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Chain pays compliment to a 'special' condiment

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Hugh Fleming never named the wildly popular sauce he created out of necessity for his Chick-fil-A store in Spotsylvania Mall.

Customers, who have been known to get cranky if the tangy, honey-mustard concoction with a hint of barbecue sauce isn't available, have called it everything from "that special sauce" to "Mr. Fleming's sauce."

Now they'll have to ask for it by its official title. Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A has turned the creation, which had been available only in the Fredericksburg area, into its Chick-fil-A sauce.

Part of the chain's rollout of new products nationwide, it comes in foil-topped dipping-sauce containers paired with revamped chicken strips and in 8-ounce containers packaged with chicken-strip party platters. It's also available separately.

"To have the Chick-fil-A name on something I created is really flattering," said Fleming. "I can't tell you how much I think of this company. They're tops on the list of companies to work for and do business with."

He gave the recipe, which includes Chick-fil-A coleslaw sauce, to the company in appreciation for all the help it has given him and his family since he started his first store 28 years ago in what is now Spotsylvania Towne Centre.

"I could never have developed it without being under the Chick-fil-A roof," said Fleming, who retired in February. "It was, as far as I was concerned, a shared credit as far as making it successful. It was my way of paying the company back."

Chick-fil-A has had its eye on Fleming's sauce for years, largely because local customers would ask for it at the company's other restaurants and be disappointed because it wasn't available.

"We heard those stories and said, 'Hey, it's obvious they're on to something,'" said company spokesman Mark Baldwin.

Chick-fil-A's first stab at commercializing Fleming's handmade sauce four years ago, however, didn't turn out like the original. Called Honey Roasted BBQ Sauce, it was tweaked and made thicker so it would stay on the chain's char-gilled chicken sandwiches.

"We knew immediately that it wasn't close enough for people to be happy about it," said Todd Fleming, Hugh's son and owner of the Chick-fil-A in Central Park. "It's not a bad substitute, but it's not the same thing."

The original golden yellow sauce, which Chick-fil-A has faithfully reproduced this time--is thinner, more like a dipping sauce. Longtime area customers dunk nuggets and fries in it, and even drizzle it on salads.

"People put it on everything," Hugh Fleming said. "Women, in particular, would empty a drink cup, rinse it out and pump it full of the sauce to take home."

The reaction still amazes him, especially since the crowning touch to the recipe was a complete accident.

Fleming created the first batch of sauce back in 1983 because customers were clamoring for a dipping sauce for Chick-fil-A's popular nuggets.

He and his staff tinkered with a honey-mustard salad-dressing recipe, then added barbecue sauce after an employee eating nuggets accidentally mixed some in with the special sauce. The employee raved over the taste so much that barbecue sauce became a staple ingredient.

"Business was so slow during the recession that we'd do anything to get people to come to the store," Fleming said. "That was it, and we took advantage of it."

But popularity came at a price.

"Once it got rolling, if we ran out of it, people would literally leave their food on the counter," Fleming said. "They'd be mad at us like we'd done it on purpose."

Todd Fleming, who grew up helping his parents at the mall store, said it's a relief that the sauce is now available through Chick-fil-A.

His employees had been whipping up 18 gallons of it a day, and at one point he hired an employee just to fill all the little plastic cups with sauce needed to fill orders. He eventually put it in big pump bottles so customers could serve themselves, and also sold it by the jar.

As for Hugh Fleming, he long ago grew tired of the stuff. "I just got sick of smelling it," he said. "The last thing I wanted on my food was the sauce."

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407


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