The Art of Relating: John Ray’s Secret Sauce


The Secret Sauceby Norman Lanier, Ph.D, Corporate Psychologist & Executive Coach


Years ago, I was consulting with a company in Talladega, Alabama. The company had a 3-shift operation, and its leader had pulled together and developed an exceptional management team. Quarterly, if the company achieved its goals and objectives, all employees were treated to an Employee Appreciation Day.

I had heard about these Employee Appreciation Days, which consisted of food being brought in and a member of management saying a few words of thanks and inspiration to the employees. Frequently, managers with whom I met would say, “Boy, Norm, you should have been here last week—John Ray came in and grilled steaks for us. His steaks are unbelievable—amazing!”

Most fortuitously, I finally happened to be there on a day that was Employee Appreciation Day. I was invited to join the employees, try to say something inspirational, and partake of John Ray’s famous grilled steak dinner—at 7:30 in the morning!

I tried to beg off, saying that I’m not a big steak eater (especially at 7:30 in the morning, which to me is usually breakfast time).

Well, little did I know…

A local businessman and local legend, John Ray was the caterer, and was all that one might hope for: unpretentious, very friendly, extremely outgoing and good humored and reputedly a shrewd businessman. John had multiple businesses and a colorful history in that part of the South—his most remarkable “claim to fame” was that years earlier he had “discovered” a rare talent.

John was an active race car driver on some of the local dirt tracks. He bought, rebuilt, tuned up and raced older cars and frequently won. He sold one of his cars to a young man who was just getting into driving and racing. John and the young man immediately bonded, and became strong friends in spite of a considerable age difference. John worked with him on the track, teaching him racing techniques and “tricks of the trade.”

It was obvious to John that the young man was a phenomenon. He was a natural talent, and won race after race. John sponsored him and beamed with near-fatherly pride as he watched the young man ease into the winner’s circles again and again.

The young man came to be recognized well beyond Talladega, was recruited to drive for much wealthier sponsors than John, and eventually became a wealthy owner and sponsor himself. But he never forgot about John, and stayed in touch over the years. He tried in vain to get John to be part of his team and travel with him. But John couldn’t imagine leaving his Talladega roots.

The young man grew up and became both famous and infamous, nicknamed the Intimidator and confidently and aggressively drove car #3. That’s right, his name was Dale Earnhardt.

On that particular day at 7:45 AM, John Ray was serving steaks as I walked through the serving line, and asked me with a disarming grin, “And which one of these here steaks looks good to you, young man?”

I instantly felt appreciated, and could tell that this warm, humble guy was genuinely interested in knowing what I preferred. “Well, pick one of the small ones for me, sir—I don’t usually eat a steak like these this early in the morning.”

“I ain’t no sir, son—just call me John—John Ray!” He extended a large, beefy hand and gave me a southern hospitality handshake.

I soon regretted that I had requested a small steak. Without a doubt, it was the best steak I had ever tasted! I complimented John Ray, who was also the chef, and asked him what made his steaks so delicious.

“Aw, man, they’re good because I handpick all of ‘em. I marinade ‘em for 12 hours in a Cattlemen’s Barbecue Sauce, throw ‘em on the grill with a little salt and pepper, and cook ‘em real slow. It takes a long time, but I’m real patient and the flavor makes it worth it!”

I couldn’t get much more information from John, and I learned that several of the employees had also tried to get the same information from him. I marinated and grilled steaks at home as John had instructed me, but they never tasted the same. Good, but not as good as his…

On subsequent visits to the company, I asked around—“How does John Ray make those steaks?” The flavor haunted me.

About 2 years later, one of the employees I had asked more than once greeted me with, “Hey Norm, I figured it out! You know, about those steaks. John Ray only gives people part of the recipe—he never gives anybody, except maybe for Dale Earnhardt, the complete recipe.”

I leaned forward, correctly anticipating that somehow this employee had cracked the code.

“Well, John was here last week—by the way, you should’ve been here for our Employee Appreciation Day—and he was shorthanded. I offered to help out, and John said sure.”

I felt my own face tense up, hoping for the best as my friend the employee continued.

“John got real busy and didn’t notice, but I watched what he did, from start to finish. He’s been leaving out two ingredients over the years when he tells people his recipe, but I know what they are!”

“You mean you found out his secret?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he beamed. “I know John Ray’s secret sauce!”

Watch for my next blog to get the real recipe. Or, if you can’t wait that long, reach out to us directly and we will give it to you!

© Copyright Norman Lanier, PhD, 2015