy tickets?
I’ve learned there are two types of barbecuers: those who compete and those who cater. I love the catering aspect, and competitions are very intense. I’ve never competed before, but thought I’d give it a try.
I will be competing Saturday, Sept. 29, in the Rib Battle Royale at Full Circle Brewery. The event begins at 7 a.m. and rib turn-in is at 2 p.m. The event is open to the public, and I’m excited about this new adventure.
So, now that everyone who’s read this interview is drooling at the thought of amazing barbecue, where can we shop Sheepdog BBQ products and stay in the loop regarding products and services?
(Image credit: Sheepdog BBQ)