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JohnTom's Barbecue Sauce, Inspired By a Grandfather's Recipe

There’s something special about JohnTom’s Barbecue sauce.

Founded by Lathay Pegues of Muncie, Indiana, alongside his cousin Terrell Cooper and friend Rodney Robinson, JohnTom's Barbecue sauce has had people for 17 years saying it's the best.

“We get told a lot that people have tasted many barbeque sauces, (and) a lot of them have tasted alike,” Pegues said. “But even chefs tried to guess what ingredients are in our sauce that makes it unique or a little bit different.”

But why did Pegues even want to have a unique barbeque sauce?

The inspiration behind the barbecue sauce was from his grandfather from Madison County, Mississippi, John Tom Branson. Branson was a retired factory worker who moved up North (Indiana) to seek a better life. Branson had the idea of opening his own barbeque business.

Developing his own smoker, the Mississippi native created his own barbecue recipe that his family loved. But Branson never wrote it down before he passed away.

Pegues, who has a broadcast journalism background and attended the University of Indiana, decided to start his own business after being let go from his on-air personality job in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Inspired by his grandfather, Pegues formulated his own barbecue recipe, which is a taste that people want even more.

It was an easy transition for Pegues to go from his career job to this business because people loved the sauce when he was flirting with the idea.

“It wasn’t like this impulse decision,” Pegues said. “But when I learned that I was losing my job in Milwaukee, there were a couple of things that already happened: one, I was already burned out on television news. I had a family. My wife had two kids at the time. It’s a lot of moving around from state to state. Long hours. … That made it easier. What could I do with this sauce?”

Cooper was added to the business being Pegues’ cousin and the grandson of Branson. And Robison met Pegues at college thanks to the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated of which they are all members.

With all three having different college majors, the frat brothers did their due diligence, researching how to create this barbecue sauce. The Midwesterners found a kitchen incubator just south of Indianapolis where they could create the sauce.

But it wasn’t all peaches and cream, as like many other startups, incalculable elements were aplenty. Failing many times at first to try and get the barbecue sauce off the ground, the big break finally came to fruition when the three showcased their product at Black Indiana Expo in July of 2006. Thanks to being well organized and learning exactly how to make the correct barbecue sauce, 48 cases were sold that day.

“At that point, we said, ‘We got a product,’” Robinson said.

Cooper said from there, it was all about securing accounts to really move the product. He said Ball State was the first cosign that really propelled the business to where it is today.

“…It really kind of set us on the path to say like food services is a path and a lane that we need to exploit,” Cooper said. “A lot of it has been a channel strategy. What is going to make the most sense … to position ourselves in the respective channels?”

Today, they are doing their due diligence to own the online space.

Still, adjusting to the business world has always been challenging as Black men.

The founders agree that just getting in the door was a challenge. Toiling at the bottom, there was a time when their barbecue sauce was sold out of the back of the trunk in adjacent cities around Indianapolis. It was important during this time to preserve the reputation to continue a cascade of fortune.

To get the business to where it is today, connections were also made with businessmen who had access to capital. It was all about finding the right circles and cultivating the right relationships to scale the business even larger.

“We continued to keep pushing forward and I think that’s allowed us to continue to be a mainstay in the space,” Robinson said. “…We are a walking testament to keep pushing through no matter what your hurdles are.”

Today, JohnTom’s Barbecue continues, reaching barbecue lovers in 36 states. And according to their website, the barbecue sauce is voted Indiana’s favorite.

Check out the full interview.

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