There are certain kinds of people who will travel miles upon miles to get their hands on the things they love the most. Antiques shoppers. Comic book nerds. Stamp collectors.
On the culinary side of things, though, perhaps no food is as sought after as barbecue. Especially in Maine, where the food landscape has traditionally been about as far from Kansas City or Memphis as you can get. Those outposts of sticky, smoky, meaty goodness that do crop up, however, become destinations for barbecue fanatics, as up-and-coming barbecue master Charlie “Wo” Wentworth has discovered over the past few years.
Wentworth, creator of Wo’s Wicked Fine Barbecue Sauce and owner of two eastern Maine barbecue joints, remembered the day some customers from Texas stopped by his Verona Island roadside restaurant for a rack of ribs.
“It’s not, like, scientific proof or anything, but we had a guy from Texas come in multiple times and tell us our ribs were some of the best he’d had,” he said. “We had another couple ride their motorcycles all the way from Mariaville just to eat here. One guy drove up from Yarmouth to try it. People that really love barbecue really, really, really love barbecue.”
Wentworth opened his Verona Island restaurant in the spring of 2007, and last January he opened another barbecue joint on Center Street in Bangor. At both places, Wentworth, his wife Bridget, his children Mary “CeCe,” Maggie, Marty, Joseph and Laura, and a handful of other employees serve up racks of ribs, pulled pork, pulled chicken and spicy sausage sandwiches, all liberally slathered with one of Wentworth’s signature sauces. There’s the fresh garlic, a tangy blend loaded with minced fresh garlic, and there’s the chipotle pepper, a medium-hot sauce made with imported Mexican chipotles. Either way, it’s heaven for those devotees of barbecue.
Wentworth got into the barbecue business 14 years ago, when he started messing around making sauces. A former millworker from Bucksport, Wo, as he’s known to most, began combining a ketchup base with all sorts of ingredients, until he came up with his first sauce, the fresh garlic.
“I spent a pretty long time perfecting it. I didn’t really like any of the sauces that you could buy at the supermarket,” Wo said. “I was just cleaning out old Snapple bottles and giving it to my friends. People kept telling me, ‘You gotta sell this stuff.’ So I looked into it. And here we are.”
He rolled out his commercially available bottles of Wo’s Wicked Fine Barbecue Sauce in 1999, selling them at a few area stores, later expanding into the rest of the state and a select few places in New Hampshire and Vermont. At home, he would cook up ribs, chicken and other grilled treats with his own sauce, smoking and flavoring it to his own tastes, until the meat falls off the bone and your fingers get sticky just looking at it. He also made a cocktail sauce, just for fun.
Just as he couldn’t find a barbecue sauce on the market he loved, he couldn’t find a barbecue joint anywhere around that met his standards.
“Those chain places just weren’t cutting it,” he said. “Then the takeout place on Route 1 in Verona, that used to be the Icebox, became available. I told my wife, ‘I think we can do it. I think we can make the jump.’”
In the spring of 2007, Wo’s BBQ Grill opened. Having never worked in the restaurant industry, it was a gamble for Wo — but he knew his sauce was the glue that would hold the whole thing together. It took a little time getting the perfect mixture of the right kind of ribs (the meatier, the better) and time spent slow-cooking, but by the May-September 2009 season, Wo’s was on the barbecue map.
“I just love grilling and barbecuing. We always cook in our family,” he said. “It’s definitely a family business. We’re all a part of it.”
In the fall of 2009, his daughters Maggie and Mary asked him if he would be interested in opening another location at 97 Center St., the empty storefront that formerly housed Big Fred’s. They would help renovate and rebuild the kitchen, decking out the place in the signature red, yellow and green that adorns the sauce bottles and adding warm wooden walls and benches. Dad was in — why not expand the barbecue empire to the Queen City?
Last January, Wo’s BBQ Grill Bangor opened, serving up those barbecued meats, as well as their sweet, tangy cole slaw, hand cut French fries and smoky baked beans — as well as a meat-free veggie burger, topped with your choice of sauce or slaw. The Bangor Wo’s even serves a Maine-made strawberry shortcake, complete with Frank’s Bakery biscuits, Maine strawberries and fresh whipped cream.
It all cooks down to the sauce, though. Even if the restaurant never happened, Wo would still be making sauce.
“We go through about two gallons of sauce a day, on really busy days,” he said. “It’s what makes us different. The repeat customers are what keep us going. We know if they come back, we’ve got something special.”
Wo’s BBQ Grill is located at 97 Center St. in Bangor, and at 87 Route 1 on Verona Island. The Bangor location is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday; the Verona Island grill will open Memorial Day weekend, through Labor Day. Both are eat in or take out, and the Bangor restaurant also delivers through the One Call delivery service; for menus, visit www.onecallbangor.com. For more information, visit www.wosbbq.com.