WALL LAKE, Iowa — Trying to get Diane Kohorst or her family to switch barbecue sauces would be a fool’s errand.
The Carroll, Iowa, woman keeps a gallon of Cookies Original Sweet & Smoky Bar “B” "Q" sauce in her kitchen cabinets, as well as Cookies Flavor Enhancer & All-Purpose Seasoning.
“My daughter lives out in Denver and one thing for Christmas she wanted was some barbecue sauce from Cookies because they don’t make it out there,” Kohorst said. “Well, that was about 11 years ago and since then they do have it.”
Additionally, until recently, she cooked all her meals wearing a faded gray Cookies’ apron she received more than 35 years ago for participating in one of the company’s first cooking competitions.
When asked if it was safe to say she was a fan of Cookies, her response was, “Oh, yeah!”
That type of devotion to its offerings from customers is one of the things that has allowed Wall Lake, Iowa-based Cookies Food Products to thrive for 40 years.
To Cookies owner Duane “Speed” Herrig, the answer is pretty simple as to why his sauce has only increased in popularity in the four decades since it was introduced it to the masses.
“The main thing is, we don’t change our formulation or our recipe,” Herrig said. “We’re using the same old recipe we were using 40 years ago for the original.”
Expanding from a single sauce, Cookies now offers five different barbecue flavors, a wing sauce, a taco sauce, two salsas and seasonings in 34 states and three countries.
Francis Dutton, secretary of the Iowa Barbecue Society, said Cookies 40th anniversary and its continued success is a big deal for the Hawkeye State’s culinary scene.
“It’s a milestone in a couple of ways,” he said. “No. 1, Speed Herrig was one of the original founding members of the Iowa Barbecue Society. And for anybody to go out and start their business and be 40 years into it and do what he has done across the state and across the nation to help Iowa barbecue is quite an accomplishment.”
Considered one of the largest regional sauce manufacturers in the United States, Cookies was founded by L.D. Cook — hence the name — but the face and force behind the company’s continued success is Herrig.
Initially, Herrig was just one of about 35 investors that funded the food processor that started out in a 5,000-square-foot space on the eastern edge of Wall Lake, a Sac County city of about 800.
In the early days, the sauce was made in a 50-gallon steam jacketed kettle and production topped out at twice that. Today, the company has twin 500-gallon steam jacketed kettles housed in its 125,000-square-foot factory that can pump out 6,000 gallons of sauce daily.
Shortly after it began operations in 1977, Cookies ran into financial trouble under Cook and its creditors asked Herrig to take over the day-to-day operations.
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Herrig said he was asked because of his prior sales experience. A jack-of-all-trades, Herrig was once the youngest Ford dealer in Iowa and still operates Speed’s Auto Supply and Speed’s Golf Cars in addition to Cookies from his acreage just outside of Wall Lake.
“I just started selling it out on my auto parts routes and that stuff is pretty easy to sell; it wasn’t tough you just had to go ask the people,” Herrig said.
After 90 days, Herrig made enough money selling sauce to start paying down the company’s debts. In 1988, he and his wife/business partner, Judy, who still does Cookies' books, bought out the other investors.
At the time of the transaction, Iowa’s economy was still slumping due to the Farm Crisis. To get financing for the buyout, Herrig took out a $750,000 loan at 21.5 percent interest.
“(Interest) makes a good salesperson out of you,” he joked.
As the company was growing, Herrig did everything from cooking the sauce to delivering the final product to stores while also covering routes for his auto supply company.
"For awhile, they didn't have anybody to cook down there so I would go down there to the plant at 3 in the morning and cook until 6 so they would have something to fill and then I would head out and deliver," he said.
"It was kind of a negative sales thing because the more you sold the earlier you have to get up the next day to cook. ...We did that for awhile and they talk about the good ole days — they weren't that much fun."
He expanded the brand by going from store-to-store and persuading directors to sell Cookies and allow him to perform in-store demonstrations giving him direct access to potential consumers.
While his networking ability, charisma and people skills are what helped him get Cookies into more retail spaces, Herrig doubts he would be able to replicate that success if he had to build the brand up today.
“There were a lot more opportunities back then,” he said. “Because you were dealing with an individuals rather than corporate — although through the years I’ve gotten to know the corporate people — but, back then I had direct access to each individual store.”
Although those days are behind him and warehouses for Hy-Vee and Fareway — Iowa’s two largest grocery store chains — carry his product, Herrig still grinds it out like an up-and-comer.
He likes to conduct in-store demos across the state and takes his signature “Rib Wagon” on the road for at least a dozen events and shows a year including multiple county fairs and the Iowa State Fair, which kicks off on Aug. 10.
Not surprisingly to those who know him, the septuagenarian, who was an initial inductee of both the Iowa Barbecue Hall of Fame and the Barbecue Hall of Fame in Kansas City, has no plans of slowing down.
“I’m 79; in 61 years when I’m 140 then I plan on going part-time,” he quipped. “I have a lot of fun doing what I do. It’s a hoot. Why quit?”