Orthopedists Heilbronner and Wilhelmsen know from ribs—floating and sternum, baby back and country-style. They’re the bone doctors behind Bone Doctors’ Barbecue Sauce.
Its tongue-in-cheek tagline: “The Cure for the Common Barbecue,” and prize-winning flavor has made the sauce specialty food favorite.
When asked why two successful “bone” doctors would start a food company when they’re heading towards retirement, Heilbronner responds with a smile: “Obamacare. We’re going to need to find a way to supplement our income.”
Doctors are jumping onto the specialty-food bandwagon.
Heilbronner, a Virginia-based pediatric orthopedist and Wilhelmsen, a North Carolina-based orthopedic trauma surgeon met 30 years ago. Conferring on cases fostered a professional relationship, and a love of barbecue sauce cemented a personal one.
A visit to a store selling hand-filled, $5 baggies of east North Carolina barbecue sauce mix made by barbecue legend Charlie Mills, provided the impetus for their business partnership.
“My wheels just started turning,” Wilhelmsen says.
In 2009, Wilhelmsen and Heilbronner rolled out their first commercial batch. Two years later, they won the 2011 Silver Finalist spot in the Outstanding Food category for the sofi Awards, the highest honor in specialty foods from the Specialty Food Association. Today, they’re in 42 states and Canada and are slowly gaining market-share in Europe.
“There’s a growing interest in American specialty foods abroad,” says Heilbronner, coupled with, “a tremendous European interest in American-style barbecue.”
As doctors, they wanted a healthy product consumers would recognize. Their sauces are non-GMO, gluten-, preservative-, HFCS-free, and bottled in glass. Non-GMO, it turned out, “opened the door to Canada and Europe,” says Heilbronner.
Labels further leveraged the doctor angle. One shows America’s first surgeon general, the spice rub features a Native American medicine man, and they’re calling their soon-to-be-introduced cranberry-apple sauce, Adam’s Apple.
Other doctors are jumping onto the specialty-food bandwagon. Radiologist Dr. Laurie Gutstein is single-handedly reviving the little-known Floridian heirloom citrus, calamondin. They’re small, round, orange, and extremely tart with tropical overtones. Calamondin jam is like orange marmalade without the bitterness. Gutstein’s Calamondin Cafe sells the jams and cakes of her childhood as well as calamondin salt and coulis.
Gutstein says changes in her profession –such as “a morass of paperwork,” spiraling costs, and declining income – pushed her to create the Calamondin Cafe.
“I have to provide for my own retirement,” she says.
The love of food pushed Dr. Nzinga Teule-Hekima to start a catering business while growing a successful family care and public-health practice.
She and her food partners –Tanecia Willis and Lakesha Brown-Renfro– ran the catering company for 10 years before diving into the specialty foods market with Mango Mango Preserves.
They successfully debuted the preserves on the reality-TV show, Shark Tank and followed up a year later with their first QVCappearance earlier this month.
While moonlighting isn’t new—even for medical professionals, Heilbronner suspects that doctors like specialty foods because, like medicine, the business is different all the time. Deciphering regulations, negotiating costs, naming products, selecting bottles, choosing graphics, testing adhesives (their first labels slid off the bottles once they cooled, he says) is “like solving a puzzle every day.”
But Wilhelmsen likes to keep his two worlds separate. When asked about his day job at say, a barbecue conference, he smiles. “I just say, ‘You’re at the wrong conference.’ And I remember to be gracious.”