After 10 years away from Driver’s Bar-B-Que, Annette Driver is back. In November of 2013, she took the reins of the company and created Drivers Foods, BBQ & Products. Operating from a commercial kitchen in her hometown of Jefferson City, Driver, who’s also a lobbyist in governmental relations, is expanding the company product line beyond the barbecue sauce and rubs created by her late father, Clarence, in the 1970s.
She served as general manager for her father’s operation from 1989 to 1993, including overseeing the restaurant that he opened in Warwick Village, and managing advertising and public relations. “
“My dad depended on me to take him outside of his comfort zone,” she said. “I definitely wanted to experiment.”
In 2006, after operating numerous restaurants and dealing with the repercussions of 9/11, she left the business. She spent two years as an Activity Coordinator for the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Lincoln University and also became a lobbyist. But in the back of her mind, she always wanted to resurrect the Driver’s brand.
In March of 2014, she launched a new Zesty Steak & Condiment Sauce based on one of her father Clarence’s recipes. Driver’s Steak and Condiment Sauce launch was initially set up with a group of business students from Lincoln University who helped write the business plan. Driver guided and prepared them to enter an Entrepreneurs pitch at the “BOOM” competition in Columbia in March of 2013. The students were enrolled in the Business Planning Seminar class with Professor Eric Burgess, Ph.D., head of the School of Business. In September of 2014, Driver also entered the sauce in the Pitch It & Win It competition hosted by the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce. She was one of three winners who received a check for $2,000, which she used towards the purchase of the company van.
“This is a great dipping sauce for shrimp, hamburgers and french fries. A couple of tablespoons makes the ultimate Bloody Mary,” she said.
It and the spicy version are sold in Hy Vee here and in Columbia as well as other stores such as Mosers. Orders of the steak and condiment sauce come through their website, too, from customers throughout the U.S. and as far away as Korea.
“People have always known us for BBQ and that’s still a big part of our business, but my talent is branding. I have a whole new game going on. I want to be a game changer and transcend the BBQ business and move into the condiment business. Condiments are a billion dollar business (a $5 billion dollar business in the U.S.) so you have to be careful and you need something different to stand out.”
“I don’t know what made me go back to his recipe book. It had been in the top drawer of my dresser for a long time along with other important papers. I saw his meat marinade recipe, which he hadn’t finished. I put it together doing a test kitchen thing. It was a Worcestershire sauce base but I added ketchup and kept tweaking it. I threw out 20 batches before I got it where it is right now.”
“She’s from the south so I had her taste it and she told me that ‘I had something here.’ Then my late brother’s son, Derek, came over with his buddies. He was 15 at the time and I grilled hamburgers and made steak fries. I gave him some of the sauce to try and he took his burger and dipped part of it in the sauce, and then dipped his streak fries in it. I knew we had something.”
There’s a lot more to putting products on the shelf than meets the eye. There’s federal regulations and required certifications and food products come under the watchful eye of the departments of health and agriculture, the USDA and FDA. An In Store Coordinator for ASM Advantage Sales and Marketing, she handles food demos for national food product manufacturers and major food outlets like Wal-Mart, and she’s also involved in marketing campaigns for cosmetics and food items for Walgreens, Schnucks and Staples.
The first African American woman elected president of any local rotary club, specifically the Jefferson Evening Rotary Club, she’s also involved in the Adoption Rights Coalition. For the past 19 years, she’s also been a volunteer DJ at Lincoln University’s KJLU, which plays mostly jazz. “As a DJ I can play a song and then hear the next song in my head. I’m already testing a new sauce that’s about to come out of the test kitchen.”
“There was a casting call with Shark Tank in Oklahoma City. I didn’t make it to the next round, but it was a fantastic opportunity to expose the brand on a national level. I’ve also taken the sauce to Sweetie Pie’s in St. Louis for Ms. Robbie. I saw her at the Zonta luncheon in Jefferson City and we’re going to try and get together when she’s back in town. I have more power moves up my sleeve, who know where it will lead? “
“My dad was a people person, always put people in front of making money. He made so many sacrifices. Good food is not enough, sometimes not even hard work, it takes something special to be successful. My dad had that added something, a sense of goodwill to Driver’s. I want to continue that and make our business about the customers. We love what we do.”