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Secret sauce recipe holds McClards together.

MCCLARD'S BAR-B-Q restaurant at Hot Springs hasn't changed much after more than 75 years of succulent ribs and beef.

Not the barbecue sauce recipe.

Not the legend of the how the restaurant came to be.

Not the family that's owned it from the beginning.

And the location has barely changed --just about four blocks from where Alex McClard first served his now worl&famous barbecue from a gas station window in 1928.

"It's stayed in the family. We don't want to let it go," said Scott McClard, 39, the fourth generation to step into the family partnership that owns the restaurant. "It's a family tradition. I don't think it's ever crossed anyone's mind to sell."

That tradition is what drives Scott McClard; his grandfather, J.D. McClard, 80; father, Joe McClard, 61; and uncles John Thompson, 56, and Phillip McClard, 54, to operate the lone store.

J.D. arrives at the restaurant at 505 Albert Pike Road every work day at 2 a.m. to make fresh sauce and beans. He works until late morning when the rest of the family shows up to take over.

"(J.D.) jokes that he's been making sauce since grade school," said Scott McClard.

Lots of "eye-opening offers" for franchising have come and gone, and the family once went about five meetings deep into a lucrative offer from a Little Rock company. The deal died on the table when the prospective partners wanted the most protected of family secrets: the recipe for barbecue sauce.

"I hate to sound corny, but it was an issue of family pride and tradition," Scott McClard said.

It could be considered an inadvertent good branding strategy--maintain the mystique and limited access, and the hunger for the product remains strong.

That, and the restaurant does good business as it is. Its gross receipts were $1.37 million in 2003, down slightly from $1.39 million in both 2001 and 2002, according to the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. Customers are at times turned away because it's so busy.

"McClard's is not just a Hot Springs institution, but an Arkansas institution," said Steve Arrison, director of the A&P commission. "McClaM's is nationally and internationally known."

McClard's is the mandatory stop for former President Bill Clinton and for other celebrities, including North Little Rock natives Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and actress Joey Lauren Adams; as well as actor E Murray Abraham, country-western singer Randy Travis and "Sopranos" actor Michael Rispoli.

About a month ago, Aerosmith musician Joe Perry--a barbecue sauce aficionado with his own product line--hopped a concert bus and headed for McClard's. At their Alltel Arena show, band members told the audience that McClard's had fueled their performance.

McClard's has also been featured in Gourmet, Southern Living and Runner's World. This summer it will be featured on the Food Network's barbecue-themed program and the Travel Channel's "BBQ Bastions" program.

And while the McClard family is happy with their one restaurant, that doesn't mean you have to go to Hot Springs to get their tasty sauce. The family has a Web site (www.mcclards.com) where orders can be placed for 18-ounce bottles. (The family connection continues: The site was developed by Scott McClard's father-in-law.)

Family legend says Alex McClard got the secret recipe--currently preserved in the minds of just five family members and on a document locked in a bank vault -from a nameless vagabond who couldn't pay the $10 rent for a two-month stay at a tourist court the McClards owned.

The man instead paid with what he called the "world's greatest barbecue sauce." It's undergone little change since 1928.

"(The recipe) was tweaked a little bit," said Scott McClard. "But it was mostly that my great-grandfather and grandmother cooked it a little longer."

Alex McClard opened a gas station and sold the food from a side window before the "barbecue took over everything else," Scott McClard said. The restaurant moved to its current location in the 1940s.

Now, each week McClard's produces 250 gallons of spicy barbecue beans, 250 gallons of cole slaw, 3,000 hand-rolled tamales, 3,000 pounds of french flies--and 7,000 pounds of barbecue beef, pork and ribs.

How many more generations of McClards stay in the business remains to be seen. Scott McClard plans college for his daughters, and his sister's sons haven't expressed interest. A 22-yearold cousin may take up the cause--Scott McClard didn't get into the business until he was 21.

"The secret to this place has always been getting everyone involved--and the sauce," Scott McClard said.
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Author:Holcombe, Carl D.
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:May 17, 2004
Words:760
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