In the summer of 1864, Woodruff and Company of Louisville, Kentucky, ran an ad in the local newspaper announcing that they had landed five cases of that most rare and exotic sundry of the day: Royal Bengal Tiger Sauce. This is the earliest mention that I can find of a “Tiger Sauce” being commercially available in the US.
Deeper research has allowed me to gather more information regarding this precious elixir.
Grover Clarence Davis was born on his father’s farm in Watertown, Tennessee, on November 23rd, 1884. After graduating from Cumberland University in nearby Kentucky he began his career in Nashville as a traveling salesman in the grocery industry where he sharpened the tools of the trade for a decade.
Bitten by the entrepreneurial bug he migrated to Campbell County where he incorporated the Davis Manufacturing Company in the tiny mountain town of Jellico on February 10, 1914. The hamlet of 3500 had earned the appelation “the Diamond City of the Mountains” in spite of its small size. At the end of the year, Davis had tallied $20,964.31 in sales.
Colonel Davis quickly set about creating the brand “TryMe” which he devoted to flavoring extracts, staple drugs, spices, toiletries and grocer’s sundries. The TryMe line was such a wild success that after four years he moved his company 50 miles south to the big city of Knoxville where he hired a dozen salesmen and set about increasing his industry commensurately.
On May 10, 1919, Davis Mfg. Inc. swung the doors open on a 70,000 square foot building on State Street. The Colonel employed 100 men and women and the first year of revenue in Knoxville saw $273,817.27 tucked into the company coffers.
A year later Davis prognosticated that his business would soon top a million dollars annually.
Just six months into the Knoxville move, Davis invested $15,000 into an expansion scheme as his TryMe line was selling like gangbusters.
In a Knoxville Sentinel article of the day, Colonel Davis remarked that Louisiana was the number one market for his company’s goods. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
As the 1920s dawned it was front page news that the young company received 60,000 pounds of crude talcum from a mine in California. The shipment was described as unprecedented in the history of the US.
By 1922 with the concern poised for even greater growth, construction began on a plant in Dallas. $45,000 was earmarked to build a three story concrete building which would be outfitted with a full array of machinery to produce TryMe’s drugs, extracts and spices.
The good Colonel was ready for a massive western expansion and having a hub factory in north Texas was crucial to his goals. No stranger to the value of advertising, a survey of the newspapers and journals of the day finds hundreds of ads for Mr Davis’s company.
The Mid-South portion of the US was not immune to Davis’s efforts to land customers via print media. Journals from Virginia to Texas boasted advertisements on a near-daily basis.
It could be said that some of the sales tactics of the day were unusual. Employee Bob Smith was routinely used as a “shock unit.” When one of the salesmen would get stuck trying to move products to a customer he’d bring Bob in who would then close the deal with the “necessary punch” to “put most of the hard-boiled ones over.”
As the company grew, Davis Mfg. launched the Olde TryMe Spice House division to accommodate the community’s needs for fresh spices and creative bottled sauces. In 1949, noted traveling author and gourmand Duncan Hines wrote glowingly of James Wright, the president of the company who spent countless hours in a commercial kitchen tinkering with recipes.
“Wright makes a hobby out of seasonings trying to get umph in soups and gravies, beef and other meat stews, chili con carne and goulash.” Hines would add that Wright does amazing things with herbs that will “delight you.”
113 W. Jackson Avenue, Knoxville, Tennessee, now a parking lot, is the culinary Mesopotamia of Tiger Sauce.
Davis Manufacturing would eventually fold up shop in 1979 but the TryMe label soldiered on after being purchased by Knoxville businessman Fred Hafer who continued the line via his Gourmet Foods Inc. company. Hafer’s concern was a big success with nine different products well-placed in grocery stores across the US.
But it was Tiger Sauce, with its inimitable array of ingredients that led the charge for the small Tennessee company.
A decade into Hafer’s stewardship, Reily Foods Company of New Orleans added the TryMe label to their stable of food brands
Today, Tiger Sauce is available in thousands of grocery stores and is used as a crucial ingredient in both household pantries as well as commercial kitchens run by professional chefs.