July 26, 2021

Ron’s Ribs and Kai’s Drip Sauce enter the Philadelphia BBQ sauce scene

While the Philadelphia-area barbecue scene is thriving — with such newcomers as Zig Zag, Lucky…

While the Philadelphia-area barbecue scene is thriving — with such newcomers as Zig Zag, Lucky Well in Spring Arts, and the NXTX Tex-Mex pop-ups joining the crop, and a shop called Huff & Puff BBQ due to open soon in Center City — I’ve found two barbecue sauce makers in the news just this week.

One is the revival of a storied name in BBQ, while the other is the creation of a 10-year-old girl from West Oak Lane who wants to clean up the world.

(And if you hanker for hot sauce, here’s a rundown of some fine options in the Philadelphia area.)

Ron Washington used to joke to customers at his South Street barbecue shop: “Everyone’s a barbecue expert when they put Ron’s Ribs sauce on.”

It was serious stuff — vinegary, zesty but not overpowering. And now, 19 years after Washington’s death and 11 years after the shop’s closing, his son Brandon, 33, is bottling the sauces (hot and mild) to establish a funding source for a new community center and co-op workspace he’s renovating not far from his daddy’s place.

It’s the former South of South Neighborhood Association (SOSNA) space at 1901B Washington Ave. in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood.

Ron Washington opened Ron’s at 1627 South St. in 1984, succeeding Bea Bea’s Lawnside, itself a long-running soul food restaurant in what was for decades a vibrant Black business district anchored by such landmarks as the Philadelphia Tribune newspaper, the Royal Theater (now being converted to apartments), and the now-closed Dell’s restaurant, Miss Jessie’s Dress Shop, and Process Junior’s Barbershop.

Ron Washington, who lived next door to Bea Bea’s, adopted the recipes perfected by his mother, Myrtle.

He also knew the value of marketing his business. For one TV ad around 1990, he put Brandon in a shirt and overalls and let the toddler gnaw happily on a rib, smearing sauce all over his face.

Ron’s closed in 2002 after Washington’s death at age 60.

The next year, his brother Kevin, a Navy veteran, reopened it, and was making a go of it. But the closing of the South Street Bridge in 2008 for reconstruction led to a steady decline in business, and Ron’s closed in 2010. It’s now Tico’s Tacos, which in tribute uses the Ron’s sauce in a Ron’s Empanada.

Brandon Washington, who shares his father’s community activism, will partner on Sunday, May 16 with caterer/chef Keith Taylor for a community barbecue, starting at noon. It happens to be both National BBQ Day and what would have been Ron’s birthday.

Taylor will bring 400 ribs and Washington will provide the sauce for the cookout at the 1901 Community Center. Donations will be accepted for payment.

Washington, meanwhile, is selling the bottled sauce out of restaurants such as Tico’s, Pete’s Famous Pizza, and Meskerem.

New on the sauce scene is Akai Clarke-Perry, 10, of West Oak Lane, a fourth grader at Mathematics Civics & Sciences Charter School, who just started marketing her homemade sweet-and-spicy Kai’s Drip Sauce. She sold 150 bottles at $5 a pop on the afternoon of May 6 at the ShopRite supermarket on Fox Street in the Nicetown section. The Brown family’s ShopRite stores have become an incubator for food entrepreneurs, particularly people of color.

Akai said her sauce business grew out of her passion for the environment. “It’s all about saving the earth,” she said. She plans to send proceeds to her nonprofit, a 501(c)3 called Gogreenkai, whose projects include cleaning polluted areas and beautifying areas where kids play. She also says she likes to play the violin, dance, swim, do MMA, play video games like Fortnite, and make TikTok videos.

While learning virtually this school year, Akai regaled her teacher by cooking on camera with an air fryer that her mother, Altia Clarke, had given her. Akai needed sauce for wings and began experimenting with spices and condiments in the cabinet.

A signature sauce was born. Her friends tried it. “They said, ‘It was bustin,’ ” Clarke said, snickering at the TikTok term. Akai rounded up BPA-free, reusable bottles and started packing it as word of mouth spread and a video — showing Akai enjoying her hobbies — was produced.

Around the time that Akai was getting involved with the Save the Turtles movement, her mother — a paralegal — was taking an environmental-science class at Temple University as she was majoring in political science with the goal of a law degree. Akai “kept on amazing me with what she knew about the environment,” her mother said. “She knew more than I what I was learning. I was shocked.” Akai’s passion inspired Clarke to change her major to environmental science.

The video got hundreds of shares, and “on a whim,” Clarke said she reached out to Jeff Brown, who owns the ShopRite where she worked years before. He wrote back almost immediately and invited mother and daughter to try out the sauce at the store.

Now, while they talk about their next retail move, including more pop-ups at ShopRite, Clarke and her daughter are fielding offers from churches and other potential wholesalers.