It is my pleasure to introduce the blog to Matthew Hessburg, the Chief Sauce Officer of Matthew’s Bonfire BBQ. Yes, you heard that right – CHIEF SAUCE OFFICER. I can only dream of one day having a title as awesome as Matthew’s. More incredible than his title, however, is his story.
Matthew is 23 years old and lives in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where he owns and operates his own business, Matthew’s Bonfire BBQ, launched in October of 2019. Matthew is passionate about using food and fire to bring friends and family together, and his business allows him to do just that – while inventing some unique barbecue sauces along the way.
Though he now resides in Michigan, Matthew graduated from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. While at Western Carolina, Matthew was a part of the University Participant Program – an inclusive, two-year, on-campus living and learning experience for college-aged persons with intellectual disabilities. Matthew grew up with an instinctive love of cooking, so it comes as no surprise that he chose to study Hospitality and Restaurant Management while completing the UP Program.
For Matthew, making barbecue has always been the dream. Matthew’s mom, TJ Hessburg, shared, “I’m a yoga teacher, and I [told Matthew], ‘Oh, when you’re done with school, I’ll open a yoga studio and you can have a little tea shop next to me, and you can serve tea and scones to people.’ And [Matthew] says, ‘Mom. That’s your dream, not mine. I like meat.'”
“[While I was at Western Carolina], I was working in a barbecue restaurant as an internship,” Matthew said of how he was introduced to the barbecue industry. That restaurant was none other than the award-winning Haywood Smokehouse. It was here that Matthew learned the ins and outs of making barbecue and was inspired to launch his first line of barbecue sauces, offering two handcrafted flavors – Carolina Gold and Blueberry Chipotle. Matthew went on to explain that he first concocted his unique sauces in his kitchen at home, with friends and family serving as his taste testers. He has since transitioned into a commercial kitchen in order to meet the demand for his sauces. Since launching his first products back in October, Matthew has sold over 2,000 bottles of his barbecue sauce in 5 countries, 41 states, and in Washington DC.
As for what sparked the name ‘Matthew’s Bonfire BBQ’, Matthew shared, “Bonfires gather people. They are a foundation for coming together…food, fire, friends, better together.” In fact, some of Matthew’s fondest memories are of time spent around a bonfire with his friends and family, and the naming of his business certainly reflects that sentiment.
Not only does Matthew’s business allow him to pursue his passion for cooking and experimenting with new recipes, but it also gives him an opportunity to be a self-advocate and bring awareness to individuals with disabilities. He has given presentations and spoken at numerous conferences, where he shares that having Down syndrome is a challenge, but not a roadblock. Matthew also prides himself in giving back to his community, hence, Matthew’s Bonfire BBQ donates a portion of their proceeds to the University Participant Program at Western Carolina and to Ruby’s Rainbow, an organization that grants scholarships to adults with Down syndrome who are seeking post-secondary education. Matthew himself is a two-time scholarship recipient and wanted to provide others with the same opportunity that he had.
When asked what the most rewarding part of operating his business is, the answer was simple: “I like the fact that [customers] are using my sauce instead of ketchup,” Matthew laughed, “It makes me proud that I have made sauces that are delicious.” Delicious, indeed – Matthew’s signature sauces boast a 5-star rating online, with customers calling it ‘fabulous’, ‘amazing’, and ‘something they use on everything’.
So, what’s next for Matthew’s Bonfire BBQ? Matthew has big plans for the future…he wants to open a barbecue restaurant one day, but for now, he is focused on rolling out his third flavor of barbecue sauce – currently, the new flavor is in the taste testing stage.
As Matthew would say, he is “living the dream with Down syndrome” and doing what he loves, and I have no doubt that his ambitions will render him successful in all of his entrepreneurial pursuits.
To purchase Matthew’s sauces, click here!
All photos courtesy of Matthew and TJ Hessburg.