ALEDO — Ryan’s Rub is dusting the Midwest with its spicy, sweet, salty flavors.
Born out of a desire to eat healthier, Ryan's Rub is the result of 10 years of recipe work by Aledo resident Ryan Latko. One day when he came home, his wife, RaeAnn, ran out to tell him her parents had made chicken that tasted exactly like his, using seasoning he had prepared in advance.
“It was like a blessing and a curse," he said. "Every time we had people over or an event, everybody said I had to make the chicken."
Armed with his wife's encouragement and $500, Latko began working to get Ryan's Rub on store shelves. The blend of salt, garlic, onion, ground mustard, dried chilies, sugar and spices is designed to be a healthier alternative to other rubs on the market.
Ryan's Rub is all-natural spice rub containing no preservatives, calories, gluten or genetically modified organisms. It's low-sodium, keto-friendly — and a hit.
"There is literally nothing like it on the shelf," Latko said. "I still can’t believe I came up with something so wonderful. It’s just taken off."
Blue cap is distinctive
Latko used his degree in marketing and advertising from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale to meticulously plan the packaging for Ryan's Rub, down to detail of using a blue lid instead of the red or black caps typical among seasonings. Latko said the blue cap makes his product easily identifiable, despite going "against the rules" and countering food company's psychology of using red in the belief the color makes people hungry.
Latko also decided to have fun with the packaging, asking a graphic designer friend to create "the ugliest looking chicken ... and he got it the first try."
Ryan’s Rub logo features a naked cartoon chicken above the words, "Don’t eat your chicken bare!"
In June 2017, he began offering Ryan’s Rub on Facebook, and then he convinced a handful of local outlets to stock it. He took it to local farmers markets, where it was popular with people who stopped to taste it.
“When people try it, they buy it," Latko said. "I thought, 'Maybe I’m onto something.'
"I figured everything out on my own," Latko said. "Thank goodness for the internet. I don’t know how people did business before the internet!"
Mercer Market in Aledo was the first grocery store to offer the spice rub. After attending a friend’s funeral, Latko said he decided life was short, and on a whim, decided to see if the Hy-Vee in Milan would carry it.
"No hesitation — they had me come in and demo the product," he said. "I sold 38 bottles and was only there for a couple hours."
A manager at the store, impressed with the seasoning and Latko's sales, sent an email to all of the Hy-Vee stores on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.
“One by one they were contacting me to come in and demo," Latko said. "I would sell 25 to 30 at each location."
Ryan's Rub is now available in more than 100 Hy-Vee stores in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It also made the 2018 Progressive Grocer Editor's Pick list of hottest new products.
It’s on shelves at Cattlemen’s Meat Market in Rock Island and East Moline, Schnucks in Bettendorf, Morrison’s Market in Viola, Casey's in Naperville, and Jones Boys Market in Ashland, as well as a few Quad-Cities area restaurants and other Midwest locations. Latko also sells it through Amazon.
"Kroger would be my crown jewel," said Latko, who has been in contact with the grocery chain. "They're so big. It would be great to get in there.
"All this has happened in a short period of time," he said. "It's just insane."
Social media was the key
He credits social media as the catalyst to his success. Along with Facebook, he markets Ryan's Rub on Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.
Celebrity connections also have helped: Internet comedian Amiri King's review of Ryan's Rub on Instagram received more than 12,000 views. "This is crack," posted King, who has 106,000 Instagram followers, 303,00 YouTube subscribers and more than 2 million Facebook followers. "Put down the heroine and get this s---."
A Facebook post on Ryan’s Rub page features former Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers football player Charles “Peanut” Tillman performing his "Peanut Punch" to a bottle of Ryan’s Rub seasoning.
The rub also got a shout-out from Jarrett Payton, the son of the late Chicago Bears great Walter Payton, who puts it on pizza.
Latko said he's also been approached by a NASCAR team about becoming a sponsor. In auto racing, bumping another vehicle is called "rubbing."
"Eventually, I will sponsor a NASCAR," he said. "My slogan is, ‘Ryan's Rub Racing, because rubbing is racing.'
“People that love NASCAR, they’re my demographic, and I love Nascar," Latko said. "So it would be kind of fun for me."
When he's not promoting his rub, the father of three girls works as a real estate broker and insurance agent at the Ford and Maynard Agency in Aledo. He also is a business consultant.
Latko said he believes he's just getting started. One day he hopes to open a chain restaurant based on the seasoning.
He encourages others to pursue their goals.
"Love the process. Build the business. That’s what I’ve been telling myself," he said. "I’m just an average guy.
"People usually quit because it’s hard," he said. "I would recommend to anyone that wants to start a business (that) you just need to take action. You will never ever know if you could've made it if you don’t try."
For more on Ryan's Rub, visit ryansrub.com or follow Ryan's Rub on Facebook and Instagram.