This Peoria-area business grew from a high school concession stand to sales in 26 states

Nick Vlahos
Journal Star
Paul and Sarah Buob of Chillicothe pose in the rolling kitchen they haul to barbecue competitions across the country. The Buobs have created their own award-winning barbecue sauce and rub under the SmokinGhost BBQ brand.

CHILLICOTHE — If not for ill-fitting soccer shorts, Paul Buob might never have become a barbecue entrepreneur.

What started as a volunteer concession-stand fundraiser for athletics at Illinois Valley Central High School in Chillicothe evolved into SmokinGhost BBQ. Buob uses that moniker, based on the IVC Grey Ghosts mascot, when he competes in barbecue contests across the Midwest and South.

But it also is the brand name of barbecue rubs and sauces Buob developed. They're sold at supermarkets and butcher shops locally, as well as in at least 25 other states.

After spending 33 years working in information technology at Caterpillar Inc., this was not a sideline Buob planned. But the Chillicothe resident, whose job involves statistics and precision, appears to feed off smoked-meat unpredictability.

"Sometimes when you do something and you think you're doing it for others, you're actually getting something," Buob said.

The original goal of Buob's foray into fumes in the 2000s was to generate more money for IVC sports, prompted by the aforementioned soccer shorts his children were expected to wear.

Paul and Sarah Buob's line of barbecue sauce and all-purpose rub is available at grocery stores throughout central Illinois.

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Buob suggested the IVC boosters club switch from selling game-day rib-eye steaks to pork chops. That less-expensive meat allowed the boosters to keep more cash.

Less expensive didn't have to mean lower quality, in Buob's view. With marinades and tenderizing, less expensive also didn't have to mean less tasty.

Awards from various barbecue competitions fill a set of shelves in Paul Buob's office at his home in Chillicothe.

"People started eating the pork chops like they were going out of style," Buob said.

Eventually, satisfied customers suggested Buob and his wife, Sarah, enter barbecue contests. Their first one, about four years ago in Lincoln, resulted in a 40th-place finish among 50-some teams. Most of them had more sophisticated and pricey equipment.

"We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies," Paul Buob said. "But we didn't finish last. I was hooked. We weren't better than (40th), but I was committed to being better than that."

Armed with a 28-foot trailer, Buob's crew has amassed top-10 finishes in barbecue contests from Kansas to North Carolina. It competes in as many as 30 events annually.

Proper barbecue involves more than cooking, however. Meat preparation also is important, according to Buob.

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He had been experimenting with a brisket rub but hadn't been able to get the proper mix of sweet and heat. A visit to a Wisconsin spice shop led Buob to white pepper, which turned out to be the missing ingredient.

With advice from the founder of Chicago-based Sweet Baby Ray's sauce — Buob had met him at a barbecue seminar — Buob brought his rub about three years ago to Pekin-based Excalibur Seasoning Co. It fine-tuned his recipe.

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"I thought what was going to happen is, I have a pretty good product and they're going to reproduce it in quantity," Buob said. "It became even better than what I had given them. That blew my mind."

A custom-made logo inspired by the IVC Grey Ghost adorns the smoker on the front of Paul and Sarah Buob's mobile kitchen.

Excalibur makes SmokinGhost BBQ Steak & Brisket Rub, and Buob distributes most of it. With a label courtesy of Chillicothe-based Owens Design Group, the rub has received awards of excellence from the National Barbecue Association.

Gross sales have increased from about $3,000 at the beginning to almost $70,000 last year. John Brewer, the Excalibur vice president of sales, credits Buob.

"Paul has done better than the average barbecue guy who thinks that he's got the next (big thing)," Brewer said. "Paul gets out and pushes his product, and his enthusiasm just bleeds out of it. I think that plays in his favor."

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SmokinGhost also markets a barbecue sauce, manufactured by Country Bob's Inc. in Centralia.

The sauces and rubs might provide Buob some financial comfort once he quits his day job, he suggested. But a chunk of the profits goes toward funding SmokinGhost contest pursuits.

"The barbecue bug bit me," Buob said. "The contests are my way of marketing and being relevant and staying current, but I love to compete.

"If I hadn't complained about soccer shorts, I might have a lot more money in retirement right now. But I don't look at volunteering as a one-way street."

Nick in the Morning