We make this barbecue sauce exactly like Granny did,” Marylu Masters states at her Oxford home and commercial kitchen. “You can look,” she then teases. “There’s no secret laying out I’d have to kill you for.”
Not that hers isn’t a sauce to die for. Folks from all over the United States enjoy this Sumter County specialty.
“We used to sop up Granny’s sauce with white bread when we were kids,” Marylu says with a smile as she holds up the original 10-gallon stainless steel pot where the sauce was first concocted.
“I still have the spatula Granny used,” she adds. “I never want to lose that pot-stirring thing. It loses something if made in bigger quantities. People are impressed we make it one pot at a time. It’s my dream to buy more pots and put people to work.”
Granny Lula Nichols began marketing her sauce locally in 1968 at age 60. “Papa” Henry Nichols and his beloved wife made the sauce for church socials, club meetings, and local gatherings.
“The house in Oxford where she made the sauce is on Nichols Cemetery Road off of Shady Road,” Marylu says. “Back when it actually was a shady road.”
Onamae McKinney, Lindsey Skaggs (Marylu’s daughter), Marylu Masters, and Trinity Skaggs (Marylu’s granddaughter)
Marylu retrieves the smiling picture of her Granny’s face that is on the bottle. But the whole picture tells the whole story. Granny is holding Papa’s hand tightly from his hospital bed. Her young grandson, Erwin McKinney, is in the photo.
“When Papa passed away, she was sad,” Marylu reminisces. “But anyone born in 1907 has seen it all. She was widowed before and had a pioneering spirit. Her father homesteaded in the Pahokee area, where they lived in a cabbage palm frond house that never leaked.”
Perhaps as leak-proof as the secret to the sauce.
“I was about 15 when I started helping Granny, along with my sisters, Katrina and Bobbie,” Marylu says. “It was Bobbie who told Granny to name the sauce after herself.”
Bobbie passed away in 1993, and Marylu’s marriage of 29 years ended. She, like her Granny, made the best of adversity. Marylu earned her real estate broker’s license, and while starting up Long Hammock Realty, her parents, J.L. and Ona Mae McKinney, helped her keep the sauce pots stirring.
“Granny was getting old and tired,” Marylu remembers. “It was a pleasant surprise when she said, ‘I want you to take this business.’”
In 1998, Granny was laid to rest in a shady section of the family’s nearby plot, but Marylu figures the best way to carry the family tradition is to keep going—one bottle at a time. To that end, she’s made the necessary government standards changes, but she hasn’t impinged on her grandmother’s integrity or marketing strategy.
“Granny told me one day that some man from Certified Grocers in ‘Ocal-er’ had approached her about supplying his store,” Marylu recalls. “She knew she couldn’t keep her high standards and meet his demand, so she said, ‘I want to keep it simple.’”
Marylu has conceded to some modern pressures, though. After the turn of the millennium, she finally got a UPC for the barbecue sauce.
“But we still market like Granny did,” she adds. “We drive around to small independent grocers and go by word-of-mouth.”
Produce stands along U.S. Highway 301 from Belleview to Oxford carry the sauce, as do small grocers in The Villages and Okeechobee where Marylu’s cousins reside.
Larry Dasher of Big Oaks Produce in Oxford, located where US Hwy 301 is still two lanes, sells the full gamut of Granny Nichols’ sauces. He only sells the “guaranteed best” of nature’s bounty and specialty items.
“We can hardly keep Granny Nichols sauce in here because it sells so fast sometimes,” Dasher reports. “I’ve run out of it before. Customers love it.”
The product is shipped all over the country by special request from satisfied customers. The sauce isn’t in catalogs and doesn’t have its own website, but the phone number of the kitchen and the legacy of Granny Nichols are printed on each label. And when people find it, they often want more—even if the sauce is a little steep.
“Some people complain about the price,” she says. “We use top-of-the-line ingredients and won’t make it any other way. Others say they don’t barbecue without it!”
When you ask about how this sauce has changed her life, Marylu pauses. It’s as if she is looking into the face of her grandmother.
“Granny could never have known how many people have been touched,” Marylu answers. “I’ve met people from everywhere because of this sauce.”
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