A Recipe For Building Success
Special thank you to Tom Lindfors for writing this wonderful article on the history and success of Croix Valley Foods (he also took the photo above).
“This is our life and we love every moment of it. It’s taken us to corners of the globe we couldn’t have imagined and allowed us to meet people and share experiences we never could have enjoyed without this business. It’s just amazing.” - Damon Holter, President of Croix Valley Foods
Once upon a time, there was this girl …
This is a true story, just ask Holter. He has told it more times than he can count.
Damon Holter was just coming out of a divorce, three kids, six months worth of savings, house foreclosed, boat repossessed, sleeping on a couch in his brother’s basement. He had been living in Glenwood City and commuting daily to his job as the general manager of an Old Chicago restaurant in Roseville.
“The divorce put me through bankruptcy. I was responsible for my children 50 percent of the time, I couldn’t do that working nights and weekends at a restaurant. I had to quit my job. All of the sudden I had nothing, I was treading water,” Holter recalled.
Then one day, Holter has a dream.
“Seriously, this is the craziest thing,” Holter said.
In his dream, Holter found himself in an old mountain cabin. He could see the silhouette of a woman outlined by light coming from a window behind her. He could see she was tying flies for trout fishing at a desk covered with feathers and surrounded by fly rods.
“I woke up and I couldn’t shake this dream, it was so vivid. It stuck with me. I’m going through my day and I’m thinking, ‘I like to trout fish. Was I literally dreaming about my dream girl, a gal in a dusty old mountain cabin tying flies and building rods? … then it dawned on me. I knew who I was dreaming about. It was Lu,” Holter said.
Lu Kubarek grew up in Hudson. She met Damon when she was 13. They became the best of friends, bonded over tying flies and building rods, spent all their time together camping and fishing and became high school sweethearts. After high school they went their separate ways … until the dream.
It had been 15 years since Lu had last seen Damon. She was also coming out of a divorce with her three children, working as a paralegal in River Falls when Damon reached out on Myspace. One thing led to another and the flame was rekindled. The new family brought together three boys and three girls and a chance to write a new chapter.
The Secret Sauce
It was an ordinary evening when over dinner, Lu decided she wanted a steak. That steak dinner would change Lu and Damon’s lives forever.
“You can’t eat a steak without trying this steak sauce I used to make for my parents’ restaurant. Everyone used to love it,” Damon said.
Damon’s interest in food was rooted in his Italian heritage. He had started making meals for his family as a youngster tinkering with recipes from his mother’s cookbooks. She encouraged him and the food was good, so when his parents took a hard left leaving their jobs in the Cities to buy a defunct bar in Hertel, WI, he came along. In short order, with Damon’s help, and no restaurant experience, they remodeled the bar and reopened it as a steakhouse.
“I created a house steak sauce from scratch and we served it in a little ramekin with every meal. There were a few iterations before I got it right, maybe 6 or 7 recipes until I landed on “the one,” Holter said.
The secret sauce proved to be very popular to the point where it was served with practically every entree on the menu and patrons started asking if they could buy some to take home. It was more than a hit.
Meanwhile, back at the steak dinner, it had been a few years since Damon had cooked up a batch of his famous sauce so he had to call his father at the restaurant for the recipe. “My dad was making it every single day. I called him and asked for the ingredients. We had the steaks. I whipped up a little batch of the steak sauce and we sat down to eat,” Damon said.
In that moment, Holter was unemployed and for all practical purposes still trying to figure out what to do with his life. He had the dream girl, all he needed was the rest of the dream.
The minute Damon tasted that steak sauce again, it was a lightbulb moment. He looked at Lu and said, ‘I know what I want to do with the rest of my life. I want to make steak sauce for a living.”
“You want to do what now?” Lu said. “I thought he was insane.”
That was 2008.
On April 4, 2023, Eric Ness, Wisconsin District Director of the U.S. Small Business Administration announced Croix Valley Foods as the winner of the 2023 SBA Wisconsin Small Business Exporter of the Year Award. The award comes on the heels of Wisconsin Governor Tony Ever’s Export Achievement Award in October 2022 and the St. Croix Economic Development Corporation’s 2022 Small Business of the Year Award in February.
Croix Valley Foods just moved into their new 20,000 sq. ft. manufacturing and video production facility in Hudson in April. The move is their third since they started cooking up their award-winning sauces, marinades and rubs in a 10’ x 10’ empty walk-in meat cooler in the back of Specialty Meats & Gourmet meat market in 2009.
“Our first customer was RJ’s Meats. He bought the first case of product from us,” Lu said. “He’s still a customer today.”
“We got heavily into the craft show circuit, outdoors shows, things like that all over the midwest. We also brought on about 20 individuals who we employed as independent contractors to do that as well,” Holter said.
“At Sam’s club on a Saturday, maybe a couple hundred people bought our product. At a craft show, we might have 30,000 people walk by,” Hoplter said. “All of a sudden, I have thousands of people who are trying my product, buying it, going to my website, buying it again, reaching out to their local grocery store and asking them to carry it. Word of mouth, it started growing bigger and bigger.”
A successful business in the food industry starts and ends with a product that people like, that they will buy over and over again and share with other people. Croix Valley Foods has that.
Damon and Lu control every aspect of their business. Damon creates every recipe from scratch with quality ingredients. They produce, package and ship everything in-house. Starting with Damon’s original steak sauce they have grown that award-winning recipe into 45 individual skus.
“The original steak sauce I founded the company on, it’s still one of our best sellers. Nobody else out there in the spaces we operate in, makes their own product. We do. That’s a big difference. We control the production of a product so we also control the quality of that product,” Holter said.
Food Sport and the Power of Celebrity
Check out Damon and Lu’s resumes and you find them filled with television appearances from Fired Up Foods to Guy’s Grocery Games to American Grilled and BBQ Brawl with Bobby Flay.
As their confidence grew and the business responded, the Holters consciously pivoted with their marketing strategy to take advantage of their growing celebrity within the food industry.
“We wanted to establish the legitimacy of our products in different environments. That’s what got us started in food sports. We became professional barbeque competitors,” Holter said. “The
competition barbeque scene was blowing up. So we started using our product in competition BBQ to win competitions and lend legitimacy to what we were doing. Now we could say it’s an award winning product actually out there winning awards.”
New customers were being introduced to the Croix Valley brand through Lu and Damon’s on-air exploits supported by a growing presence on social media. Their brand awareness was snowballing.
“That entire food sport opportunity parlayed into the rest of our lives. Competition barbeque led into my hosting a television show, social media attention, the World Food Championships, Culinary Fight Club … we were starting to take over a certain segment of the industry,” Holter said.
Brick and mortar is still responsible for the majority of Croix Valley’s sales accounting for about 80 percent, but online sales hold huge potential as the Holter’s continue to increase their social media presence. To that end they have just completed a makeover of their website to provide a better customer experience and more robust backend including data collection, fulfillment and tracking.
“If I took the $50,000 I spent on trade shows and invested it instead in digital marketing, blowing up social media,” Holter said. “I know that those sales are going to pour in because I have a captive audience and I can track those sales.”
The Exporting Factor
Holter estimated their annual sales a few years back hovered around $300,000 annually and they were still growing. When they started exporting their product around the world in 2018, they saw their sales start growing by 50 percent a year.
“When we started exporting in 2018, it accounted for about 5% of our business. Last year in 2022 it was about 23 percent or roughly a quarter of our sales,” Lu said.
Croix Valley products can be found in BBQ Supply shops, hardware & home improvement stores, meat markets, specialty food shops and grocery stores from the U.S., Canada and Europe, to Australia, New Zealand and Japan and they are working to expand to South and Central America, Asia, the Middle East. “Exporting’s been big for us because now we’ve become a global brand. In some cultures, we might be the only American BBQ sauce they’ve ever seen,” Holter said.
Croix Valley Foods has ensconced itself firmly in the food world and particularly in the food sport segment. When people buy the products they are buying the story of Damon and Lu, they are one in the same.
“We identify ourselves now as an authentic American bbq brand. By authentic we mean, here we are as Damon and Lu the faces and names of this company,” Holter said. “ If customers are buying our product, they know our story, they know who we are…we are our product. We eat, live and breathe barbeque and cooking. That’s what we do.”
Want to meet Damon and Lu in person? Check out their Croix Valley Cookoff coming June 10 to their new Hudson location at 2320 Jack Breault Drive.
More about writer/photographer Tom Lindfors:
"I have worked as a commercial photographer since 1989 and professional journalist since 2012. I ran my own photo studio providing studio and assignment photography for clients including ad agencies, design firms, corporations, editorial clients, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions.
As a journalist, I wrote feature stories on a variety of topics including social justice and the environment and I created the award winning column "Traveling at the Speed of Life."