If you live in Sumter County, chances are you’ve tasted Granny Nichols Bar-B-Q Sauce. Marylu Masters keeps her Granny’s legacy alive, one precious bottle at a time.
PHOTOS: Matthew Gaulin
She was 60 and widowed, and Lula Mae Nichols — “Granny” — devised a plan: She’d sell her homemade barbecue sauce to supplement her income.
For years, the Oxford community of Long Hammock enjoyed the sauce she and her late husband, Henry Nichols — “Papa” — made for local gatherings, church socials and club meetings. Not a person who tasted it could resist it.
With one 10-gallon stainless steel pot, an old gas stove and Mason jars, Granny was ready for business. All she needed was a name for her condiment.
“One day, Granny was sitting on her front porch pondering out loud what she would call her product,” says Marylu Masters, one of Granny Nichols’ granddaughters. “She said, ‘If I did this, what should I call it?’ Without hesitation, my sister Bobbie replied, ‘Just call it Granny Nichols Bar-B-Q Sauce; that’s what it is.’”
And so it was. And that’s what it has remained for more than 40 years.
Though Granny was laid to rest in 1998, her legendary sauce lives on, thanks to Marylu. She started helping to make the sauce when she was 15. Then, as Granny grew older and weaker, she eventually passed on the business to Marylu.
Now, she cooks the secret recipe in a commercial-grade kitchen attached to her Oxford home, which is three miles west of Granny Nichols’ old home on Nichols Cemetery Road.
Inside, the kitchen sparkles. It has to, because the state is fiercely strict with inspections. And while government red tape has become stickier over the years, Marylu has made every effort to implement the changes without impinging on Granny Nichols’ original recipe.
“I’ve had to add UPC coding, my address and a list of ingredients to my bottles all in the name of compliance with state regulations,” says Marylu, “but what I can say is I still make the sauce exactly the same way Granny made it. I even use the 10-gallon stainless steel pot she used.
“Then, later, I bought another 10-gallon pot and I remember Granny asking me, ‘Why are you buying another pot?’ and I told her, ‘Because we’re going to grow, and I can make 20 gallons of sauce in the same amount time I can make 10.’”
Marylu also has stuck to Granny Nichols’ foolproof marketing strategy: word of mouth.
“We’ve never advertised the sauce,” she says. “People just know Granny Nichols.
“I thought about having my sauce in Cracker Barrel at one time, but it would have cost me thousands. And to rent a 12-by-12 space in the big-chain grocery stores would cost about $10,000 a month. Then you have to guarantee to sell a certain amount each month to keep your space. It’s just too much of a headache.”
Instead, Marylu keeps Granny Nichols stocked mostly at produce stands, meat shops and independent grocers throughout Sumter County. Best Meats in Wildwood, Brown’s Country Market in Oxford and Jackie’s Market in Webster are just a few of the places you can find it.
She also ships sauce to Okeechobee, where some of Marylu’s relatives live, and to mail-order customers from all over the state and country. Included on the list is a man in Cocoa Beach who orders a year’s supply of sauce every Christmas.
And then there is the handful of customers who still pull into Marylu’s driveway looking to buy a bottle, just as they did at Granny Nichols’ place.
“I have a lot of the same customers that Granny used to have when she was making the sauce,” Marylu says. “I also have the younger generation who show up because their mom or dad sends them or because it’s a family tradition.
“We say everything is better when it’s made in the country, and that includes the sauce. Making it is nostalgic for a lot of people in this area and truly a lost art.”
That art to making Granny Nichols’ famous sauce is a well-guarded secret. Only a few select family members are familiar with the recipe and the only other relative who actively makes the sauce is Marylu’s daughter Lindsey, who helps when the sauce is in high demand during peak barbecuing season.
“Sometimes I make it three times a week, and even that’s not enough,” says Marylu. “From start to finish, it takes about four hours to make 20 gallons of barbecue sauce and I’ll do about five batches in a day.”
The most recognizable of the sauces is Granny Nichols’ original mild sauce. Marylu also sells a hot version, available only upon request, and a spicy mustard-based sauce she began making for a client who was originally from South Carolina.
That pioneer spirit seems to be ingrained into Marylu’s character. It’s been passed down the family tree, starting with Granny Nichols’ father’s family, who homesteaded in the Pahokee area and used cabbage palm fronds and timber to make their homes.
“They were real pioneers,” says Marylu. “As a result, my grandparents were very industrious people.”
Granny Nichols was also a great storyteller and a practical joker.
“I had a great childhood because of Granny,” Marylu says. “She was quite a legend. She was born in 1907 and survived the deadly hurricane of 1928 in Okeechobee. But she also loved to pull jokes on us grandchildren and tell stories. I would just listen to her and learn so much. I wish I would have taped her or written her stories down.”
There’s a hint of regret in Marylu’s voice, but the memories aren’t completely lost. Marylu relives them each time she stirs in her Granny’s 10-gallon pot, or when a longtime customer stops by with a story about Granny Nichols.
As for the future of Granny Nichols Bar-B-Q Sauce, Marylu hopes the sauce will be her retirement plan. She wants to grow the business yet keep it simple. It’s what Granny would have wanted.
“I think of her every day,” Marylu says. “I carry on her tradition every time I fill a bottle. If I’ve learned anything during the time I’ve run the business, I’ve learned I have something to be proud of. I’ve made a lot of friendships behind it, and I just want to keep it going for as long as possible.”